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Passionate farmers at Plum Forest bring edible delights to life
Kaay nu añ!
As a junior in college doing a year abroad in Senegal, Rob Peterson didn’t realize that the first phrase he learned in Wolof — the most widely spoken language in this West African country — would define his life’s path.
Ever since, be it working as Seattle Tilth’s garden coordinator, giving low-income people a city gardening foundation, or hosting international travelers on his family’s Vashon farm, Peterson, 47, has been in some way living this Senegalese maxim: Join us to eat. His willingness to teach what he’s learned combined with a generous spirit (not to mention his prized asparagus) have fed the stomachs — and souls — of people from around the world.
Living in Senegal, where inviting people to eat with you is a way of life, Peterson couldn’t shake the power of food in relationship to culture. After college he worked with Tillers International, where he thrived on “having a million different projects going on outside.” An internship at the Kansas-based Land Institute, a non-profit focused on sustainable agriculture, put a social-change spin on his agricultural leanings.
“I came away with the understanding that farming is not only fun and interesting, but it’s a righteous thing to do to try and save the world, … and that’s what I was interested in doing,” he said.
He returned to Senegal to run a Rodale Institute program, working for two years to establish a sustainable agriculture network in West Africa. After coming back to the states, Peterson dug his hands into the soil at farms in West Virginia and then Washington.
He worked for more than 14 years at Seattle Tilth holding various roles, including bookkeeper, newsletter editor, children’s garden coordinator and writer for the time-honored gardening manual, “The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide.”
He and his wife Joanne Jewell, 49, got to know each other working side-by-side on a Snohomish County farm, where they discovered a shared passion for making a difference through growing good food.
They were married in 1997 on an Orcas Island farm (prophetically planting a plum tree as part of the ceremony) and moved to Vashon in 1999 to launch their family and Plum Forest Farm. Their daughter Mira was a toddling 1-year-old when they started hammering together fencing and battling blackberries on five acres in aptly named Paradise Valley.
Ten years later, the passion is edible. With the help of two interns, Peterson and Jewell grow a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, from the unusual (mulberries and quince) to the common (onions and potatoes), all of which they sell every week at the Saturday Farmers Market.
Plum Forest is also home to 120 chickens (for eggs and meat) and six Scottish highlander cattle they raise for beef. The farm has 19 community supported agriculture partners (four in a work-trade arrangement), a 120-customer e-mail list and a busy farm stand. (Advice to visitors: Buy eggs first; talk later).
Jewell’s journey to Plum Forest was also defined by food as a tool for social change. She majored in international studies but focused wholly on organic agriculture after eating a tree-ripened orange. During travels in Central America, Jewell was inspired to develop skills she could use to help improve conditions in the countries she visited. She liked gardening and chose growing food as her focal point, which led to an apprenticeship in ecological horticulture through the University of California at Santa Cruz. Enter the life-changing citrus.
“I didn’t know anything about organics, and they picked an orange and offered it to me,” she said. “I’d never really liked oranges before, and this was a totally different food. I got so fired up about it and learned more about organics and how great they are for the taste of food … and for the planet.”
Like Peterson, helping people grow healthy food has been central to Jewell’s work life. She also spent many years working for Seattle Tilth, sharing her enthusiasm for organic growing methods as a board member and in a variety of jobs, including garden coordinator. As manager of the City of Seattle’s composting program, she taught more than 2,000 Seattle homeowners how to build better soil.
After earning a master’s degree in public administration, Jewell ran the Green Gardening Program, teaching Seattle area businesses alternatives to pesticides.
Though they don’t grow oranges at Plum Forest, there is a slice of land there known as “California.” The farm’s upper field, an elevated south-facing slope, runs a good 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the lower half of the property.
On a clear October day, crickets chirped as sunflowers curled, enticing happy goldfinches to play among their laden heads. A chicken tractor coop that works like a huge wheelbarrow supported by two old bicycles (it’s moved periodically to evenly spread chicken manure) was circled round and round by its busy, clucking residents. The asparagus had gone to seed, looking like the Earth had a bad hair day, and rows of rainbow chard taunted a formal looking blue-green legion of leeks. It was a day that begged you to lie down, chew on a famous Plum Forest carrot and contemplate the lack of clouds in the sky.
As an enjoyable alternative, we munched just-ripe Johnny Golds and admired a tomato house bursting at the seams — its spherical gifts shimmering from the previous night’s harvest moon.
Magic is not an undervalued quality here. The name “Plum Forest” comes from a labyrinthine wood of old plum trees, which Jewell explained they “manage for enchantment.” This means venerating the gnarled trees, planting dozens of daffodils and preserving low-hanging branches so that only children can pass through without ducking.
But as any farmer knows, it’s one part magic and nine parts hard work that makes the vegetables grow.
“Farming is an interesting challenge on so many levels,” Peterson said. “To make it work economically it really takes a lot of thought and planning, but it’s not tedious. A farmer friend used to ask, ‘So have you cracked the nut yet?’ It’s a tough nut to crack because there are so many different levels: There’s the ecological side of it, getting all of the different parts to work together, and the business side of it, trying to figure out efficiency and marketing. Then there’s working with workers: how to create a good situation for apprentices, and there’s the big picture of sustainability.”
It was only last year that Peterson didn’t have to hold a second job to keep the family’s finances afloat. And after two and a half years managing the Farmers Market, Jewell, too, is now devoted fully to family and farm needs.
“I have the luxury now of being here, and I’m looking for what aspect of the farm I can make even better,” she said, adding that she’s currently concentrating on the farm stand, ensuring it’s inviting, well-stocked and well-organized.
Jewell and Peterson might have found a point of farming economic security earlier but have prioritized time with Mira, now 11, and Rose, almost 4.
“We’ve fit the farm into our family, trying to keep it a 9 to 5 job and have a sane family life,” Peterson said. “And a farm is a great place for kids.”
This farm is a great place for kids of all ages. Everywhere you look, from huge bundles of hanging garlic addressing a colorful convention of delicata squash and pie pumpkins, to a mixed flock of cherry tomatoes and peppers in the farm stand, the invitation rings true: Kaay nu añ! Join us to eat!
— This article, the fifth in a series this year featuring Island farmers who sell at Vashon’s Farmers Market, was written with funding from the state Department of Agriculture through the Vashon Island Growers Association. Kathryn True is an Island writer. Photographer Ralph Moore has been capturing scenes at the Farmers Market and Island farms for the past several years.
What’s fresh at Plum Forest Farm
Farm stand location: 20020 107th Ave. SW, between Cemetery Road and 204th Street.
For more information, visit plumforestfarm.com.