Eight hundred vegetable varieties, 20 beetle species, seven cats, four home-schooled kids, three greenhouses, two acres and one dog named Spot.
These are a few of the variable factors in the ever-changing equation of Pacific Potager Farm. Farmer/mom/mentor/teacher Michelle Crawford has been proving that the whole is more than the sum of its parts for the past 15 years.
With fig chutney bubbling on the stove and fresh-baked bread cooling on the butcher block in a well-used kitchen, Crawford is cheerfully and skillfully managing a daunting agenda. It’s the second day back to home-schooling after the summer off, and Lia, age 7, is looking for her history book while the youngest, 6-year-old Cianna, wants to play now and be done with schoolwork for a while. The chickens need feeding, and there’s squash to harvest, but Crawford still has time to brew a mean cup of green tea.
Her farm, Pacific Potager, a familiar landmark just up the road from Tahlequah, was named for ornamental kitchen gardens of French origin.
Crawford, who would enjoy the luxury of watching a pink-and-white eggplant grow plump beside some chartreuse endive, has learned that practical beats pretty when it comes to farming for a living. So she’s surrendered to planting in rows.
And for the past 10 years she’s been making ends meet as a farmer, no small feat as a single mother of six children, two in their early 20s and four at home under age 11. Part of her success lies in a lack of fussiness when it comes to nuisances such as weeds and neatness.
“Some years ago I read a book called ‘Let Nature Do the Growing.’ (Author Gajin Tokuno’s) theme was basically we are working too hard in the garden,” says Crawford, who saves time by composting within garden beds and weeding minimally. “It’s all an economy. You have to make your energy last. I can only do so much as one person, and I have to accept that everything is not perfect so I have time for my children.”
The shoulder-high grasses in her tomato greenhouse are one example of Crawford’s “chaos theory” of farming. She weeds the 800 plants only once and, instead of staking them, lets them vine every which way.
There’s a method to the madness of this tomato jungle — during peak harvest she regularly gathers 40 pounds from two beds. Her farm stand displays the vivid bounty — from fat, yellow, puckered handfuls to small purple-black poppers, it’s a tomato lover’s nirvana.
Along with her 80-ingredient salad mix, tomatoes are her “bread and butter,” she says.
Though her weeding technique might make a pureblood potager cringe, there’s meticulousness in other parts of Crawford’s system.
Her kids, who manage a family garden in front of their small house, don’t pick for the farm stand, because, Crawford says, “I’m picky, and I want to see every bean — I mean every bean — that goes out there.”
This care and concern for good product begins with her garden starts, which have a devoted cadre of fans, some customers even returning year after year from off-Island.
Crawford trials each of the 800 plant varieties she grows so she can personally vouch for each one’s productivity, taste, growing habit and general personality.
One of her top priorities is for people to have successful gardens. To this end she thoughtfully sells four-packs of broccoli, for example, featuring four different varieties with varying maturity dates, so the grower experiences a satisfyingly long season of crunchy florets.
She’s also particular about the kinds of seeds she grows, choosing mainly heirloom varieties (plants you can save seed from that have been grown for at least 50 years) she feels she’s participating in the culture, history and geography of a place. Besides believing that they simply taste better, Crawford is dedicated to the sustainability of people being able to save their own seed.
Sustainability is a core value on the farm, where Crawford practices Integrated Pest Management (her cats dispatch seed-snatching rodents and plant lures entice pests away from salad ingredients).
Last year, a biology student studying insect diversity at local farms found 20 beetle species at Pacific Potager. This, the highest diversity of any tested Island farm, is testimony to healthy soil, particularly Crawford’s no-till method of soil preparation. She uses a U-Bar — a broadfork tool that loosens soil without disturbing its layers, creating deeply aerated beds.
“I just started cultivating a new area of my land, and it’s a five-year project,” Crawford says. “It takes time to get to know the soil and what it needs. You have to develop an extended relationship with your environment and the soil.”
Like many other farmers, Crawford was inspired by former Islanders Bob and Bonnie Gregsons’ book, “Rebirth of the Family Farm.”
Crawford remembers the Gregsons pooling all the Island farmers’ lettuce to sell to Seattle restaurants. In turn, Crawford has nurtured a crop of newer farmers, including Amy Bogaard of Hogsback Farm.
“Michelle helped me so much when I couldn’t even start a lettuce seed,” Bogaard remembers. “She took me down to McConkey’s (a farm supplier in Sumner) and showed me what I needed and told me what to do. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her.”
Though Crawford recommends farming to curious wannabes, there are certain qualities necessary for this kind of work — number one being that you like to work.
“One person said it’s like being a gambler, but I’m not a gambler,” she says. “When it was 100 degrees out this summer I was worried the tomatoes would cook in their skins. There were no good options. I used the sprinkler system in five-minute increments several times a day to cool them off, which could have caused disease. I could have lost them all, but I didn’t.”
She says the hardest part of farming is learning to live with unpredictability. “You have to be comfortable with not being in control,” she says. “I pray a lot, which is part of why I can do it.”
“And if you’re not a thrifty person, you can’t be a farmer,” she adds. “You’re rich in every way but money.”
— This article, the fourth 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.