The way of the land

Non-Fiction | Multimedia | Photos | published in Real Change on Nov. 21st, 2012
Subject: Subject: Subject: Whistling Train Farm

At Whistling Train Farm in Kent, the Verdi family tills the soil and plays the odds

First Place, Non-daily newspapers, Features/Food, 2012
Washington Press Association

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Mike Verdi knew that in the summer, customers craved basil. They also loved carrots, parsley, beets and, of course, corn — that was a big one. “But we always have bad luck with corn,” Mike said with a chuckle. “That’s a tough one.” Maybe another vegetable would offer up a little magic.

Mike, 62, ambled toward the seed shed. The structure provided shade from the blast of summer sun, which helped the crops but, by August 20, had baked the earth. The region had entered

a lengthy dry spell, and 29 days had passed without the plip-plop of rain. His boots kicked up dust, the tan cloud near his feet a perfect color match to the dirt that streaked the image on his T-shirt: a likeness of Verdi and his wife, Shelley, seated on a locomotive beneath the words “Whistling Train Farm.” Together, the couple sells chemical- and pesticide-free produce at local farmers markets in King County.

Mike rooted around in the shed for a bit, grabbed a five-pound foil package and pulled open the vacuum seal. He shoved a hand inside. Cupped in his palm sat a heap of golden brown seeds, each as smooth as a pebble tumbled by the tide. They were the beginnings of a fall crop of spinach.

Whistling Train Farm stretches over 15 acres in Kent, the fertile farmland hemmed in on the east by a two-lane road and on the west by a train track. The shed sits near the southern boundary, and Mike carried the package to the middle range of the farm, walking past the one-story rambler where Shelley, 45, tended to their children, Della, 11, and Cosmo, 9.

The family’s red tractor sat near the edge of a plowed rectangle of field. Earlier in the morning, Mike had tinkered with the tractor, a decades-old jalopy with two massive rear wheels, each taller than Mike’s beltline. He bent down near the rear wheels and poured the seeds into a pair of “seeders,” two plastic buckets set under the tractor, the bottom of each seeder hovering inches above the turned soil.

Mike climbed aboard the machine. He flipped the ignition. The motor kicked in. He let the engine rumble a bit, then applied the brake. With the machine chugging, he stepped down. Unscrewed the gas cap. Poured in some fuel. Screwed the cap tight. Hoisted himself up. Released the brake. And he drove into the field.

The soil bed stretched roughly 20 yards long and 12 yards wide. On an area about the size of an average two-bedroom apartment, he and his family prepared to try their luck. As small farmers on the urban fringe, the Verdis play the odds every day.

Across the country, many farmers take this gamble. The U.S.. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 Census of Agriculture counted almost 2 million small farms nationwide. In King County, more than 41,000 acres are zoned for agriculture, but county officials estimate that including backyard and city farmers, close to 50,000 acres may be used to grow food.

The loss of a tomato plant may upset the backyard farmer, but for a farmer whose livelihood is tied to his harvest, a lost crop can wreak havoc. Sun, water, temperature, pests, disease, seeds, customers, frost, drought: Each exist outside a farmer’s control. Together they create a cosmic crapshoot where the rules can change with every roll.

Even so, the Verdis have staked their claim in the earth. They feel called to the land and the abundance it can provide. “You learn to accept when something’s not working, and you move on,” Shelley said. So even if the broccoli crop failed, the cauliflower, radicchio, fennel and chard would probably survive. News reports of this summer’s drought showed countless farmers in despair, yet for the Verdis, Whistling Train Farm is a wish fulfilled.

After zigging and zagging across the bed, Mike piloted the tractor back to the edge of the field where he began as the vehicle’s levers and gears squeaked and groaned. He walked to the house and brought the family back out to the newly planted field.

As the adults chatted about a customer who loved torpedo onions, Della reclined in the lone tractor seat, while Cosmo sat on the vehicle’s hood. He had begged his dad to let him drive the tractor, but Mike resisted. “One day,” he said.

Della couldn’t have cared less about the machine. She wanted what farmers had used before: a horse. But the farm already served as a small-scale zoo, complete with four cows, six hogs, one sow, nine piglets, seven ducks, eight goats, 140 laying hens, three dogs, six cats and three hives full of honeybees.

But Cosmo and Della only spoke aloud dreams their parents had already fulfilled: Mike had steered a tractor as a boy, and as a child, Shelley had longed for farm animals. Each heard the call to farm life in youth, and together they tied their fortunes to Whistling Train Farm. And it all began over a field of fava beans.

Found and lost

Mike grew up in the ’40s and ’50s in Tukwila, on a 25-acre farm he worked with his family. His father rode a horse-and-buggy to Pike Place Market to sell their crops. But the Verdis didn’t own the farm, and when the property owner reclaimed it in 1958, the family moved to South Park. There, they bought a two-acre farm full of rich, black earth they called “muck” soil. “You could grow just about anything,” Mike said.

By that point, the Verdis had established themselves in the market, particularly his mother, Pasqualina. Though she spoke little English she managed a thriving stall. During her first year at the market, Verdi’s Produce brought in enough money for the family to buy a refrigerator, a stove and a TV.

Along with varieties of lettuce, beets and greens, his mother sold a magic crop: basil, “king of the herbs.” Pasqualina earned a reputation as a smart businesswoman, and local lore claims she introduced the green plant with the anise-like taste to Puget Sound. Business soared due to basil, and by the late ’60s and early ’70s, when their old farmland in Tukwila lay under the newly built Southcenter Mall, Pasqualina marked any day she didn’t earn $100 as a disappointment.

But her knees troubled her. It became painful for her to stand, a necessity for a produce seller. Mike inadvertently found a solution. In 1978, he married a woman named Susan. When the pair discussed his mother’s troubles, Susan decided to leave real estate to help Pasqualina. She loved selling produce so much, she took over the stall and earned more than his mother. With the profits, Mike and Susan bought a 50-acre property in Snohomish. Farm life clung to Mike like dirt beneath his nails.

To fight the weeds and pests, Mike used chemicals and pesticides, and he and his wife drove their vegetables to the market each day. Basil, lettuces and Walla Walla onions awaited customers who visited their high stall. They put in 12-hours days and enjoyed the benefits.

But everything changed when Susan got breast cancer. As her illness progressed and their medical bills mounted, they were forced to sell their 50-acre farm and moved to a smaller one in Kent. Her cancer went into remission. When she felt well enough, Susan ran the stall, even when she lost all her hair. But after 10 years, the cancer spread to her bones and liver. Treatment failed.

“When Susan died,” Mike said, “I got kind of lost for a while.”

With no one to help him, he sold at the market alone. He operated a small farm in Kent and committed to selling as a way to regain his footing. The market planned a demonstration day to help potential sellers, and Mike offered a workshop on creating pleasing table displays. And as he spoke to attendees on how to set up a stall to draw a customer’s eye, he noticed a woman in the crowd, watching him.

A pesky job and pesky pests

Around the age of nine, Shelley Pasco announced she wanted chickens. And rabbits. She yearned to raise them, too. Her grandfather had a farm in Poulsbo, so she reasoned she could have all these animals on a farm. But everyone talked her out it. Farming was too much work.

As an adult she attended art school, and even while she worked as a graphic artist, she dreamed of a farm with animals. “People told me to have a farm, you have to have property,” she said. But where would she get land?

Shelley was married, and as a gift her husband signed her up for a farm tour organized by Seattle Tilth, a nonprofit that supported an organic, local food system. The farm was in Kent. On the tour, people spoke of the concept of community supported agriculture (CSA), a socioeconomic model by which a grower distributes produce to customers who have pledged to support the farm. She realized people could share the work and maybe even the land. “Then a neighbor gave me half an acre,” Shelley said.

The land had produced berries, and she prepped the soil for vegetables. She grew greens, beans, onions and peas, but the okra didn’t take. She sold the extras to other workers, and together, they started a CSA. She designed a newsletter and distributed it to anyone who showed interest. “It was a humble beginning,” she said.

She still lived in Seattle with her husband, so she drove to Kent to tend the farm. Her graphic design job complicated matters because the best farming time coincided with work hours. So Shelley got sneaky: Whenever the sun came out, she called in sick.

She realized that made her a bad employee, and some higher-up in the firm must have agreed, because just before Thanksgiving 1996, the company let her go. Freed of her job and registered for unemployment, she sold 30 families each a share of the CSA.

But with the freedom came grief and loss. Her mother died in early 1997. She filed for divorce. Yet still she worked the land, ready to soak up knowledge.

One day, she attended a workshop at Pike Place Market. A local farmer gave a presentation on how to best display produce in a market stall. She watched him. She watched him watch her.

After the demonstration, they struck up a conversation. “Well, I’m going to be planting fava beans tomorrow,” Mike said, “if you want to come out and see the farm.”

“Sure,” Shelley said.

She saw his farm. Romance took root.

Within a week they had moved in and sold produce at a stall at Pike Place Market. But many tourists shied away from buying perishable produce, and the pair scraped by. In 1998, the neighbor who gave Shelley the half acre suggested she and Mike rent a 15-acre farm nearby. Because of a train track on the west side of the property, it was called Whistling Train Farm.

Shelley and Mike felt well matched, except for one major disagreement. His whole life, Mike’s farming techniques had depended on chemicals to fight pests and weeds. Shelley was appalled. “Put chemicals on food you eat?” she asked. “Why would you do that?”

Every reply he gave claimed it made farming easier. Every word she spoke shot his answers down. He relented. If a weed invaded the beets, he’d pull it out. If a pest set on the lettuce, he wouldn’t spray RoundUp.

But ultimately, this difference didn’t matter. They flew to Las Vegas in 2000 to get married. They tended the farm and sold at local markets. Shelley had two children and acquired farm animals. Mike fixed the vehicles and plowed the field. Together, they kept the farm in the black. And over time, they learned a farmer’s life comes with risks — and rewards. “You’re surrounded by all that life all the time,” Shelley said.

Hot item

On October 10, 2012, low-lying fog shrouded the sky above Whistling Train Farm. In the 51 days since Mike had sown the field, six hogs had been sent to slaughter, less than a tenth of an inch of rain had fallen, the farm’s water bill topped $1,800, and Cosmo and Della had returned to school. And the spinach: The bed of earth once marked by tractor treads had transformed into a forest green pasture damp with mist.

Bundled against the morning chill, Mike hunched over a row. With his left hand he grabbed a spinach plant close to where it sprouted from the soil. With his right, he wielded a serrated blade and cut the plant free, snipping off any damaged leaves. He dropped the leafy bouquet in a black plastic crate before he moved on. Grab, cut, snip, drop. Then move. Grab, cut, snip, drop. Move.

He worked in silence, but he stopped to gaze at a honking flock of Canada geese, in perfect chevron formation, gliding overhead. “They’re all ready to go back to warmer places,” he said. The growing season was close to its end. He went back to work. Within 45 minutes, a heap of spinach filled the crate.

A red pickup sat in almost the same spot where he had once parked his red tractor. He placed the crate on the truck’s rear open door and, pulling a cache of rubber bands from a pocket, begin to bundle heads of spinach. The fresh leaves crackled like plastic film wrap used to fill holiday gift bags. He tossed a bunch in another crate. When he finished, he returned to the field to cut some more.

Mike and Shelley had a hired hand on the farm, Theo, who harvested arugula nearby while Mike concentrated on spinach. It was a Wednesday, the day they sold at the Columbia City farmers market, and the pair moved to fill the truck. Mike figured two crates of bunched spinach, close to 50 heads, ought to meet the day’s demand. But the coming weekend markets? “We’ve had frost five nights in a row,” he said. Spinach could handle that, even a little freezing. “But if it gets colder and wetter, we’ll probably see [the rest of our crop] in the spring.”

It takes 30 minutes to drive from Kent to the Columbia City market, and Mike arrived in the stocked pickup with time to spare. Or so he thought. But as he set up the stand to open at 3 p.m., early shoppers descended. They wanted spinach, lots of it. He had priced it at $2.50 a bunch, and when he wanted to slow down the rush, to save some spinach for later, he took a calculated risk: “I raised the price.”

He changed the sign to $3. The cost didn’t matter. The small mountain of green eroded as customers flocked to the stand. By 5:20 p.m., one bunch of spinach sat on the bright patterned cloth. Then Davora “Oppie” Oppenheimer walked up. She zeroed in on the spinach, then handed Mike some cash. “It’s the sweetest and most tender spinach in the market,” she said, as she placed it in her canvas bag. “I’m not kidding.”

Mike smiled. It had taken seven weeks to turn spinach from seed to leafy green but less than three hours to sell dozens of bunches. Of course, he still had baskets of winter squash and garlic and parsley left over. And back at Whistling Train Farm, the frost had killed the bush beans. But he took it in stride: “This is a good life.”

Photography by Lucien Knuteson.

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