News Column

Brush Prairie couple's farm labor of love

August 31, 2014

By Gordon Oliver, The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Aug. 31--Foxfire Farm, the name that Jeff and Kathleen Booren have given to the productive plot on their Brush Prairie homestead, is a labor of love for a couple winding down from careers in mental health services and banking.

There's no other explanation for the long days of planting, tending and selling their vegetables and fruits at local farmers markets, or their delight in watching children discover the goodness of fresh produce.

"The farmers market gives me a shot of energy every week," said Kathleen, who is up at 5:30 every summer morning watering and tending the fruits of the couple's labor. "I love it when a kid tries something and says, 'This is really good.'?"

But tiny Foxfire Farm, just a third of their 1-acre homestead, is by necessity a business on which the former Oregon couple rely to help ease them into full retirement. The Boorens -- he is 69, she is 60 -- spend most of the year growing and selling organic tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, beans, melons and other produce. While some raised beds open to the sky, the productive centerpiece of their farm is a 24-by-83 foot structure called a high tunnel, unheated with a plastic roof, which extends their growing season on both ends. The Boorens earn a modest income selling produce at local farmers markets and donate what's left to a food bank.

When the long months of work wind down, the couple steer their RV south for a month in California, leaving the farm behind.

"I don't think about it at all," Kathleen said.

Foxfire Farm is riding a wave of interest in locally grown fruit and vegetables produced by numerous Clark County small farmers who have built a customer base at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture direct-sales programs and with restaurants that serve locally grown foods. Eric Lambert, small acreage coordinator for Washington State University Extension in Vancouver, says he is seeing more of "micro farms" in Clark County.

"On one side of things, I think people are becoming more aware of supporting local farmers, and this food movement we see here in the county gives me optimism," Lambert said. "On the other side of the coin, sometimes with development pressure, it is difficult to get into farming."

Charles Brun, a horticultural adviser with Washington State University Clark County Extension who has worked closely with Kathleen on improving farming practices and reducing crop damage, is impressed by her success.

"Hers is a model farm in that she did everything right," he said. "All eight cylinders are running."

Career changes

Jeff and Kathleen married in 1991. Jeff retired in 2002 from a job as a mental health administrator for Multnomah County in Oregon, ending a career that had taken him to several Oregon cities. One year later, Kathleen left her job in small-business lending at West Coast Bank, a job she loved because she was able to help people fulfill their aspirations for new businesses.

The couple sold their home and hit the road for six years of travel and adventure across the U.S. and Canada. As they traveled, they looked for a place to retire and dig into farming.

When looking for a home, Kathleen "would bring a shovel along and turn the soil," Jeff said. But the stifling heat and humidity of much of the country was more than they could bear, so they decided to head back to where they'd started.

"The weather here is fabulous," Kathleen said.

It also was a nice fit for their families: Their five children and a growing brood of grandchildren -- the 16th of which was born this summer -- all live within four hours of their home.

Like many people, Kathleen had started gardening to feed her family. Raising vegetables eventually became a passion, which tapped into her interest in the science of soil health and other technical details of maximizing productivity without use of chemicals. Jeff had little experience in growing crops before meeting Kathleen.

"I never thought I would be doing this 25 or 30 years ago," he said.

The couple, who had become Washington residents in their travel years, looked to Clark County for a home largely because of its tax advantages over Oregon. Their well-connected Realtor turned up the large-lot homesite on good soil even before it even hit the market. It was perfect for the Boorens, who moved to their new home in October 2008.

They set to work clearing grass and trees, building up their soil, growing vegetables for themselves and a neighbor, and coming up with a plan for the small farm. In 2011, the farm began operation with sales at farmers markets and through the CSA program.

They built the high tunnel in 2012, its construction financed in part by a federal grant to encourage intensive, environmentally sensitive agriculture to produce crops for local consumption.

Last year, they reported earnings on their farm operation and made enough to cover their mortgage.

This year will not be as profitable, Kathleen said. In part, they needed time for a new grandchild. They chose not to offer up a CSA program, and they cut back to just the Camas Farmer's Market, which is open only on Wednesdays.

"Something had to give," Kathleen said.

The Boreens are keenly aware of the limits imposed by their age, and other interests and obligations. They said they intend to keep up the pace until Kathleen reaches full retirement age, and can tap into a pension and her Social Security. They focus on maintaining good health and avoiding injuries, using simple hand tools that reduce the need for bending, and finding ways to plant and harvest with minimal physical strain.

"We have to focus on efficiencies," Kathleen said.

It 'starts with the soil'

On a recent sun-swept morning, Jeff walked along bare-dirt raised beds with a propane torch, burning budding weeds before they become fully established. Kathleen was preparing the day's harvest of purple and red peppers for the Camas Farmer's Market.

Nearby, a pair of lesser goldfinches swirled over a row of Italian yellow wax beans. In the summer months, Jeff said, the farm attracts white-crowned sparrows. A pair of those often hover at one end of a row of vegetables as one of the Boorens works at the other, then switches places as the farm owners move about. This year, there are more of the sparrows. Even at this small farm, with suburban homes

and stores only one mile away, nature shows its resilience.

The Boorens are all about organic farming, and the "French intensive" method they've embraced maximizes their farm's productivity. The time-intensive technique is based on double-digging raised beds to supplement soil with fertilizer, careful spacing of plantings, and companion planting of different vegetables and flowers to attract beneficial insects, reduce water consumption and optimize productivity within organic farming standards.

The tomato plants inside and outside the tunnel are an impressive sight. The farm's 135 tomato plants mostly of four varieties -- including two heirloom varieties -- occupy 400 square feet of their farm. Jeff has built large A-frame structures out of 2-by-4s with the tomatoes attached using aircraft-industry tie-downs. The plants can be lowered in cool weather periods for added warmth or raised on warm weather days to draw more sun.

The Boorens were among the first small farmers in Clark County to tap into a federally funded program that helps pay for the high tunnel, which has a peak height of 12.5 feet.

The U.S Department of Agriculture'sNatural Resources Conservation Service's program, which provides partial reimbursement for tunnel costs, is intended to increase the supply of locally grown fruit and vegetables by supporting farmers who sell locally or contribute to local food banks.

Under the program, the Boorens are obligated to develop an integrated pest management program and to provide data to the federal agency.

While such research adds to their workload, it suits Kathleen's interest in constantly improving growing conditions by understanding the forces of nature. She said she finds herself constantly tweaking soil to improve plant health.

"Everything starts with the soil," she says.

Turning a profit

Producing is one thing, but selling requires a different set of skills. Kathleen has transferred the personal skills honed in her banking career to selling produce, especially at the farmers markets.

"To me, it's all about relationships," she said.

The couple and their customers enter into each other's lives. When someone is in the midst of an important life event, she said, "you set aside some of the best (produce) that you have."

She also manages a tight financial ledger, calculating the gross sales potential per square foot of every vegetable and fruit on their farm. She then compares that potential to the actual net sales of each product.

Tomatoes are the most profitable of their crops, she says, but it takes hard work to produce early and late harvests that draw the highest prices. The high tunnel is a huge help. The protective covering creates a planting climate similar to what exists 500 miles to the south, Kathleen said. The couple aimed to bring tomatoes to the market each year by mid-June or even earlier.

Those early tomatoes can be sold at prices about 25 percent higher than in midseason, Kathleen said. And lettuce, which they were planting earlier this month, will be their last fresh crop of the season. It also should command a high price.

But the time-intensive nature of their work comes at a cost. Organic fruits and vegetables from Foxfire Farms and other organic growers command a high price that is often double that of the same produce at the local ­supermarket. Their customers are willing to pay for the local, high-quality product; their biggest competitors are stores such as Whole Foods and New Seasons.

Kathleen says jokingly that her farm's prices are those of "Whole Foods plus five minutes." By that, she means that she tries to match the grocer's prices right after the store changes its prices. But for the same price as those stores, buyers get produce picked within 24 to 48 hours that is grown in their immediate community.

"They want to know who is growing their food," she says of her customers. "They trust what we say, and we are honored by that."

County rules for their rural residential area prevent them from hiring employees at the farm, and property covenants limit their ability to hire employees. The Boorens, active in the county's master gardener program, said she would like to pass their knowledge to others.

They're considering bringing on an intern next summer to learn and help out.

With retirement on the not-too-distant horizon, they also are contemplating their transition to a slower pace of life. Perhaps, Jeff says, in a few years, they will move into blueberry production, which requires a three-month window for harvest and sales, and some pruning in the winter.

They could plant more fruits to supplement their existing pear and apple trees -- perhaps peaches, figs and cherries inside and outside the high tunnel.

With the RV in the driveway and a well-used kayak sitting at its side, easing up likely feels tempting at times. But there's work to be done, relationships to nurture, and rewards to be found in bringing the joy of good food to children and adults.


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Source: Columbian (Vancouver, WA)

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