A predominant theme across all of the subjects of the Project 468 blog is overcoming major challenges. The farmers on Lopez Island are particularly skilled at improvising to beat the odds. Two people in particular have overcome probably the most difficult challenge facing aspiring Lopez farmers: no land. Blake and Julie Johnston moved to Lopez Island without land to farm. They, like many other farmers getting started, spent time plying their trade and honing their skills at S&S Homestead Farm. When they were ready to start their own farm – Helen’s Farm – Blake and Julie had the expertise, support from the community and a plan. But no land.
Not letting that stop them, the Johnstons struck agreements with a half-dozen land owners around Lopez – leasing a half-acre here and an acre there to grow their vegetables and raise their chickens, pigs and cattle. Running a farm is complicated enough without the added complexity of running between parcels of land, but Blake and Julie were able to make it work. In fact, they found ways to turn this challenge into an opportunity by educating themselves on the variety of systems that different types of land require – everything from planting methods to drainage. Having no land meant no permanent place to process what they grew, which resulted in many a chicken butchered under the shade of a tree. My favorite Helen’s Farm innovation is the portable chicken coup that Blake and Julie constructed to ensure they could stay mobile.
I introduced myself to Blake and Julie a few weeks ago at the Saturday Winter Market on Sunnyfield Farm. While he was flipping a hamburger, Blake gave me a bit of the history of Helen’s Farm. After a few years of crisscrossing the island every day to maintain their far flung enterprise, he and Julie were introduced to Rita O’Boyle, a long-time Lopez landowner whose 55 acres in the center of the island had for years been harvested for hay. “After many many years of growing grass I was concerned about the health of the fields,” Rita told me later. Her land had a fertility deficit as a result of nutrients being stripped away by years of haying. So, after a few conversations with the Johnstons, Rita agreed to let them consolidate their farm, leasing 50 acres of her land. Blake described this as “a dream come true.” It seems that Rita feels the same way: “The fields are now being nourished, producing amazing crops and feeding organic cows, pigs and poultry. I feel as if I have played small part in the future sustenance of the island.”
Blake and Julie invited me to the farm last week to check out their latest project: the construction of a new processing facility that is going to take Helen’s Farm to the next level. After years of mobile farming, the Johnstons became adept at processing their goods without a building in which to do so. But for many reasons, probably including how tiresome it must get cutting up chickens and making sausage in the cold and rain, Blake and Julie decided it was time to have a permanent structure of their own. In addition to a roof over their heads, they’ll now be able to cool large quantities of the food they grow – making it possible for them to sell to more customers, including restaurants. Without a processing facility, Helen’s Farm used to harvest everything the day before they made a sale. Blake would get calls from customers asking how much he had for sale. He’d look out into his field and say, “I have no idea.” So, yes, their new processing facility will solve a number of problems.
Having learned so much about different types of land and agriculture systems from their mobile farming years, Blake and Julie have an abundance of knowledge to apply to how they manage their farm. They are big believers in biodynamic agriculture, developed by Rudolf Steiner. They look at their farm as a cellular organism that has different systems operating in balance with each other – using manure from their animals as natural fertilizer for their crops. They’ve also learned about how to leverage the light cycle of the moon for more effective crop management. According to Blake, “the moon throws off a shit ton of light.” That sounds like a biodynamic technical term.
Without a doubt, I learned a shit ton from Blake and Julie, and I share others’ excitement about the past and future success of Helen’s Farm. In case you’re wondering, they named the farm after Julie’s grandmother (who was a farmer) and Blake’s great grandmother – both of whom were named Helen. Both would be proud of their offspring.
You can buy Helen’s Farm’s chicken, pork, beef and vegetables at both the Winter and Summer Farmers Markets on Lopez as well as the San Juan Farmers Market. As their new processing facility comes online, I’m sure it won’t be long before you start seeing their food in more grocery stores and restaurants. In the meantime, you can join their CSA and contact them directly at email@example.com.