Family Farm Food | March 6, 2008

David and Serena Campbell

David & Serena

Mount Vernon, WA
Farm Aid talked with David Hedlin and Serena Campbell, 3rd generation farmers of Hedlin Farms in Mount Vernon, WA. They farm 400 acres, half conventionally and half organically.

Q: How long has the farm been in your family? What do you grow or raise? How big is the farm?

Hedlin Farms started when my grandfather, Rasmus Koudal, came from Denmark. He spent two years in the Dakotas and finally came to LaConner in 1906. He bought land from the Conner family as he could afford it, in seventeen separate parcels.

In the early days our farm had a traditional mix of cows, chickens, and rotational crops, including seed crops, which have been the common thread through our farm over the last hundred years.

Today we farm about 400 acres, half under conventional management, and half certified organic. In our organic acreage we grow about 25 acres of mixed vegetables for our fresh market garden, as well as barley, field corn, and sauerkraut cabbage for our neighbors who operate a pickle processing plant down the road. We are also currently partnered with The Nature Conservancy on a research project evaluating various farming practices for shorebird habitat on a 60 acre parcel along the Skagit River.

The balance of our acreage is in winter wheat, pickling cucumbers, green peas for frozen processing, and beet, spinach, and cabbage seed crops. We have a greenhouse operation that provides custom conventional and organic transplant services to vegetable seed companies, farms, and our own fresh market operation. Our greenhouse also produces heirloom tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, and basil.

Q: What does a farmer need to know that other people might not think of?

Where to get good coffee: The Rexville Grocery

A farmer needs to understand the complexities of the biological, cultural, bureaucratic, and regulatory environment. A lot of people think that farm life is peaceful, quiet, and bucolic, and in reality it’s incredibly complex. It’s a challenge to foster and maintain a multi-generational stewardship ethic in a society whose idea of long-range thinking is buying green bananas.

It’s important to remember that soil stewardship you’re doing today is going to decide the quality of a crop you grow five years from now. Very few people understand the complexity of farming in a diverse valley like the Skagit where there are over 82 crops of commercial significance grown on some of the best farmland this side of the Nile.

Q: How do you learn those things?

Family, a broad circle of friends, watching my neighbors over the fence, college, and hard knocks all contribute. I have a philosophy of striving to make new mistakes every day and learning from the ones I made yesterday, and that’s proving to be very educational.

Q: What made you decide to transition your row crops to organic?

We realized in our market garden that our practices had evolved to the point that the only thing between us and certification on some parcels was the paperwork. We’ve always had a strong stewardship ethic on our farm so in many cases it wasn’t that big a leap.

Q: What were some of the challenges that you had during the transition process?

In many cases, the big challenge of the transition process is those three years when you’re trying to grow crops organically and having to sell them at conventional prices and oftentimes that’s difficult because the soil hasn’t had a chance to build up. We haven’t had as much trouble with that because we’ve used a sod-dairy manure rotation during that transition period. Manure supplies much of the fertility and beneficial microbiology, and a few years in sod reduces weed populations to manageable levels.

Q: Has your farm changed over the course of transitioning to organic (literally or figuratively)?

Not much, although in many ways our organic practices have crept back into our conventional operation. We’ve found that in order to survive, closely held family farms need to adapt without losing track of who they are. One of the difficulties in agriculture is that farmers provide a multitude of benefits in terms of view corridors, environmental benefits, and wildlife habitat, yet you are only paid for the crops that you produce. One of the reasons people will pay more for organic food is that they have an expectation of stewardship, and they’re willing to pay for that.

Q: How can people buy food from you or that you have grown or raised?

Every time you eat fresh, local vegetables, you’re doing us a favor. That said, we sell at two farmers markets, one in Mount Vernon and one in Bellevue, WA. You can also find our produce in a number of local restaurants and at our roadside farmstand in LaConner, WA, for retail purchase or through our CSA. Selected produce is also available through the Skagit Valley Food Coop.

Q: How old were you when you knew that you wanted to be a farmer?

I knew I wanted to be a farmer from seven to sixteen. I didn’t know I wanted to be a farmer from sixteen to twenty. At twenty I knew I wanted to be a farmer again.

Q: How did you start farming?

After my dad died the family farm was rented to the neighbors. When I decided to farm, I raised enough money and rented it back.

Q: As a family farmer, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you face on a daily basis?

Loss of farmland. The challenges we face are economic viability, how to make a living without losing track of who you are, trying to work within a bureaucratic and regulatory framework that does not always appear to have long-term stewardship in mind.

As far as opportunities go, we have a real opportunity to reinvent food in America. I’m really enthused about the resurgence of interest in buying local. I think many people have no idea how good a fruit or vegetable tastes if you let it get completely ripe and consume it the day of, or the day after, harvest. I think that ‘Grown while you watch by people you know.’ will ultimately turn out be of more interest to people than any particular certification.

Q: Describe an average day on your farm?

I’m out in the field quite a bit doing tractor work, walking and scouting fields, and working with the crew. A certain amount of my day involves getting projects started and figured out. We do most of our mechanical and fabrication work in-house. In winter I check for standing water in fields, in summer for cultivation timing, weeding, and irrigation.

My average day also involves quite a lot of what I would call “infrastructure” meetings. We’re quite active in the community and we like to give back to a place that’s been good to us. The Skagit Valley is 80,000 acres of prime farmland within sixty miles of six million people. Being involved in political issues, environmental issues, regulatory issues, and land use issues is critical, and we put a fair amount of time in on that. My average day includes about two hours of school board, farmland preservation, and agricultural research meetings.

Q: Do you ever wear overalls?

Yes. When I was seven years old, I wore overalls in a ballet where I played the farmer and carried the watering can and watered the little ballerinas and they came up and turned into flowers. And again, two years ago, when I played the farmhand/tin man in the “Wizard of Oz,” and in “Oklahoma!” as farmer Carnes.

Q: What is the best thing about being a farmer?

It’s a wonderful way to raise a family–an interesting and diverse circle of friends and acquaintances. When you’re harvesting cabbage seed and you realize that every pound of seed that comes into the combine tank will make thirty thousand heads of cabbage somewhere in the world – it could be sauerkraut in Germany, kim chee in Korea, or coleslaw in New York–that’s a good feeling; it’s a feeling of connectedness, it makes you feel like your work is important. At the end of the day, I like sitting down to a dinner of fresh vegetables and knowing that because of our farmstand and our family farm, people all over our county are eating well.

Q: What advice would you give to someone that wants to start farming?

Get a degree in English Literature and start rich. We know there’s big money in farming—we put it there. In all seriousness, though, anybody looking to start farming should be risk tolerant, but not reckless. It also pays to have some financial management skills going in and to be prepared to ride out the lean years and guard your working capital. The important thing to remember is that farming is way more than just a job. Take the time to make sure it’s something you really love.

Q: Do you have a favorite chore?

Harvesting cabbage seed with Serena.

Q: Do you have a favorite vegetable?

Rainbow Swiss chard

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share or think our readers should know about your farm or farming in general?

We’re proud to be starting the second hundred years as stewards on our family farm.

Read our Ask Laura question about the increase in food prices >>

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