Bill and Kate Harwell:
Sky Island Farm
It’s 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, rain or shine.
“Every single season,” Bill Harwell said, as he sorted heirloom tomatoes in the late September sun in Hoquiam, Washington.
First generation farmers Kate and Bill Harwell own and operate Sky Island Farm with their 11-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.
It can be easy to get caught up in the picturesque photos of golden fields and fresh, vibrant produce when scrolling through farmers’ Instagrams. It can seem like the most pastoral and perfectly peaceful lifestyle.
The Harwells want to address that.
Farming is hard work. It is day-in and day-out.
Despite that, the Harwells’ passion for working with the land and growing food they take pride in, makes all of the hard work worth it. Bill and Kate’s deep love for growing food and plants, and working outside with their hands fueled them to farm. It made sense that they ended up as farmers, Kate said. There is no place they would rather be, there is no work they would rather be doing.
They highlight land access as the number one challenge new farmers face.
The average cost to start a new commodity farm or ranch equates to roughly $3 million in just land and equipment. And, it’s often hard for young people to obtain loans to purchase the land they need to farm.
“It’s hard for young people who don’t have credit or don’t have good credit because of school debts to get a loan,” Kate said.
The Harwell's started out homesteading in Shasta County — recently ravaged by forest fires — in Northern California. Then, they moved a short three miles and started farming down the road from their old place. They were lucky to secure an an owner carry for three-and-a-half years to support themselves and farm their own land.
An owner carry is a when a seller who owes no money on their property will sell their house or property to a buyer for a specific price, in lieu of going through a bank.
“We just got lucky with our owner carry, we just put down $2,000” Kate said. “Others wanted 50 percent, or 60 percent of the full payment down.”
The family loved the piece of land they were on, but it was hardly accessible.
“You had to hike up a steep mountain to get to our property,” Kate said.
The family’s farm in Shasta County was successful, but as water became more scarce due to drought brought on by climate change, Bill and Kate looked north to the Pacific Northwest.
There is a dilemma most new farmers face when finding land. Land close to large, accessible markets comes at a cost whereas more remote land with a smaller market proves more affordable. Sky Island Farm sits in Hoquiam, Washington. Hoquiam comes less than an hour’s drive from Olympia, two and a half hours from Seattle and three hours from Portland, Ore. All three claim considerably large “foodie” city cred. Demand for local, diverse, organically minded produce runs high in these areas, yet the demand for the same produce rests much lower in Sky Island Farm’s county, Grays Harbor.
Bill and Kate found a foreclosed property that needed a lot of work. The previous owner stopped taking care of the property when they couldn’t pay their bills. Weeds carpeted the tillable land, which meant extra work clearing the spread, cleaning out the home for the Harwells when they took over.
The Harwells purchased the property thanks to a loan from Bill’s parents.
“We were lucky that Bill’s parents wanted to help us out,” Kate said.
For new farmers who can’t call on help from their families in buying land, Kate suggests renting land to farm on, or looking at land match sites that pair new farmers with folks who have property they are willing to let people farm.
After moving to Washington, starting the farm was only possible because Bill worked off farm doing landscaping around the area. Most of his paychecks went towards farm-related purchases.
The Harwells looked into getting loans to help purchase equipment like a tractor, greenhouse and irrigation system but they remained skeptical because of the high interest rates.
“We didn’t want to be in debt for something we couldn’t pay back quickly enough,” Kate said, “As farmers just starting out, those high interest rates were too risky.”
Without taking the loan, the Harwells had to scrape by to get Sky Island up and running.
“Every tax return and anything left over for the month went to running the farm,” Kate said.
After running a successful community supported agriculture (CSA) venture, a system that connects the producer and consumers more closely by allowing the consumer to subscribe to the harvest of a certain farm or producer, for four years and supplying food to local restaurants and markets, the Harwells are finally in the position where they feel confident in taking out a loan on some much-needed equipment. For the past five years, the Harwells have done all of their farming and projects by hand.
“Right now we’re considering getting an FSA loan for irrigation and a tractor,” Kate said.
The United States Department of Agriculture created the Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan program to provide opportunities for small, family agriculture operations to expand.
Securing land and equipment is just a fraction of the struggle in farming; there is so much knowledge and expertise that is essential to growing food.
The Harwells have always loved plants. They taught themselves how to plant food through gardening growing up. As adults, they continued learning about soils, seeds and plants through research and trial and error.
Also, Bill’s job as a landscaper helped him gain knowledge of irrigation and building, which often comes in handy at the farm.
The first year at Sky Island, the well went dry. Luckily, Bill knew about plumbing from past work experiences, so he was able to dig a new well himself. That saved hundreds of dollars.
Farmers need good problem-solving skills.
One of Kate and Bill’s biggest accomplishments this year was constructing their own, much-needed greenhouse. Bill’s work as a landscaper came in handy as his paycheck supported the farm for years. He cut and felled the necessary timber for the greenhouse. And, neighbors came together to hoist logs into place to make the foundation. The Harwells saved $3,200 by making their greenhouse from scratch. Their 25 x 100 ft greenhouse is a vital tool used in their farming to extend the length of their growing season.
Farm projects are expensive for any farmer, but when the growing season generates little or no revenue, it gets stressful fast.
Bill is thankful to work on the farm full-time now because he loves the work but there is new added pressure of making profits from the farm last all year.
“It’s more pressure on me, but I like it that way. I like being outside with the plants, working hard and working for myself,” said Bill.
This past year, The Harwells struggled with only on-farm profits before crops came in in the spring.
“I remember eating beans all winter and early spring, just waiting for harvest,” said Bill.
The Harwells have learned to plan ahead for the markets they wanted to sell in to.
In 2017, in their first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), Kate and Bill planted produce they loved to eat expecting others would love it too, only to find people were not interested in collard greens or swiss chard.
“It took some missteps to figure out what people here wanted to eat,” Bill said, “we learned that people love kale, so we upped our kale game.”
Grays Harbor county revolves around tourism.
During the summer, vacationers from Seattle, Portland and Olympia flood the county. Kate has noticed that they are willing to pay more for produce than locals.
“I’ve learned that everything revolves around the tourist seasons,” Kate said.
When it’s off season and Kate sells produce to local restaurants and stores she has to be more competitive with pricing.
“I have to come in pretty competitively and match prices with distributors to get my product out there,” Kate said.
One problem all farmers face is the fact that America undervalues food.
Bill is frustrated by the price discrepancies he sees in grocery stores and markets. He understands how some produce prices can be daunting but it can be disheartening to have people choose processed food over produce he’s worked hard to grow — another reason why the Harwells want to keep the price down to encourage people to enjoy their food.
“A can of coke and a bag of chips shouldn’t cost less than a head of lettuce,” Bill said, “we need to level the playing field for real food.”
With that niche market in mind, Kate and Bill have responded in how they grow and market. For example, during busy tourist weekends, Sky Island makes sure to stock extra kale and tomatoes — they grow six types of kale and 15 types of tomatoes. They have learned that both locals and tourists are willing to pay a fair price for all salad greens and tomatoes.
The Harwells have worked hard to straddle the line of making a profit and still being accessible to both locals and tourists. Their CSA costs just $15 a week for a heaping box of produce.
The Sky Island CSA has done well this season, with the influx of tourists, but is less popular among locals. The Harwells believe that stems from varying values of food.
“People have to make that choice to buy from small farmers,” Bill said. “There is purpose behind everything we do at Sky Island Farm, we do this to provide the people of Grays Harbor County access to the best possible produce we can grow.”
In this era of social media and sharing, it can be easy to fantasize about owning a small farm. For farmers everywhere, those photos of breathtaking skylines, glistening, freshly planted fields, and freshly harvested produce isn’t the the full picture.