By Phil Vogelzang
To walk around SpringRain Farm and Orchard in Chimacum, owned by John Bellow and Roxanne Hudson, is to see ambition. And a remarkable amount of vision, coupled with an equal amount of very hard work. It is especially impressive when one realizes they only bought the land and started farming it 3½ years ago. At first glance, it’s a farm in recovery. A hardscrabble place with buildings that have seen better days, and areas of exposed gravel and washes from years of neglect and abandon. Look closer and it is densely layered with new plantings and poultry of every kind imaginable. Careful attention has been lavished on every detail.
The farm is located on rich valley land and adjacent rocky hillsides at the confluence where east and west forks of Chimacum Creek come together. Salmon spawn every fall and winter in the meandering creek bed that lies at the heart of the farm. John and Roxanne, with the help of the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and Al Latham (Jefferson Conservation District), have already begun the restoration of over 1700 feet of creek shore. Forty foot buffers on either side of the stream have been planted with native species of alder, douglas fir, cedar, big leaf maple, salal, and red twigged dogwood. Large root-wads have been strategically placed to slow water flow and create habitat with eddies and whirlpools.
Step beyond the creek buffer zone, and you’ll see rows and rows of young fruit trees and berry bushes, most only waist high and just starting to bear fruit. John has planted nearly a thousand apple, pear and plum trees. Then there are all the accompanying trellises and irrigation lines. Three large hot houses are filled with a variety of raspberries, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. An ambitious asparagus bed is maturing and may be ready for its first harvest next spring. Completing the plant lineup is the outdoor annual vegetable garden with winter squash, faba beans, kale, and tomatillos along with the pea, bean and corn variety trials they are doing with the Organic Seed Alliance.
But what’s a farm without animals? John has his bases covered here too. Several hundred heirloom chickens, raised both for meat and eggs and a variety of heritage turkeys hunt and peck about the rows of fruit trees enriching the soil with their manure, retreating into their re-cycled RV trailers at night to roost. Further down the hill there’s a large flock of sheep raised for meat, near the barn is an orderly row of beehives, and across the field are portable hutches with rabbits on screen floors that allow their nitrogen rich droppings to rebuild the topsoil.
What I’ve failed to mention is that the fruit, veggies, meat, and eggs are all certified organic. John and Roxanne have patiently filled out every form, crossing every “t”, which shows in that they were only the second farm in the state of Washington to accomplish getting their lamb certified as organic.
It all makes one curious about John’s past. What sort of experience formed his vision and fueled this ambition? It started in the Peace Corps in the Philippines where he met another volunteer, Roxanne, his future wife. At that time they both didn’t really know the direction their careers would take. John enjoyed agriculture as he had worked on a farm as a teenager and Roxanne was thinking about law school. Roxanne has changed course significantly, becoming first a classroom teacher and now an associate professor at the University of Washington in special education.
John’s path has been more meandering as he has forged a path combining his 2 loves of education and agriculture. Inspired by an early exposure to agroforestry (an integrated approach using the interactive benefits achieved from combining trees and shrubs with crops and/or livestock), he leased land in the Skagit valley just outside Mt Vernon and began the first SpringRain farm, growing vegetables, offering CSAs and learning the ins and outs of making a living as a farmer. Before long he wanted to learn more, and the land they were leasing was up for sale at a price far greater than what he could afford, so he decided to head back to school. With an eye towards perhaps becoming a teacher in an international school or an agricultural development agent, he pursued a masters degree and then a Ph.D. in agroforestry from the University of Florida. His specialty was in tropical agroforestry with a focus on growing crops within orchards in rain shadows cast by mountains.
With his PhD in hand, John found himself eager to get back to farming. They began searching for a new farm site in the vicinity of Roxanne’s job offer in Seattle. Specifically they wanted farmland in a rain shadow cast by mountains. Extensive research narrowed the search to Chimacum, where in 2008 they bought the new SpringRain farm, version 2.0, the 26 acres described above.
But John has hardly abandoned his passion for education. On the side, he engages in consulting work for the state department in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Moldova, and Tajikistan, where he advises farmers and extension agents about how to grow orchards in difficult climates. In addition he has been instrumental in developing the FIELD intern program, a local program where educational credits, housing, and mentorship are given to individuals willing to commit 3-9 months working on a participating farm. Currently the participating farms in addition to SpringRain include Solstice, Sunfield, and Finnriver. Weekly full-day workshops are given in pasture management, soil health, emergency vet skills, building hothouses, seed saving, etc. Since its inception, 18 interns have gone through the program and Chimacum is fast earning a reputation as a desirable place for aspiring farmers to learn the latest in sustainable farming.
So are you starting to see what I mean by vision, ambition, and hard work? If all of this has occurred in just over 3 years, imagine what the place will look like in another 3, 5, or 10 years! With any bureaucratic luck in the near future, the public may be able to follow the progress from a foot and pedestrian trail that John, Roxanne, and the Jefferson County Public Works envision crossing the farm and Chimacum Creek, connecting the residential neighborhood of Port Hadlock to HJ Carrol Park.
It’s hard to sum up John, Roxanne, and SpringRain Farm in under 1000 words, but I just attempted it. THANK YOU JOHN AND ROXANNE FOR ALL YOU DO! And yes, I’ll take that tomato!