Karyn Williams is a 21st Century Pioneer.
It's a gorgeous late-summer day at Red Dog Farm on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and a row of fragrant sweet peas waves in the breeze, amid 23 acres of organic kale, radishes, beans and freshly plowed dark brown soil awaiting seeds for late fall harvest. Rupert Dandelion, the red border collie for whom the farm is named, comes bounding down a grassy path to see what you're up to. A salmon stream runs along the west edge of the property, and busy farm employees are picking, washing and separating fresh vegetables for sale.
It takes a lot of business savvy, strategic planning and hard work to keep this idyllic land a viable working farm. It also takes creative thinking about how farmers, finance and conservationists can partner to make locally-grown, natural foods available and protect local working farmland. Red Dog Farm owner Karyn Williams '03 is a new kind of farming pioneer, one who brings together love of the land with a hard-core business sense, making her organic farm a model for young farmers everywhere.
In 2007, after several years running an organic farm on leased land in Quilcene, Washington, Williams was ready to own and run her own place. When she found the 23 acres along Chimacum Creek that would become Red Dog Farm, she knew it was perfect. But although she had saved enough to purchase the land, she also needed to be able to buy equipment, build barns and have a place to live.
Drawing on the reputation she had built in the community and her strong business plan, Williams worked with the Jefferson Land Trust, a local conservation organization, to create a unique lease-to-own partnership. She would lease the land for five years with an option to buy and build her organic farm here.
Today, Red Dog Farm is certified organic and certified Salmon Safe. Its organic produce is sold at both the Port Townsend and Chimacum Farmers Markets and at various local restaurants and stores, as well as through its self-serve farm stand and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. This September, Williams became the farm's official owner, and as part of the original agreement, a conservation easement will protect the land for agriculture and wildlife habitat into the future. It was the land trust's first lease-to-own agreement, and based on her success, it's a strategy the organizations plans to continue.
Like many of the new wave of young, ambitious organic farmers, Williams grew up a city girl, with the typical "farm" experiences of most urban dwellers. "I'd never been on a farm, except an occasional trip to a you-pick," she laughs. Watching her maneuver her 1955 Farmall Cub tractor across a newly seeded field of radishes, you'd never know that she was 19 years old before she figured out she wanted to farm.
That was when she discovered World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that links volunteers with organic farmers, who provide food and accommodations in exchange for work on their farms. Williams spent two years volunteering in Germany, Spain and England. "I'd never lived in a rural area," she remembers. "But I fell in love with the land and the rural lifestyle."
When she came back to the U.S., Williams enrolled at Evergreen. "It was self-directed, which was what I needed," she says. Throwing herself wholeheartedly into organic farming, she took both Practice of Sustainable Agriculture and Ecological Agriculture programs, and served as the caretaker on Evergreen's organic farm for three years under farm manager and faculty member Pat Moore. "When I started working on the Organic Farm at Evergreen, I found I just really loved growing and selling vegetables," she recalls.
After graduation, Williams went to work at Old Tarboo Farm in Quilcene, where she leased the land and ran her own organic farm. She loved the community on the peninsula and started thinking about settling down there. "I was able to try it out without having to make a major investment," she says. "And after two years, I was ready to move on to my own place."
Drawing on work she had done on Evergreen's Organic Farm, Williams created a farm business plan, including feasibility studies, water tests, soil quality assessments and marketing plans. "At Evergreen, I learned the business end of how to run a farm – how to grow crops, how much should you grow, what are your costs, how much profit will you make," she says. "It's so important to have a clear plan."
While Williams was building her farming knowledge and skills, a partnership of Jefferson County groups, including Shore Bank Enterprise Cascadia, the Washington State University Extension Office and the Jefferson Land Trust, were working on plans to encourage farmers and preserve working farmland, get more local produce available in the county, and at the same time, protect vital land and water resources. It was especially critical to protect farmland near creeks, where it affects salmon runs. Williams' plans for Red Dog Farm fit perfectly into those goals.
"Our sales have steadily increased each year, and local organic agriculture is thriving in many areas," she explains. Red Dog's Farm Stand is open seven days a week year-round, and has more than 100 subscribers who've bought shares in its Port Townsend and Chimacum CSA programs. "There's a very bright future for this kind of partnership, especially in communities like ours where people are committed to their local farmers."
Working together towards a common goal is another thing Williams learned at Evergreen. "Being in seminar is such a group effort," she says. "You have to work together and come to a conclusion – you can't just do it on your own. I use that all the time running the farm."
It's also helped this young farmer make a place in her community. "There are lots of old-time farmers in Chimacum, and at first, they viewed some of us newer farmers very skeptically," she says. "But now that we've been here a while, there's much more acceptance and respect on both sides. I've learned a lot from them as well. We all influence each other in really positive ways."