Farming in the rain
by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
Farming in the Skokomish River Valley can be a challenge, what with 60 to 80 inches of rain a year. One year, Hunter Farms's pumpkin fields flooded, the pumpkins bobbing like buoys on a temporary sea. Fortunately, the river receded in time for families across the South Puget Sound region to visit Hunter Farms and cart home their pumpkins.
One of the Hunter family cousins has a letter written by Isaac Woods soon after he arrived in the valley from Iowa in the 1880s. Apologizing that he couldn't repay the $8.00 he'd borrowed from the recipient of the letter to move west, he complained about the 40 days and 40 nights of rain and worried that 40 more days would follow. He wouldn't, he concluded, give 40 acres in Iowa for the whole state of Washington.
But Woods stayed and was soon joined by his daughter and her husband, Olivia and William Hunter. And out of that initial adversity, the Hunter family built an empire on diversity. Besides pumpkins, the family seems to have tried everything, planting something new as a market arose, and continuing to grow whatever turned out profitable.
On a drizzly morning in October, sheltered just inside the farm's store on State Route 106 near Union, and surrounded by tables of fall vegetables, Bill Jr. '75 seems genuinely bewildered by how eastern Washington farmers can make it on one crop.
Bill's great-great-grandfather sold fruit trees. The farm store, where we're sheltered from the steady October drizzle, was once an oyster house. The family still maintains a small oyster beach on Hood Canal, a mile away.
A lot of the farms in the area began by supporting the logging camps, says Paul '85. "They used to bring in barges and load them with hay, to feed the oxen and horse in the camps."
Great-uncle Harold sold potatoes to Fort Lewis in the 1930s. In the '30s and '40s, the family had its own milk-bottling plant. Bill Sr. delivered milk door to door in Bremerton.
Then the family got into corn, for cattle feed, and then tried sweet corn. And celery.
And Christmas trees. Paul and Bill figure that Christmas trees probably represent, among their diverse activities, their largest income. The family started selling Christmas trees off their forestland in the 1950s. Around 1970, they bought 10 city lots on 35th Avenue NE in Seattle. Starting the Monday before Thanksgiving, they sell their trees from that site, hauling a semi-load or two to Seattle every day. Although the lots were an excellent investment, even as a month-long venture every year, they're thinking of expanding the site's offering. Maybe a farmer's market.
"We get calls every month from someone wanting to sell it for us," says Bill Jr.
"Yeah, help the country bumpkins out," adds Paul, laughing.
Besides Paul and Bill Jr., Bill Sr. and Carol Hunter live and work on the farm, as well as Bill Jr.'s wife, Luayne, and Paul's wife, Leslie '84.
Bill Jr.'s daughter, Jami '02, is the latest to join the family business. She graduated in agribusiness. She's happy to be here. "I don't want to get stuck in an office," she says. "I want to be free to use my brain."
Besides family, Hunter Farms maintains a crew of 15 to 20 year-round. Starting in January, they plant Christmas trees, then vegetables in the greenhouses. The farm's cattle herd starts calving in April. In winter there's also logging from their timberland. The end of July, they're picking sweet corn. They sell 10,000 bales of hay every year, mostly to small area farms, and put up as much for their own cattle. And in October, they haul in pumpkins from the generally unflooded fields.
As we talk, a busload of young children arrives. They chatter excitedly, eager to pick out their pumpkins. October weekends can find a thousand people meandering around the farm. They can wander through a hay maze or a corn maze. They can go for a wagon ride. And visit real live pigs and geese and goats. And Juno the Reindeer. All free.
"We like them to buy a pumpkin," says Paul. "But they don't have to. They have a lot of fun."
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