Farmer of the Year sees small farms in our future

Woods helps young farmers get their start

Article from the Wenatchee World

OKANOGAN — After a lifetime of farming it, Watershine Woods could not imagine any other future for her land on the flats above Okanogan.

So now that it's time for her to "semi" retire, she's passing most of it on to a new generation of farmers.

Woods owns Filaree Farm, an organic operation since the mid-1970s that now grows more than 20 varieties of heirloom apples, a multitude of other fruits and vegetables, alfalfa and hay. The farm also produces more than 100 strains of garlic sold nationwide.

She recently sold her garlic business to one young farmer, and someone else is buying the orchard.

She and her son, Minot Anderson, will keep the hay and row crops. She calls him her "right arm, as far as farming."

In November, Woods was named Farmer of the Year by Tilth Producers of Washington, an organization of more than 500 Washington growers and businesses that promotes ecologically sound, economically viable and socially equitable farming practices.

The group recognized her dedication to the small farm and her willingness to mentor young people to prepare them to manage and own their own farms.

The award also honors her work to help form the Okanogan Producers Marketing Association, currently six farms in the Okanogan Valley that grow and pack their own food and market as a group.

Farm Community She was nominated by some of the young people who have worked for her, and who consider her a friend and mentor. They described her as a hard-working, fair and honest farmer who upholds the highest degree of quality in the produce she markets.

To Woods, it's all about keeping the small farm alive. In a recent interview in her matchbox house just outside Okanogan, she compared the small farm of today with the monasteries of the Dark Ages, which kept skills and learning alive until the world was ready to relearn what it had lost.

Rather than dependence on heavy equipment, monocropping, pesticides and large tracts of land, the small farmer often uses knowledge of the past and diversity to succeed.

It’s also a way of life worth preserving, she said.

"Small farms are as important to our future as they were to our past," Woods said. "A generation ago, everybody had a connection to small farms. There’s way less connection now, and I think that’s really hurting us as a culture."

Woods said she grew up on her grandparents’ farm, and her parents bought the land overlooking Okanogan, which is Filaree Farm, in 1974.

Her former husband, Ron Engeland, later bought part of her father's land and planted heirloom varieties of apples, with Woods starting an organic seed business, before "organic" had a legal definition, or any kind of certification.

They marketed their first crop of garlic in 1989, and on the advice of her office manager, started a website. That gave her business a lead in a new way to market her seed garlic, which she soon began to sell across the country.

Today, the business grows almost 20,000 pounds — or 10 tons — of garlic each year. Woods recently sold that part of her farm to a young entrepreneur, Alley Swiss.

J.C. Kauffman, a young man who worked his way from laborer to manager at her farm, is buying the orchard — which includes apples, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums and pears.

Kauffman said he was Woods' employee two years ago, leased the orchard last summer, and this year will become the owner.

He said this country was built on small farms, and if consumers support them, they’ll continue to survive.

"Why would you want to save money and cut corners on the most important thing — food?" he asked.

Woods said over the years many, many young people have come to the farm to work for a season or two, some just finishing school on the East Coast or Midwest and looking for new opportunities in the West.

Some, like Amber Phillips and Phoebe Webb, hope to make it their livelihood.

Both sat with Woods by her woodstove on a recent January morning to talk about the future of farming.

"I’m glad I found this place," said Phillips. She went to a private liberal arts school where she experienced a little organic farming, and found Filaree Farms on the Internet. "I wanted to do something very different. So I jumped off the deep end," she said.

Webb said she’s learned so much working with Woods over the last two years. "Just learning how to market, and everything about garlic, and the row crops. And how to live the life. Watershine has a lot more knowledge than how to farm," she said.

Woods said she is happy to be able to pass on her knowledge, as well as her farm's name and reputation.

"I’m really fortunate to have found these young people who have the ability, the motivation and the courage to take over parts of this," she said.

K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512

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