Member Highlight Interview: Kai Ottesen, Hedlin Farms

Kai Ottesen

Wednesday Oct. 27, 2010 – Conducted by Emma Brewster

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to Hedlin Farms?

I joined Hedlin Farms about four and a half years ago.  I’m from Juneau, Alaska, originally, which is where I was born and raised and went to school.  I studied English, so no direct preparation for farming with my background, but I studied English and focused on environmental literature.  What I found there was that there was a lot of talk about our relationship with the natural world but not a lot of discussion about where our food comes from — maybe one essay by Wendell Berry, but not a whole lot — so that never sat quite right with me. So rather than continue down the academic track and argue for why there should be greater discussion of agrarian authors in the cannon of environmental literature, it made more sense to me to just go farm — especially because I had family down here in the Skagit Valley who were farming and who had transitioned, and were transitioning [land] to, organic production.  I made the leap and decided to go with farming.  And I wasn’t going in completely blind. I had spent summers.  I would come down here and work summers growing up, and I knew The Valley fairly well, having had family down here, so I wasn’t completely blind-sighted, but I did go in not knowing much, and not pretending that I knew anything. I was ready to learn from the ground up, and I think that was really, really helpful.

There’s a great deal of ink devoted to our relationship with wilderness and wild spaces, and what they do for us spiritually and emotionally.  But they’re not, ultimately, where we live — they’re places we visit, and we don’t rely on them the way we rely on farmland.

You’re keenly aware of it growing up in a town like Juneau where everything except the salmon and the blueberries is brought in on a barge. Your produce is three days out, four days out, at the very least, just to barge right up there, on top of the time it sat in storage prior.  So coming down to The Valley, and the freshness, and the quality, and abundance was a major factor of my deciding to stay and one of the great, great joys of living here.

[Hedlin Farms] is my family’s farm.  The farm is owned and operated by my aunt and uncle, David Hedlin and Serena Campbell.  They’ve been farming it in its current incarnation since the mid-seventies. My family’s been farming here in the Skagit for about 100 years.  When my great grandfather, Rasmus Koudal came over from Denmark in 1906, he stood up on the hill in La Conner and it looked enough like Denmark to call home. He started raising seed crops: beet seed, spinach seed, cabbage seed, and every time he made a little money growing seed he’d go back to the Conner Family (after whom the town of La Conner is named) and he’d buy another parcel [of land].  And so he farmed for a number of years with my grandfather, his daughter (my grandmother, Elizabeth) up until the mid 60s.  There was about ten years or more after my great grandfather died, some years after my grandfather passed where the farm was rented out, but still held in the family partnership.  Then, as now, there’s never been any expectation or demand on the next generation that they have to farm, but there’s always been an expectation that we’ll be good stewards of the land, keep it as good farm land, and care for it well. And that holds today.  I’m part of the fourth generation that will farm, but we’re expected to get a four-year degree and to work for a time off of the farm. Then if you find your way to the farm, then great! But if not, more power to you.

Tell us about Hedlin Farms.  What do you grow, how do you grow it, and who do you grow for?

We’re broadly diversified in vegetable and seed crops.  We farm about 400 acres all together, about half organically and half conventionally.  My main focus and my job, really, is the fresh market garden, which is about 50 acres out of that 200 that we farm organically.  So I’ll start there.  We grow pretty much everything from artichokes to zucchini. [This is grown] for our roadside stand, and we’re up to 5 farmers’ markets now up here in Mt. Vernon and down in Bellevue, Mercer Island, and Sammamish.  We do a 150 share CSA and that’s primarily up here in the Skagit Valley.  We have relationships with all three hospitals in the valley, to do CSA deliveries there in addition to our food-stand and farmers markets.  We sell to about a dozen restaurants in the Skagit Valley and to the Skagit Valley Food Co-op. We do some wholesale down to Seattle on occasion, or to larger CSA’s like Klesick family farms down in Stanwood.  In addition to the fresh market vegetable operation we also do cut flowers for our roadside stand and for special events (weddings and the like).  The balance of the organic acreage is in grass, corn silage, and occasional specialty crops.  There’s a dairy up the road that we have a good relationship with: we’ll take their manure or calf bedding for our compost pile, and they’ll take a chop off of our ground as hay or haylage.  We operate on a three-year crop rotation and then three years back into grass.  So that gives us an opportunity to build up the organic matter and break disease cycles on vegetable crops.

On the conventional side we grow a lot of cabbage seed, some ornamental pumpkins, and wheat as a rotational crop.  On the organic side, we’ve been working with Dr. Steven Jones at WSU.  He’s working on developing some high protein wheats, developed for the west side to meet that market, especially for the organic.  The bakeries here are looking to source their wheat as locally as possible.  In addition to a seed crop we do a lot of custom transplant work, which is a service for a fee, so we’ll grow a cabbage plug from a seed up to a one and a half inch plug, and then transplant that out after nurturing it for six weeks or so to fields around the valley.  That’s nice because it’s not speculative.  You’re paid up front and then you’re done, whereas you can make good money off a cabbage seed crop if everything goes right, but it’s in the ground for almost twelve months and there’s a lot of opportunity for things to freeze, hail, too much rain at the wrong time, all kinds of things.

So you’re selling to wholesale people, restaurants, individual consumers, you’re really all over the board.

Yes, we are.  And that’s come about as markets have developed and as we’ve built relationships.  A farmers market can take two or three years to really find its legs.  Sometimes they’re great right off the bat, but sometimes you have to — like with anything — stick with it.  We’ve grown a tremendous amount over the last three to five years in terms of our fresh market operation.  When I started on the farm four years ago I think we had 25 shares for our CSA, and we’re up to 150 now.  And that seems to be holding fairly steady at this point.   That particular market seems to have found its balance.  The people who are looking for it seem to have found it.

I think that what people are recognizing is that, in many ways, there’s no more important work for us to do than grow our food.

Speaking of things going wrong with cabbages in the ground, this has been a particularly tough year form some farmers because of the weather.  How did Hedlin Farms fare?

We did fairly well, all things considered.  The thing about a year like this is that the weather that may treat some crops badly may do great things for others.  It was a tough year for sweet corn; a tough year for tomatoes, but that makes it a great year for cauliflower and spinach.  We’re diverse enough so that even if one thing doesn’t make it, we balance out. And it’s always a bummer because tomatoes are so good, and glamorous compared to spinach and cauliflower, but they’ll pay the bills just the same.

You were a vendor at the PSFN WholeSale markets in both Seattle and Skagit this year. What’s attractive about the wholesale markets to you?

The thing that’s most interesting about that to us is that it was an opportunity to meet new customers.  We’re traveling around The Valley, at least, quite a bit, so we often have opportunities to make deliveries, but really that opportunity to make and establish those new relationships was of tremendous interest to us.  And if the buyers are into that location, it doesn’t take that many buyers coming to pick up to make it worth your while to be there for a couple hours.  And we started to see that at the height of the season: that if everybody came on the same week then it was well worth it.

Farming can be seen as an aging industry with relatively little influx of new farmers, and mounting challenges. What made you want to get involved with farming knowing that it’s an increasingly challenging industry as time goes on?

At some point I remember thinking… if I wanted to see this continue (what was going on at our farm and in the Skagit Valley) that at some point you have to contribute in some way, whatever way that might turn out to be.  And so that, as I said before, that became a very easy choice at some point.  That and, as an English major, I wasn’t really suited for anything else!  As it turns out there’s quite a tradition of English majors become farmers here in the Skagit Valley. There’s a number of folks around who have gone this road.  I think the lesson there is that it pays to be a generalist because you get up in the morning, you’re doing all kinds of things.  It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some hard skills in any one of those fields there’s no way you can learn all of them in school, so it pays to know how to learn as you go.

[On young and new farmers] I think there is a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous groundswell, and it’s been really interesting to be part of that.  And I think that what people are recognizing is that in many ways, there’s no more important work for us to do than grow our food.  If this is not being done the way we’d like it to be done, then it’s incumbent on us to contribute — to contribute to how our food is produced.  And I think people are seeing opportunities there because of this aging population. I think you’ll also see — and this is speculation on my part —  but I suspect that there are a lot of people who are farming who aren’t necessarily owner-operators at this point.  They’re interning or they’re working on farms so I would guess in the next 5 to 10 years you’ll see those statistics start to shift.  As people who are involved in farming start being the ones the census guy comes around to [for] their numbers.  It’s tremendous — there’s a tremendous amount of innovation going on.  There’s just more eyes on the ground, as Wendall Berry would say.  It can’t hurt.

Do you think you’re a farmer for life?  What’s next on the horizon?

As far as I know. As far as I can see and plan, that’s what I intend to do. Life is too fickle and mutable a thing to say for sure that this is what I’ll be doing for ever, but that’s my plan, for all it’s worth.

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