Tag Archives: Farming history

Then…and Now

In the decade between 1959 and 1969 there was a 71.3% decrease in the number of farms in Kitsap at the same time that Western Washington experienced a 49% decline in the number of farms.  Agriculture all over the United States was beginning to change – consolidation and increased mechanization pushed out many small farmers and vertical integration of agricultural systems was beginning to squeeze prices forcing even more out of business.

In 1999 while several pioneer Kitsap farms survived, only the Vernon Martinson Farm on Bond Road outside Poulsbo, made the Washington State Centennial list of farms operating continuously in the same family for 100 years or more. It was originally homesteaded by Mikal Martinson in 1889.

Losses in total number of farms and farm acreage continued to decline until 2005.  According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture there were 664 farms in Kitsap totaling almost 16,000 acres.  This is a 13% increase in the number of farms but a 5% decrease in farm acreage.

Jim Carleson of Minder Meats had a large herd of beef cattle at one time, but says the 1972 closure of the USDA inspected facility at the Foss Slaughter House (which became Thomas Kemper Brewery) devastated the cattle industry in Kitsap County.  Already rocked by the brewing farm crisis of the 1970s, farmers couldn’t afford to ship cattle to Sumner. Increased vertical integration of the beef industry cut already slim profit margins making it impossible for small cattle farmers to compete.  In 2009 USDA inspected slaughter and processing returned to Kitsap as a result of the efforts of the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative in bringing a mobile slaughter trailer online.  Serving five counties and operated by Joe Keehn of Farmer George Meats, the trailer is capable of processing cattle, sheep, goats or hogs.  Minder Meats has re-installed rails and hooks to process whole carcasses and now features locally grown beef from their shop!

By 1979 farming in Kitsap was far from traditional.  In fact, most people would probably have said: “There is no farming in Kitsap.” But, ten percent of the land in the county was still in farming, and Kitsap was one of the leading Christmas tree producers in the nation with sales exceeding $2 million annually.  The floral greens industry brought in another $1.2 million and salmon farming brought in an additional $3 million.

Brian McWhorter of Butler Green Organic Farm was one of the new “traditional farmers” just getting started in 1979.  Twenty years later his organic farm was 100% self-supporting and featured a 55-share CSA, greenhouse crops and he was selling to Town and Country Markets and restaurants in Seattle.  “You live a different lifestyle if you’re a farmer.  I think it has to be in your blood to last and you’re sure not going to get rich quick!”

This ends our “look” back at farming in Kitsap (with a bit of looking forward!)  What will the next 20 years look like for farming in Kitsap?  That largely depends upon YOU!  Will you support the zoning modifications and land use policies that enable farmers to grow in Kitsap?  Will you seek out Kitsap Grown products and purchase locally?  Will you buy from Kitsap farmers as they market through Farmer’s Markets, the Kitsap Community Food Co-op or from their farms via CSA or Farm Stores? Would you support a year round farmers market?

Will you?

Farm History geeking on BKAT

I was working from home today and surfing the channels and came across BKAT and someone was talking about PLOWING!  I stopped and watched and it was “Horse Powered Farm Equipment” featuring a farmer taking a tour of his barn and talking about all the types of old farm machinery.  I also noticed that BKAT is running the “Silverdale Heritage Project” video on Friday, May 20 at 3:30pm.  I have seen this presentation several times and it is an excellent overview of farming in the 20s and 30s in rural Kitsap.  The first half of the program has wonderful interviews with Gerald Petersen, the Allpress gals, Harry Knapp and others about life on the farm in Silverdale.  It is a gem.  You can also purchase a copy of the DVD at the Silverdale Water Department on Newberry Hill Rd. for $20.  I find the last half of the program when they talk about building Bangor and the Mall a bit depressing because there is some wonderful farmland under Macys!

To check the BKAT schedule for information on upcoming airing of episodes of these programs the schedule can be found here! They don’t have the schedule for next week up yet but check back later for updates!

Got Milk?

Most early settlers had a family milk cow and until the late 1890s cattle were still allowed to wander to graze.  It took an act of the Port Orchard Town Council to get Dan Davis, a local butcher, to pen up his cows and calves and get them off city streets.  An early Bainbridge resident remembers her family milk cow arriving by boat.  Lacking a dock to unload the cow, the poor creature was pushed off the steamer into the sound and guided to shore by men in row boats.

By World War I several creameries bottled and sold milk to Kitsap residents.  Responding to a post war surplus of milk Kitsap Dairy Products borrowed $30,000 to set up a butter and cheese plant.  Renamed the Kitsap-Mason Dairymen’s Association their milk processing plant was the first in the nation to offer homogenized milk for sale and when the Association disbanded in 1969 their plant owned some of the most modern dairy processing equipment in the nation.

Price’s Dairy, established in 1938 on Bethel Road in South Kitsap, also owned and operated a creamery on Bay Street in Port Orchard.  Their farm was a show place with its huge barn, verdant green pastures and purebred Guernsey cows.  They sold breeding stock and exhibited cattle at fairs all over the country.  Not unlike other early Kitsap pioneers, Price’s pioneered the drive thru dairy.  From a 1956 advertising pamphlet:

“Price’s Drive thru Dairy Store, 2 blocks south of Lakewood Community Center. The latest in modern convenience, it was designed for exceptionally fast service for those in a hurry & those who did not choose to leave their cars. Two lanes funnel cars into the establishment, where the customer places his order with the sparkling white uniformed dairy delivery man who fills the order. Forty seconds later, the customer is on his way home with his favorite Price Golden Guernsey products: ice cream, milk, eggs, butter, half and half, bread, cottage cheese, orange drink, whip cream, sherbet, cream, buttermilk and chocolate milk. The drive thru distribution was the brainchild of Kenneth and Lee Price of the Golden Guernsey Dairy Farm. It was one of the pioneer dairy farms in the Kitsap area. The immaculate Price farm, located between Tacoma and Port Orchard, was the home to over 90 registered Guernseys.”

In the 1940 Census of Agriculture dairying was listed as the leading income producing enterprise in Kitsap and in 1954 there were 166 dairy farms operating in the county.  Only a decade later that number would have declined by 33% to only 110 dairy farms.  Many were put out of business by consolidation in the dairy industry, some by lack of infrastructure.   Gerald Petersen stopped shipping milk in the late 60s because he couldn’t make it on three milk pick-ups a week.  His bulk tank was smaller and while he wanted to expand production, he was limited because the tanker was only able to come to the farm every other day.  He wanted to double the size of his dairy herd but that would have necessitated more frequent milk pick-up and the distributor wasn’t able to help.

In 1970 Darigold, the only milk processor left in Kitsap, closed its Bremerton plant.   In July 1976 the Port Orchard Independent reported the closure of the last dairy in South Kitsap.  Al Riebli of Blackjack Valley held a dispersal selling his 80 cows and all the farm equipment.  Citing falling prices, poor health and being “tired nigh unto death of the 20-hour days” he reluctantly sold his cows leaving only four Grade A dairies in the county.  One of them, Mountain View Meadows dairy in North Kitsap owned by Dave and Gloria Edwards, milked 18 Guernsey cows and bottled and sold raw milk from the farm.  Harkening back to an earlier time, Dave worked part time at the Shipyard and rushed home for evening milking.  By the 1980s there were no farms selling milk in Kitsap.  Surrounding counties fared a bit better, but the most recent dairy crisis put most of the Jefferson Co. dairies out of business and Clallam Co. isn’t doing much better.  The remaining dairies pay one farmer to haul their milk and worry about the price of feed!  The one bright spot is Dungeness Valley Creamery in Sequim.  A Grade A raw milk dairy, the Browns milk 60 Jerseys and supply milk to the Mt. Townsend Creamery and sell fluid milk at several local stores.

Fast forward to the present day and there are now two Grade A Dairies selling cow’s milk in Kitsap.   I posted about Blackjack Valley Farm a while back, and I see that there is a new dairy selling milk in Port Orchard.  They have brown swiss cows. In addition, there are two Grade A Goat Dairies as well!  You can read all about the Hansville Creamery in a story done by the Sun when they opened last year.  The other goat dairy, Port Madison Goat Farm and Dairy on Bainbridge, produces and sells cheese.

Cooperative Extension and the Grange

The Washington State College, later becoming Washington State University, worked to advance farming across the state.  With the establishment of the Western Washington Experiment Station, Puyallup in adjacent Pierce County, research was done benefiting Kitsap dairy, poultry and berry farmers.  The County Extension Agent Service began service in Port Orchard in 1917 with Claude B. Sprague as the first County Agent.  Farming was second only to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as an economic driver in the county.  By 1948 there were five active agricultural agents working in Kitsap assisting farmers.  A county forester was added to the staff in 1950 to support timber interests and the Christmas tree industry.  The Soil Conservation District was formed in 1950 under the USDA Soil Conservation Service to provide engineering for drainage and to improve pasture and crop lands.

The Grange came to Kitsap County in 1910 when Breidablik Grange organized in Poulsbo. Eventually 30 Granges were organized around the county by 1947.   Grange meetings provided a forum for community member to gather, discuss economic problems, socialize with neighbors and learn and improve farming skills.  Politically active, Kitsap Granges campaigned for the Public Utility District (PUD) Law which would break the hold large private companies had on the electricity coming from the Columbia River as the result of New Deal projects at Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams.    While Kitsap voted a PUD they never used it to buy power.  In the 40s Seattle and Tacoma City Light and the Puget Sound PUDs explored buying Puget Sound Power and Light, creating the largest public utility in the country.  Kitsap PUD played a key role and after spending large sums of money the private utilities prevailed.  Kitsap PUD shifted their attention to securing water rights for the county, and now manages waste water treatment facilities and continues work in securing scarce water resources for county residents.

Kitsap County Agricultural Fairs

Going to the Kitsap County Fair and Rodeo with the brightly lit midway and large hall full of vendor exhibits and all the cotton candy it can be hard to remember that fairs were originally a chance for local farmers to gather together and show off the biggest and best of their farm products and livestock.

In 1921 the first Bainbridge Fair was held, featuring agricultural floats, educational events and contests.  That year the fair was held September 20th and 21st at the Island Center Hall (still in use today off Fletcher Bay Road).  Information inside the Fair program gives us a sense of the wide variety of agricultural products grown.

Competitions were held in a variety of categories.  Division A, Class II “Other Vegetables” included: string beans, table beets, round green cabbage, flat green cabbage, red cabbage, short table carrots, long table carrots, red stock carrots, cauliflower, celery, green cucumbers, golden Bantam corn, white sweet corn, ripe cucumbers, dry red onions, dry yellow onions, parsnips, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, Swiss chard, white dry beans, colored dry beans, turnips, tomatoes, artichokes, asparagus, and peppers.

Similar fairs were held in Port Orchard beginning in 1923 where first place for the best sheaf of Alfalfa paid $5.00!  The Port Orchard fairs ran annually until 1929 when they discontinued because of the depression and the need for space for gardens to grow food for families in the community.

The Kitsap County Fair as we know it today began with a Victory Food and Victory Festival in 1944. It was sponsored by the Bremerton Rotary for that year and 1945, when it was called the Garden Exhibit. The Bremerton Chamber of Commerce entered the picture in 1946, and on March 24, 1947, the first organization meeting was called by then-WSC Cooperative Extension Agent Dino Sivo.  The County Fair was held on the Olympic College grounds but in the early 1960s the fair board received notice that the college required the land for expansion.  Gideon Hermanson and Bill Greaves scouted locations for the fair and settled on 40 acres as close to the geographic center of the county as possible.  In 1962 the Kitsap County Fair Association formed and paid $6,000 for the current parcel on Nels Nelson and Fairgrounds Roads in Central Kitsap.

To read about the current purposes and aims of the Kitsap County Fair and Rodeo check them out on the web!

To Market, To Market!

The first Kitsap Farmers Market opened May 20, 1922, in Bremerton and continued one day a week. Many other farmers sold produce at the docks, greeting the Mosquito fleet, and shipping their goods along with the fleet to be sold along the way. Not always profitable for the farmer, they might receive a bill for freight rather than money for their produce if no one along the way needed their eggs or berries. In this regard the farmer cooperatives helped tremendously, getting the best prices for farmers, and setting production goals.

Vegetable farming declined after its heyday in the 1920s and by 1956 the county was not self-sufficient in vegetable production. This was mainly due to the lack of fertile bottom soil for commercial vegetable growing and the use of most suitable land for pasture, hay and forage production. Gardens producing for home use were still very important in the 1950s but most fresh and processed vegetables came from counties in northwest Washington or from the eastern part of the state.

In 1978 a small group of farmers started the Port Orchard Farmers Market as a marketing venue for local vegetable growers and fiber producers. Still operating, Port Orchard Market has been joined by eight other farmers markets in Kitsap including: Bremerton, Silverdale, Poulsbo, Kingston, Bainbridge, Suquamish, Port Gamble, and most recently Ollala.

Cooperating Farmers!

As early as 1887 cooperatives were being formed by farmers.  The first “Farmer’s Union” organized that year in Silverdale for the purpose of buying feed, began with $300 and had eleven members.  Later they branched out into the mercantile business with C. E. Greaves as their buyer.  While it experienced ups and downs, from these humble beginnings the Silverdale Poultry Association was formed, which lead to the much larger Washington Co-operative Egg and Poultry Association, and later the Washington Farmer Co-Operative Association.  The Silverdale feed depot opened in 1928 and in one year 50,000 crates of eggs and 62,000 chickens were shipped from the dock at Silverdale via the Mosquito Fleet.  Production reached its zenith in the early 1940s but in 1954 the poultry industry was still worth $800,000 in Kitsap.  Commercially significant poultry farming of fryers and layers continued into the early 1970s when the county still produced 700,000 dozen eggs annually. The biggest challenge to poultry farmers by this time was a lack of locally grown feed resulting in increased feed costs.

With improvements in roads, by 1952 a new farm store opened in Poulsbo and the Silverdale location closed but in the heydays of the 1920s and 30s shell eggs were shipped by rail to the Midwest and East Coast and the Co-Operative eventually began processing liquid eggs, canned chicken, and other farm products at plants and facilities located across Washington and Oregon.  Cooperative marketing increased the prices farmers received for their farm produce and membership allowed them to make feed purchases together to save money. Silverdale farmer Gerald Petersen began as a buyer for the Co-operative in Seattle before moving to Kitsap to dairy farm.  The Co-Operative also worked with farmers to do cutting edge research on poultry genetics and bird performance increasing egg production and introduced them to husbandry techniques like the use of lights to extend their laying season.

Other marketing associations playing an important role in Kitsap County Agriculture include the Kitsa-Mason Dairymen’s Association, Kitsap County Fair Association, Kitsap County Livestock Association, Kitsap County Dairy Herd Improvement Association, Evergreen Breeders Association, Washington Cooperative Hatcheries, Washington Cooperative Chick Association, Washington Croft Lily Growers Association, Washington Holly Growers Association, and the Washington Farm Forestry Association.

Kitsap Farmers Continue to Cooperate!

Cooperatives are not just a thing of the past for farmers – they are also the wave of the future.  Today the Kitsap Poultry Growers Cooperative carries the torch of this honorable heritage and supports farmers with poultry processing equipment and educates them about raising poultry.  The Kingston Farm and Garden Cooperative was formed to fill the void left by the closure of Sacks Feed in Kingston and cooperates on group projects and buying power for farmers.  The Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative organized to bring USDA inspected slaughter back to the Puget Sound for beef, hog and sheep farmers.

Farming Bears Fruit

Early farming efforts bore fruit – quite literally.  On Bainbridge Island, Japanese-American families who came to work in Port Blakely, shifted to farming after the mill closed in 1923 and became known especially for growing strawberries.   In particular, the Marshall variety was known for its juiciness and large size.  Former farmer Art Koura said “Marshalls had a very meaty heart, and tender skin.”  Today’s strawberries are “so hard you could play marbles with them.”  In 1930 to facilitate processing the large berry crops, the Winslow Berry Growers’ Association, a local farmer’s cooperative, helped build a cannery on Eagle Harbor at the south end of Weaver Road. During its production peak early in the Depression they shipped 500 – 55 gallon barrels a day of select Marshall strawberries.  Vessels barged the barrels of sugared berries to Seattle, where they were shipped world wide.   In May 1939, 800 cases of Marshall Berries were even shipped to British Columbia for the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England.  That year’s six-week cannery season packed 1.45 million pounds of berries.  A year later, almost 2 million pounds of berries were processed.   In 1971 Kitsap still had a berry processor, 170 acres of berries and harvested 1.1 million pounds of strawberries.

Bainbridge wasn’t the only place known for its berries, Olalla means “berries”.  When the first settlers arrived they were approached by Native American’s asking, “Mamook olallie?” meaning “Have you picked berries?”  Larson assumed, erroneously, that he was being told the name of the area, hence the name! After some early struggles with marketing, farmers successfully grew strawberries in Ollala, shipping them to Seattle, Vancouver and points east.  By 1910 farmers had organized as the Ollala Growers Association, built their own dock and were cooperatively marketing berries to commission merchants in the region.  By 1956 Kitsap was the number 33 nationally among America’s 100 leading strawberry producing counties.  In addition to strawberries, blueberries and raspberries were also farmed commercially in Kitsap with about 20 percent of the crop being sold fresh to local residents.

Did you know…?

I had to do a little bit of research on the history of farming in Kitsap County last week.  Came across some VERY interesting tidbits.  I will be sharing them over the next week or so, but in doing the research I must say that I was in awe of the ability we used to have to feed, clothe and sustain ourselves.  I am currently reading “Radical Homemakers” by Shannon Hayes.  While I agree with reviewers who are critical of her lack of supporting research and cream puff overview of feminist theory, her treatment of our consumer culture and thesis that our “extractive” economy is at the root of much of our dysfunction (obesity, environmental degradation, materialism) is pretty damning of my life.  Ouch!  We can be tempted to view the past through the rosey glasses of nostalgia, but in doing the historical overview of farming in Kitsap I was impressed by the innovation, dedication, ethic and persistence of our agricultural ancestors!

Blasting Stumps

Early farming varied widely, including subsistence crops and vegetables planned to sustain mill workers and their families.   In the 1880s a Seattle newspaper reporter on his way from Port Gamble to Seabeck encountered a Chinese farmer selling vegetables at the dock, including cauliflower (3 cents a pound), cabbage (11/3 cents a pound), sweet corn (25 cents a dozen, and celery (4 stalks for 25 cents).  He discovered that the farmer used manure from stables in Port Gamble, Seabeck and fish waste from local fishermen on his farm.  Underway on the boat the captain pointed out the farmer’s three-acre ranch and the reporter noted “between the stumps every available foot of land seemed to be cultivated to capacity. Neither was time, room nor labor … wasted.”  The owner of the hotel later shared with the reporter that three or four Europeans had starved to death trying to make it on the same parcel and “the probability is that we would starve to death for vegetables up here (in Seabeck) if it were not for the [Chinese Farmer].”

As the lumber industry began to change and decline after 1900, many Kitsap communities including Bainbridge Island, began to look at the logged over land for its potential for farming on a larger scale.  During this time the Washington State College Extension Service focused their research and energies in Western Washington to addressing the cost of clearing logged-over land. With costs for clearing farmland between $75-$300 per acre, putting it largely out of reach of most farmers, only the most fertile land in Kitsap was cleared and the rest was replanted to timber.  Central Kitsap pioneer Nels Nelson moved to Kitsap in 1902, bringing his wife and two young girls from South Dakota.  Carrying the lumber to build his house on his back from Barker Creek, nearly a mile and a half from his home-site, he was soon established on a 40-acre farm in the south end of Central Valley.  After clearing his land he began dairying and chicken farming.

In 1924 with the end of World War I and the release of left-over explosives, or “stumping powder,” clearing land became cheaper but it was still challenging and time-consuming.   The increased amount of cleared land brought with it greater numbers of farms growing produce and farming livestock.