Having spent most of my life in big cities, I didn’t use to care much where my food came from, except when the supermarket was out of something or the McDonald’s drive-through was backed up.
Then I’d belly-ache about the terrible inconvenience. When I was 5, I asked my dad if hot dogs were made out of dogs.
He said no, but he wouldn’t tell me what they were really made of. As an adult I have assiduously avoided asking that question.
But when you live on the Rock, you see where food comes from right before your eyes.
From north to south, the island has a remarkable diversity of agriculture. Granted, sometimes it’s squeezed almost invisibly among the single-wides, McMansions, snowbird habitats, retirement aviaries, Navy housing and woodsy weekend retreats. For me, this has been a fascinating education in the Rock’s changing economy.
Whidbey’s farmers used to be able to compete with the best of them across the water in America.
Hubbard squash, wheat, turkeys, pigs, dairies, you-name-it. For decades, trucks from the grocery chains and cooperatives came to pick up the Rock’s bounty. Before that, it was hauled by boat from the Coupeville Wharf and other places to Seattle.
But the corporatization of agriculture and grocery sales pretty much ended that.
The Rock’s farms weren’t big enough or mechanized enough to offer the volume or the price the giants demanded. Some of the traditional farmers held on, if barely. Others gave up, and the land went for houses or other development.
But over the past decade — and particularly since the economic crash of 2008 – there have been a lot of new hands in the dirt on the Rock.
These days you can eat, drink or wear all sorts of things grown or made here: Goat cheese, alpaca and llama wool, heritage-breed pork and poultry, purple potatoes, lavender, grass-fed beef, fancy greens for high-falutin’ Capitol Hill foodies, loganberry liqueur and even some wine from a few hardy varieties of Rock-grown grapes.
We’re growing what the corporate farms don’t or can’t, and that’s a great success story not told enough. I’m especially intrigued by the number of young people working as interns at Rosehip Farm and Greenbank Farm and half a dozen other places, learning to be happy, chemical-free, non-corporate farmers. A lot of these folks have been to college and some have degrees. But they’ve turned their backs on suits, ties and cubicles for flannel, denim and hoes.
Is that a response to the lousy job market for college-educated kids these days? Perhaps. But I’d rather believe these inspirational young people instinctively understand the intangible joy of planting something and watching it grow. And they know how that outweighs the tangible stress of writing memos and attending meetings.
My grandfather was a railroad bookkeeper. When he retired, he spent much of his time tending a 10- by 20-foot vegetable garden beside his garage.
I can still hear him cursing the terrible hardpan-clay soil and the lack of sun. But then he’d hold up a cucumber or a string bean, smile, toss it to me and say, “Here! Taste a miracle!”
Since I moved to the Rock, I find myself becoming my grandfather. I have a garden patch. I curse the hardpan-clay and the lack of sun. But then I eat an ear of fresh corn or a juicy red tomato, and I wish I was 40 years younger, working as a farm intern. Then I tip my sweat-stained straw hat to the Rock’s farmers – young and old.
• Harry Anderson is resident of Coupeville and former journalist. His column “Rockin’ a Hard Place” will appear monthly in The Whidbey Examiner.