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Terra Verde: Planting seeds and pulling weeds since 2007

Sep 3rd, 2016 | Category: Community

by Mary Vermillion

On a summer Sunday morning, Amy and Skuter Fontaine of Terra Verde Farm show a visitor their 15 acres of organically grown vegetables near the Nooksack River in Everson. They take turns talking to the guest or holding the hand of their 2-year-old son, Rudy, who – with a parent in tow – runs ahead to find cows or to dig in the dirt. As the tour continues, it becomes clear through words and actions that partnership and patience are two reasons behind the success of Amy and Skuter Fontaine’s farm.

Skuter and Amy Fontaine, with their son Rudy, at their farm in Everson.  PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

Skuter and Amy Fontaine, with their son Rudy, at their farm in Everson.
PHOTO BY MARY VERMILLION

Married for eight years and farming together for nine, the couple sell their produce at the Bellingham Farmers Market, through their CSA, to local restaurants and grocers, and to the Bellingham Food Bank. Wholesale accounts provide the bulk of their revenue.

Although they are succeeding as farmers, on the surface, it wasn’t a logical career choice for either one of them. Skuter, 39, came to farming via pizza. Originally from Massachusetts, he was a cook at La Fiamma in the early 2000s. After tasting the K&M Farm salad mix served at the Bellingham restaurant, he joined the farm’s CSA program and, eventually, began a work-trade arrangement. The labor and farm environment appealed to him.

Amy, 35, moved to Bellingham from Spokane in 1999 to attend Washington Western University; she graduated with a degree in English literature. After interviewing Mike Finger of Cedarville Farm for an environmental journalism class, she decided to explore if farming was the lifestyle for her. Finger’s passion was contagious. “He had a twinkle in his eye,” she recalled. Once she started at Cedarville, Amy excelled. “It fit with me,” she said. “I remembered everything I was learning and craving more.”

Amy “was great, and then some, working for us for six years and becoming one of the most skilled and hard-working employees we’ve ever had – a definite inductee to the Cedarville Farm Worker Hall of Fame,” Finger said. But, he added, “When Amy first expressed her interest in farming to me, I wasn’t immediately certain it would work for her. It’s such a challenging profession, with few of the perks many other kinds of employment offer, and it really takes a rare form of pluck, intelligence and determination. However, within a few years of starting their own operation, it was clear Amy and Skuter had the drive and vision to make a serious go of it.”

The couple, who had planted a patch at a Bellingham community garden early on, leased a quarter-acre from Dusty Williams of Broadleaf Farm in Everson. Then half an acre. Then, an acre and a half. Then, three. “Before you knew it, we were up to 13, 14 acres,” Amy said.

Farming for themselves versus working for another farmer was humbling. The couple learned through trial and error and the coaching of mentors, including Finger, Williams, Mike Boxx, and Pete Dykstra. The famers share knowledge, tools and labor. “The most valuable thing is the questions they ask us,” Skuter said. “That crop didn’t work out. Why? We’ve learned to come up with our own answers.”

They’ve also learned how to handle the frustrations of farming – the water supply dries up, tractors quit in the middle of plowing, the truck breaks down on I-5.  During last year’s drought, maintaining irrigation lines was a constant irritant. “You’d go to Farmers Equipment and stand in line with everyone else having the same problem,” Skuter recalled. “They’re pissed off and spending money they don’t have. You learn what to do with those feelings. You just have to remember it’s not always going to be that way.”

Nearly a decade into farming, the couple is focusing on the business side of the operation, analyzing numbers with their accountant, investing in capital to scale up production (which often means buying and fixing used equipment), and asking other small business owners for tips on employee management. They delegate chores based on each other’s strengths. Equipment repairs, irrigation, and website fall to Skuter. Amy oversees succession planting and propagation and handles business development.

To grow the business, they are also working on crop diversification. This year to up their potato yield, they chisel plowed a field and planted a bit earlier. As a result, Terra Verde has a strong crop of red and yellow fingerlings, Ozettes, Red Bliss and Yukon Gold. “A little water didn’t hurt them either,” Skuter said. “The weather this season has been very favorable for us. I wouldn’t expect to double our potato production next year over this year’s gains. Sometimes working with a good yield is better than trying to expand beyond successful scale in diversified vegetable farming.”

Their goal is to make Terra Verde efficient and scalable, enabling them to save money to buy their own land. To get there, they maintain a relentless schedule.On Monday, they deliver produce to the food bank and work in the field. On Tuesday, the Terra Verde crew harvest for the Wednesday Bellingham Famers Market and deliver to CSA members, groceries and restaurants. Wednesday, they’re at the Farmers Market in Fairhaven and continuing CSA deliveries. Thursday is weeding, watering and transplanting. (With a three- to four-person crew, they’ll transplant between 10,000 and 12,000 plants on average. They’re working on mechanizing the process to save the physical toll on workers and for efficiency.) Friday is harvest day for the Saturday Bellingham Farmers Market. They try to relax on Sunday, but there is always a chore or two. And, to cap it off, their second child is due in December.

The Fontaines find simple pleasures in the midst of the demanding pace. Skuter thinks of discing the field as the sun sets listening through headphones to surf music, Reverend Horton Heat, Slayer or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. Amy says happiness is closing the cooler door on six pallets of produce picked and processed that day. She also loves it when the crew “clicks. … making good decisions and accomplishing great things.”

The couple advise anyone considering farming as a career to work for a farm first. “You learn a lot from other people’s mistakes,” Amy said. “And even more from your own,” Skuter added.

For more details

Stop by Terra Verde’s booth at the Bellingham Farmers Market (Saturdays) and Fairhaven Farmers Market (Wednesdays). See their website at www.ieatveggies.org or follow their Facebook page for updates.

 

Published in the September 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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