Opening the Farm to the Public: Success for a Family Heritage Farm
With thunder claps from an early morning lightening storm still ringing in their ears and warm gusts of wind, the Wilson family of Wilson’s Banner Ranch began the 9th farm walk of the 2013 growing season, sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington and the WSU Small Farms Team. Different family members were on hand to describe their family and farm dynamics to a small group of local farmers, students, agricultural professionals, and farm interns perched on straw bales in front of their farm store. Joe Wilson gave a bit of historical background of the farm, which was originally started as a homestead by his grandfather, Weldon Wilson, 125 years ago. Joe grew up on this farm just outside of Clarkston, WA and, with his brother, took it over after he finished college at WSU in 1965. Along with his wife Annetta, Joe and his brother ran the farm until recently when it was transitioned to Joe and Annetta’s four children and their spouses.
Daughter Keri Wilson explained that the farm’s success is mainly due to a group effort that makes good use of the many facets of expertise each family member brings to the table. From knowledge of the crops and land itself, to various forms of marketing (farmers markets, on-farm, and grocery stores), to welding and mechanic – and even embroidery services provided by one sister who lives in southern Idaho – each person brings an integral service to the continued economic success of this 4th generation farm. Keri also emphasized that ongoing public education about farming is needed for direct market farms like theirs to thrive. Her educational and marketing skills were evidenced by the bountiful displays of farm products and informational materials that she had set out for our group.
After the introductions and farm overview, the group walked a giant loop covering much of the property, which is located in the rocky, creek bottomlands at the base of Alpowa Grade. Starting with the shed and the processing equipment that turned out approximately 10,000 gallons of fresh-pressed, UV treated apple cider last year, the group moved down the farm along the creek. Here we saw where a very pesky beaver colony thrives; observed fields of tomatoes, corn and iris; walked through apple, cherry, peach, and apricot orchards; observed busy chickens at work cleaning up past cropping areas; and saw the shops and dwellings where family members live amidst their crops and abundant wildlife.
Led by Joe, with periodic input from other family members, the group discussed soil fertility, pest and orchard management, crop choices and timing strategies designed to meet direct market demand. The Wilsons described the genesis and organization of their fall festival with its famous straw-bale maze frequented by 2,000 to 3,000 folks each October. They also discussed problems caused by beavers; described living with coyote and cougar; and explained their strategies to attract predatory birds to help suppress pressure from birds that eat ripe fruit.
Because this farm has been in operation for so long the Wilsons are fortunate to have irrigation rights to utilize water from the creek that runs through the valley. Without the ability to readily irrigate they would not be able to have orchards or other row crops. A downside of farming the creek and bottomlands are periodic floods and rockslides. The combination of good abundant water and a relatively long warm season allows Wilson’s Banner Ranch to produce the best corn for probably 100 miles around. They have also learned to work with the micro-climate zones on their farm to avoid frost zones and optimize production of different fruit varieties. They explained to newer farmers how they do well with these crops, but leave crops like lettuce and brassicas to other farms that are at elevations more conducive to these colder climate crops.
At the close of the tour, Annetta shared prepared notes summarizing her best advice for other farmers on ways to succeed in farming over the long-term. She offered keen observations on how to successfully maintain family harmony from one generation to the next and among different types of personalities working in close proximity. Her reflections about creating resilience through resourcefulness, innovation, constant adaptation, and careful conservation of existing resources were much in evidence in every aspect of the Wilson’s Banner Ranch farm operation.
Summary by Taya Brown and Marcy Ostrom
Funding for this farm walk and other Tilth Producers educations programs are funded in part by the USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program.
Farm Walk booklet: HERE