Managing for Success on a Small-Scale Diversified Farm
What Rob and Diane Stockhouse have created in this beautiful slice of Puget Island is most certainly a farm, and it is also unquestionably an economic engine for agriculture in the region and a gathering place. Carrie Backman, Director of WSU Wahkiakum County Extension, told the group of 15 assembled for the farm walk at Stockhouse’s Farm that she sees the farm as a regional learning center. She attributes its success to the intentional community partnership fostered by Rob and Diane which has supported the area’s agricultural revival. They have been instrumental in promoting WSU’s Cultivating Success program and Master Gardner training while also encouraging agritourism with a farmers market and guest cottage on their property.
The group met in the farm’s barn space that hosts community meetings and “first Fridays” gatherings. The Stockhouses offered fresh bread hot from the outdoor, wood-fired oven that Rob built last year, radishes from their hoop house, and chevre from a neighbor. Diane’s cookies were also a hit. Each week Rob bakes about 40 loaves of bread plus pizzas for the farmers market.
Diane gave some perspective to how things have changed, noting that when she and Rob first moved to the area there was no place to buy local produce in this county of 4200 people. Some years ago the area had more than a hundred dairies but agriculture has lost its hold in the small coastal region and today there are only four, including a new goat dairy. Stockhouse’s Farm grew from a single greenhouse and an initial plan to raise their own food; today the farm hosts a seasonal Friday afternoon market boasting fresh produce and value-added items from about half a dozen area vendors. New farms have also sprung up in the area and this year the market will add a plant CSA farm and a chicken vendor in addition to the new dairy.
Initially there were challenges in developing a market as many people were reticent to pay for something they could grow or get for free from neighbors. Rob and Diane were pleased that before long a regular customer base emerged, with people buying for a meal or two. Now there are about 100 regular customers each Friday with many shopping for a full week’s worth of meals. On busier days more than twice that many will visit the market. Rob and Diane do a lot of their own outreach and are supported by the port and area real estate agents which also promote the market and farm activities.
Rob showed us their spacious planting room, off the back of the barn. An impressive amount of varieties were being prepared for transplant in the farm’s hoop houses. Almost everything is grown inside the hoop houses, which protect the plants from the area’s wind and variable coastal climate in addition to providing warmer soil and air temperatures. The group was fascinated to hear Rob explain how the original greenhouses are repurposed carports with old, salvaged windows integrated as the sides. Each structure has a unique window type and it was discovered that those that slide open for ventilation are the most useful. Carport-sized hoop houses are small, and while all are still in use, eventually more space was needed so the Stockhouses procured a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant last year and recently completed a full-size hoop house.
In addition to flower beds, outside fields are planted with onions, brassicas, winter squash and potatoes. This year the farm is experimenting with a new system for these plots, an idea which Diane confessed she “dreamed up” in the off-season. Rob has turned Diane’s dream into reality by making row covers from thick, black ground cloth that are carefully held in place along the 70’ x 100’ rows, and which can be rolled back and secured with staples alongside the planted rows as the crops develop. Rob and Diane hope that this system will allow the plants to thrive in their cool soil and not lose their ground cover to the island’s frequent, strong winds. For additional protection fruit trees have been planted along two sides of the field.
Eggs are another source of farm income. The ducks and chickens roam free in a large area adjacent to the hoop houses and compost bins. Diane mentioned that for the past 7 or 8 years they have applied manure from their fowl along with off-farm steer manure as soil amendments. They are pleased that the last few years’ soil tests indicate their efforts have paid off, with the results confirming that and the soil is well-balanced.
The repurposing of a small guest cottage on the property into Rog’s Retreat provides income from about seventy rental nights per year. Rob explained that this is one of the farm’s unique qualities and that due to its success they may add another cottage. Guests appreciate seeing how the farm operates, and the farm benefits because the cottage requires very little maintenance or management time is necessary.
The need for flexibility was frequently mentioned during the afternoon. Diane told of how their business has adapted throughout the years, adjusting both to the interests of their customers as well as to the impact the work has on her and Rob. For instance, they grew pumpkins and offered hay rides in the past but found they were tied to the farm waiting for the few customers that came. Plant starts had been profitable but didn’t fit their schedule. They raised meat hens for awhile but would have needed to greatly scale up in order to make it pay off. A flock of heirloom turkeys was more trouble – and expense – than they were worth when they flew onto and damaged the hoop house roofs. Diane stressed that with just two of them to support they can try new things while a farmer with a larger family might not be able to be as flexible. It was clear that the Stockhouses have found the right balance between operational success and their own time commitment to the farm, while also fostering success for themselves and others within their community.
Summary by Michele Catalano, Tilth Producers Executive Director