Punkin Center Farms
Spencer and Susan Wilson, Member Spotlight, April 2012
Nearly twenty years after leaving their hometown of Zillah, Spencer and Susan Wilson returned to their native Yakima Valley in 2008 to embark on a new adventure—owning and operating 65-acre Punkin Center Farms. Named for a small store that once served laborers making their way through the valley picking fruit, Punkin Center Farms boasts 30 acres of fruit orchards, a 4-acre market garden and 30 acres of “hope and potential.” Along with four-year-old son, Laek, dogs, Quincy, Colonel, and Tater, the couple has been hard at work restoring the orchards to good health, cultivating the market garden and refurbishing an old building into a guesthouse for agro-tourism. While Spencer may still call himself a ‘novice,’ Punkin Center Farms will see its second season of sales this year, with a new CSA program beginning in June.
You’ve come home to roost in the Yakima Valley, what motivated the move?
Susan: My dad put a bug in my ear back in 2008 when we were living in Portland. I grew up on a small farm and my dad farmed his whole life and loved it. A job happened to open up in Yakima. I applied, and when I got the job we decided to move back and look for a piece of land.
Was it difficult to get the land up and running?
Spencer: The 30 acres of fruit orchards were here when we bought the land, but it was pretty run down. We’ve spent a lot of time working to bring things back to good health. The market garden didn’t exist until we removed some grapes. We put in a 30×70 greenhouse and away we went.
What is your biggest challenge owning and operating a new farm business?
Susan: The hardest part is learning how to manage our cash flow and cover expenses while staying in business at the same time. It was a rough couple of first years for sure, but with last’s year’s crop I think we turned the corner. We got really lucky because we were able to get into Northwest Farm Credit Services’ beginning farmer program. That program is the only reason we were able to get a loan to buy the farm. If it weren’t for that program, we definitely we wouldn’t be here. I’ve been really impressed with the program; they’ve helped us understand the budgeting process and we’re really thankful for that.
What do you do for soil maintenance?
Spencer: We’re applying compost. With the greens, I incorporate the residue, we try not to compact things too much, standard stuff. We’re going to be planting a lot of cover crops this spring and using some green manure so hopefully that will help too. We’re so new, were just learning all these things.
Susan: For example, pruning tomatoes last year was an epiphany for me – it was something new that I didn’t fully understand before, but to see the difference that pruning makes as a cultural practice was amazing. Little things like that are fun to learn.
What are you growing?
Susan: We have pears, cherries, prunes and apples in the orchard. In the market garden we are trying to do a little bit of everything. The asparagus should be good this year. We just have a small patch. I like it all – I like growing the greens because they are fast and good to eat and they are always around. I think we like eating all of it – it’s just amazing to me that we can grow all this great produce and that it tastes good too!
What about Laek? Does he have a favorite vegetable?
Susan: He’s the worst – he finally started eating broccoli this year.
You have the cutest little farm cabin that you rent out. Have you had many visitors?
Susan: It’s been good all around. We opened late last spring and we’ve already had quite a few people stay. It helps with our cash flow and it’s nice to have people come and show interest in what we are doing. I’m always surprised when people actually want to know what we’re up to.
Spencer: When I left the Yakima Valley in the eighties there were maybe a dozen wineries in the valley. Now there are a couple hundred, if not more. We really benefit from folks who come out here to tour the wineries.
What’s new for 2012?
Susan: We are launching our CSA business. The CSA concept is actually fairly new on this side of the mountains and we’re crossing our fingers that it takes off. The awareness of local food is growing and we’re trying to highlight the nutritional value of our produce. It’s been a challenge to find a way to fit in with our larger farm neighbors and show people that we can be viable as a small farm. Slowly but surely, family members and folks who shop at the farmers markets are convinced. We’ve been doing a lot of talking to people about our CSA and I think we are going to be successful.
What are your goals for the farm?
Susan: We’re trying to take a piece of land that has been farmed conventionally for as long as anybody can remember, and bring everything back to health. We’re giving everything the chance to breath. Within five years we aim for all of our production to be organic. And hopefully the CSA will grow.
Can you talk about one of your greatest successes as a farmer?
Susan: We grow some pretty good Brussels sprouts! (Laughs) The little things that are successful really surprise and delight us. Like, “Wow we grew really big carrots!” People come back to us week after week saying how great things are, and that tells us we are on the right track.
Any advice for new farmers?
Susan: Be persistent. If one door closes, you need to go and look for another, one that is open. Whether it is finding land or getting a loan, try not to let the negativity get to you. If you believe in what you are doing it’s going to be successful.
What motivated you to become a member of Tilth Producers?
Spencer: I found Tilth on the web. We became members to hook up with other farmers who had similar goals as us. We love the farm walks—we went to two or three last year!