2012 22.3 Meet your Fellow Tilth Producer

Tilth Quarterly Editor Cathleen McCluskey chats with John Steward of Maple Rock Farm

Maple Rock Farm is beginning its 12th season on Orcas Island. Farm owner John Steward invited me to the farm-house for breakfast and heartfilled confabulations about his drive to meet the year-round demand for local food in his community, challenges to farming on an island, and the future farmers.

You’re creative with marketing – retailing to local restaurants, on-farm plant sales, CSAs, weekly Saturday market, and off-season retail space. Do you feel there is even more demand for product from the community?
In my opinion the demand for local food production is not being met on Orcas – we could definitely grow more. Community awareness around food production on the island has really increased in the last ten years. Having a retail space over the winter helped us keep our name out there and keep a staff member on year-round. People loved that we brought stuff to town in the off-season. I don’t mean to sound silly, but if we grow it, they will come. For years we’ve been working at keeping food production going all year round. A lot of it is weather dependent and how we do with our winter crops. I feel like we do a pretty good job and there is always room for improvement.

What are your next goals for Maple Rock Farm?
Be the best that we can and grow more food for our community. The biggest thing happening is that we’ve had all of these satellite sites around the island and we moved to a new permanent space that has room for us to expand. We’re phasing out of the smaller spots and moving into the new space.

You’re farming on a rock! How is the soil and what kind of care do you give it?
The soil quality has probably been the biggest challenge to farming here. The soils here aren’t quite as good here as they are in the Skagit, of course. You know, I’ve always been a gardener – ever since I was a little kid. But really, I didn’t know much about farming until I just started doing it 12 years ago here on Orcas. And really, it didn’t take long to figure out that this is not the most ideal farmland. Here on Maple Rock Farm home property, it’s been an un-ending process of bringing in compost, and manure, cover cropping, and adding organic perfect blend fertilizer. In the new location that we’re phasing into, we’re still in the process of building the soil. We amended with rock phosphate, compost, and fertilizer. Now we’re taking a step back, letting that settle in, and will analyze the soil again.

Is water access an issue for you?
Here on the island, we make do with what we have. My motto is – make it work and don’t mess it up. The islands are water challenged, so most everything is on drip irrigation. I prefer the drip irrigation method because it’s so much more efficient. I think the staggering water consumption of ancient reservoirs and ground water reserves is a big issue that we need to look at.

I hear the farm is getting involved with the Washington Young Farmers Coalition.
I think it’s great anytime young people want to get into farming. Washington Young Farmers Coalition came out and had a crop mob in early April and we have two people on staff involved with the organization. I feel that someone like me really fits into what they are doing because I can help young farmers by showing them what I’ve learned. I think the coalition is taking a great step in the right direction and I admire it and want to be a part of it.

What advice do you have for beginning farmers?
Don’t do it! * hearty laughter * No, I’m kidding. Only one piece – seriously, one?! I guess, be flexible and go with the flow, because it’s different every day – something is going to come at you every day that forces you to sidestep your plan of what you thought you were going to be doing. You’re going to have good days and bad days and you just have to go with it.

Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
I like the quarterly and the farm walks. I also like the feeling of camaraderie that being a member gives me. I remember the first time I went to a Tilth Conference – I realized I wasn’t alone in the way that I thought and that there are other like-minded crazy people out there too. Last year I sent one of my staff members to the conference because I felt like it would be a good investment to make for the farm. He came back smarter – it was great.

For more information or to contact Maple Rock Farm, visit http://www.maplerockfarm.com/

Tags: Irrigation, Local Food, Member of the Month, Orcas Island, Soil, Soil Analysis, Washington Young Farmers Coalition