2015 25.3 Member Spotlight: Anne Schwartz, Blue Heron Farm

Tilth Producers speaks with member Anne Schwartz, who has been at the forefront of organic agriculture  and the Tilth movement for nearly 40 years. As an indisputable leader within the organization and the industry,  Anne was recently honored with a Tilth Producers Lifetime Achievement Award.

Policy Coordinator Ariana Taylor-Stanley catches up with Tilth Producer member Anne Schwartz of Blue Heron Farm in Skagit County.

TILTH PRODUCERS ( Q ): What first drew you to farming?
ANNE SCHWARTZ:  I went to Washington State University  to study veterinary medicine, but that was in the mid 70s when not many women were accepted into vet school. After several attempts, I wasn’t accepted. Opportunities in Extension also appealed to me and I considered pursuing a Master’s degree, but I felt it was important to work on a farm first.

I had studied dairy science at WSU, so I came back to the Skagit Valley and got a job on a dairy in Sedro-Woolley. The year I spent working at that dairy farm was the first time in my life that I went to a job every day and loved it. I started realizing that there was no limit to what there was to learn and that really intrigued me.

When I left the dairy, I worked at Cascadian Farm in eastern Skagit Valley for almost 12 years. At the same time a friend of mine purchased a farm and she and I started farming together. After a  couple of years, we figured out that we weren’t making enough money to pay for the land, her college debt, and wages, so she decided to go back to college, and I bought her out and have been farming on that land ever since.

Q: What do you grow and how?
ANNE: I grow arugula to zucchini: a wide variety of mixed vegetables and herbs. Lots of greens, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, several kinds of beans, winter squash, and Asian greens. I’m pretty well known for carrots—our soil produces magnificent carrots. I also have an acre of blueberries and a few rows of raspberries, with some U-Pick on both of those. Some fruit trees as well. For thirty years I sold at farmers markets; this will be my fifth season not selling at them. I focus now on selling to the Skagit Food Coop and to the residential dining hall at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. I’ve also had a small CSA for a number of years, generally between 30 and 40 families.

Q: How did you learn organic practices when they were not the norm?
ANNE: From other farmers that I was meeting at Tilth, and from books. In the 70s, we had the foundation books by Aldo Leopold, Sir Albert Howard, and Lady Eve Balfour. You could still get some older publications from land grant universities that were relevant to organic farming. I found a tremendous amount of still-available literature talking about using alternative methods for things like  weed control (like geese) and managing insects. Gene Kahn, the  founder of Cascadian Farm, was a careful collector of old age books, and that rubbed off on me.

My first year at Cascadian Farm, I raised hundreds of geese to help  with weeding. I worked with a wonderful poultryman who had a hatchery about an hour to the south, and had worked with geese  for over 40 years before the development of many herbicides. I  learned a lot from this man and we used geese on Cascadian Farm and on Blue Heron Farm for many years on a number of crops.

Q: You don’t raise livestock now—did you make a conscious  decision at some point to change direction or did it just happen organically?
ANNE: It was fairly conscious. My husband is not a livestock person. I have a lot of critters as it is, and he didn’t want to be responsible for commercial herds of anything. I was going to so many meetings that it was enough for me to ask him to take care of all of our homestead critters without being responsible for taking  care of commercial flocks.

Q: How have you balanced running a farm business with shaping policy?
ANNE: I have a very supportive partner. And I’ve given up a lot of my social life. Over the years it’s fair to say that the farm has occasionally suffered. I do innovative things on the farm, but being overextended let me get stuck doing things that weren’t the most profitable or productive. However, for me, being a commercial farmer has been an important piece of my legitimate standing in  the various arenas that I serve.

Q: How did you get involved in advocacy?
ANNE:  I have been interested in food and agricultural issues since I was in college, but my activism started before I came to Washington. I protested the Vietnam War, I marched for civil  rights in the 70s, I marched in Washington, DC on the first Earth  Day. I was already engaged in many important issues of that era.

Going to school in Pullman was a really profound experience for me. That part of me that was always questioning why we were doing things got turned on to food. I was very concerned with where our food system was headed. Going to industrial hog and poultry operations horrified me—I wanted to see livestock  outside, on the grass. I think that our most sustainable agriculture is grass-based livestock.

As I really started understanding the kind of pesticides and the load that was being put on the soil and water to grow food in our  modern industrial way, I became more convinced that we needed to create a new pathway for biologically-based agriculture. As I realized that so much of the planet had already been abused by cultivating and topsoil loss and the wrong way to use water, I felt very driven to continue to work with my alma mater and try to effect change at Washington State University.

Q: How did you first connect to Tilth Producers?
ANNE: Gene Kahn was an integral part of Tilth Producers, meeting to develop organic standards with a number of growers around the state. I went to my first Tilth meeting with him in the  fall of 1979 and I was hooked, and I kept going to meetings for the next 35 years.

Going to Tilth meetings, I met people who thought like I did. Who were as committed and passionate about trying to grow  food without poison, and trying to leave the land better than you found it, and trying to rebuild communities.

Q:  What policy issues do you see as a high priority?
ANNE: Several issues are important to me:

  • Getting livestock out of confinement and onto pasture-based systems,
  • Developing alternative management tools to reduce the use of poisons in agriculture, and
  • Investing resources into revitalizing rural communities affected by the changing structure of agriculture.

Organics is really important because that’s where my people are. One of the reasons I stepped off the Tilth board is to focus the rest of my advocacy lifetime into these deeper issues that have always driven me.

I want to find the science that shows how to stop externalizing so many costs of production. I want to  keep pushing for a new vision of agriculture, one that creates opportunities for  local farms, promotes raising livestock in harmony with their environment, and continues to research biological pest control strategies.

Ariana Taylor-Stanley is Policy Coordinator for Tilth Producers of Washington and also farms with City Grown Seattle. [email protected]

“As a farmer and agriculture policy advocate, I have a role model
in the Tilth Producers community. When I need inspiration to face
yet another organizing conference call in the middle of a busy harvest day or when I have a difficult conversation with a legislative staffer about a change in an important farm policy, I think of Anne Schwartz.
“Anne, who farms ‘arugula to zucchini’ on 40 acres by the Skagit River, is a pioneer of the organic movement who for more than 35 years has grown policy change alongside her vegetables. Anne’s advocacy is responsible for many things I take for granted: the WSDA Organic Program, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and Small Farms Program, USDA’s organic livestock standards.
“For these accomplishments and beyond, and for the decades of energy she has dedicated to building Tilth Producers of Washington,Tilth recently presented Anne with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I have the amazing good fortune to call her my mentor, and I was further honored to capture some of her legacy in an interview this June about her lifetime’s work, condensed on these pages.”
— Ariana Taylor-Stanley
Read the full interview here.


Tags: Anne Schwartz, Blue Heron Farm, Interview, Lifetime Achievement, Member Spotlight