Learn to be a farmer at Whidbey Island’s Organic Farm School

Oct 8, 2020, 5:33 PM | Updated: Oct 13, 2020, 11:07 am
Farm school...
Organic Farm School student Josh Christopher aspires to own his own pig farm someday. (Photo by Rachel Belle)
(Photo by Rachel Belle)

On Whidbey Island, there is a school that teaches people how to become farmers. The Organic Farm School is a working farm that attracts students from all over the country who want to own their own farms, or make their living working on one.

Over the course of about six months, students spend five or six days a week, eight to 10 hours a day, learning everything they can about how to run a farm. It’s a serious program, not designed for backyard gardeners or hobbyists. They cover the economics:

“That’s definitely the biggest reason I came to this program,” said student Halle Salisbury. “The emphasis on personal business planning. I have no clue where to even begin even though I have the farm experience.”

They learn about the science of soil, how to grow crops and care for animals.

Organic Farm School’s executive director, Judy Feldman, says programs like theirs are essential.

“The average American farmer is 58 years old and there aren’t a lot of them,” Feldman said, as we walked by fields of corn. “Their access to land means that they typically have smaller farms rather than the bigger farms. So you can start to imagine that the amount of food that we can generate in this country is going to shift a bit.”

In a stroke of good timing, Edmonds’ Josh Christopher quit his job to start farm school just days before the pandemic shutdown.

“I’ve been a personal trainer for about 18 years and I’ve always wondered where I was going to get food that is ethical and treated right,” Christopher said.”So I started looking into raising my own food. I came over, took a tour, fell in love with it, and immediately tried to sign up.”

Christopher’s dream is to raise pigs, and he stood inside a pig pen, cooing and scratching their dusty, bristly backs as the pigs snorted with contentment. His classmate, Salisbury, hopes to run a vegetable farm someday.

“I was a student at the University of Georgia in landscape architecture and I loved it,” she said. “But I felt sort of detached from those landscapes that I was creating and I was really craving getting my hands in the dirt. So I started farming part-time and I just fell in love with it. The work and the harvesting; seeing the literal fruits of your labor is so different from being in the studio slaving away over a computer for something that might be realized in three years time, versus putting a seed in the ground and harvesting it a month later.”

One thing I noticed about everyone I met on the farm: They all seemed very happy. Farm manager Peyton Cypress went through the program in 2017. He got into farming for the mental and physical health benefits.

“I have not said ‘I am bored’ in the last five years. Not one time,” said Cypress. “That is one of the most rewarding things. When you start farming, you start cooking, and it just goes hand and hand. Food takes up a large part of my day.”

This story might be painting an unrealistically romantic, rosy picture of farming, but everyone involved knows it’s long hours of backbreaking work and there are many risks. Instructor Eli Wheat knows, he grew up on a farm.

“In upstate New York, it was an old, derelict dairy farm,” Wheat said. “While I was growing up, all my friends parents were dairy farmers and now none of those farms are still actively growing food. So I definitely grew up with the narrative of: if you can imagine doing anything else other than farming, that’s what you should do because you shouldn’t stay and take over the family farm. There was no future in farming. Which is kind of funny because there are more people on Earth than there ever has been before and everyone eats.”

But Wheat couldn’t stay away. A true rebel, after graduating from the University of Washington, he worked on an oyster farm, helped the UW start its student farm and eventually moved to Whidbey Island to buy a farm of his own.

“Telling my parents that I was a queer person was difficult, but the coming out process of being a farmer, of going home and telling my folks, ‘Actually, I finished my PhD and what I’m going to do is be a farmer’ was probably as hard if not harder,” Wheat said.

The food the students grow at Organic Farm School is sold at some of Whidbey Island’s supermarkets and farmers markets, they offer a weekly CSA program and they have given thousands of pounds of produce to local food banks.

“What makes us a little different from some of the other training programs is we do seriously, seriously believe that the community has a role here,” Feldman said. “That’s why I do tours. Anyone who wants a tour of the farm school, you just email me and we’ll find a time. Because it’s over food that we have some of the most meaningful conversations.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

  • listen to rachel belleTune in to KIRO Newsradio on weekdays to hear Rachel Belle.
Who is Rachel Belle?

Your Last Meal

Rachel Belle

The original Ezell's Famous Chicken in Seattle (Photo courtesy of Ezell's)...
Rachel Belle

Ezell’s Famous Chicken co-founders created a Seattle conference to lift up Black entrepreneurs

When Ezell's gave out grants to Black-owned business owners, they found that people needed information and guidance just as much as they needed capital. 
11 hours ago
(Jesús Boscán/Unsplash)...
Rachel Belle

At MoPOP’s Drag-tastic Summer Camp, teens learn the ‘Art of Drag’

Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture invites teenagers to learn the art of makeup, wigs and performance at its weeklong Drag Camp. 
5 days ago
Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash...
Rachel Belle

Winemakers lost billions to wildfires, but a startup can now save smoky grapes

A startup developed a process to naturally and organically clean grapes tainted by wildfire smoke.
26 days ago
Courtney Hirschi bought a new home so she could move her Grandpa Bob in (Photo courtesy of Courtney...
Rachel Belle

More Americans are caretaking an aging relative because of the pandemic

When the pandemic hit, and nursing homes became unsatisfactory places for the elderly to live, many families decided to move their relative home. 
29 days ago
The Love Wins cocktail from Kamp features a non-alcoholic spirit and frothy egg white (Photo courte...
Rachel Belle

In Seattle, a new bar for the ‘sober curious’ and the dry wedding trend

Kamp, a bar and restaurant set to open in Seattle by the end of July, has a large cocktail menu made with non-alcoholic spirits, plus non-alcoholic beer and wines. 
1 month ago
(Photo by Markus Winkler/ Unsplash)...
Rachel Belle

As people return to the office, pet surrenders have increased, are these related?

Nationally, shelters are being overwhelmed with surrenders, which has caused the euthanasia rate to rise for the first time in five years. 
1 month ago

Sponsored Articles

Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]

Compassion International Is Determined to ‘Fill’ a Unique Type of Football ‘Stadium’

Compassion International SPONSORED — During this fall’s football season—and as the pandemic continues to impact the entire globe—one organization has been urging caring individuals to help it “fill” a unique type of “stadium” in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of many. Compassion International’s distinctive Fill the Stadium (FtS, fillthestadium.com) initiative provides […]

What are the Strongest, Greenest, Best Windows?

Lake Washington Windows & Doors SPONSORED — Fiberglass windows are an excellent choice for window replacement due to their fundamental strength and durability. There is no other type of window that lasts as long as fiberglass; so why go with anything else? Fiberglass windows are 8x stronger than vinyl, lower maintenance than wood, more thermally […]
Learn to be a farmer at Whidbey Island’s Organic Farm School