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Hedlin’s: All in the family

Jun 1st, 2012 | By | Category: Community, Farms

by Jessamyn Tuttle

It all started in 1906 when Rasmus Koudal, a cobbler from Denmark, came to La Conner to start a farm. He arrived by way of the Dakotas, says his great-granddaughter Lauren Hedlin, “but we’re glad he didn’t stay there.” He bought land, started farming and gradually added onto his parcel as he could afford it, raising dairy, chickens, wheat, and seed crops, particularly beet, cabbage and spinach. Hedlin Family Farms now covers 500 acres of prime Skagit delta farmland, with 200 acres farmed organically and 300 conventionally.

Kai Otteson and Lauren Hedlin in one of the farm’s greenhouses. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

The farm is run by third generation owner Dave Hedlin and his wife Serena Campbell. Their daughter Lauren works on the farm full-time, as does their nephew Kai Ottesen. Lauren gives riding lessons on the side, and Kai has another business raising hogs. Mary Hedlin, Dave’s sister, is in charge of the cut flowers and dahlia tubers.

Despite the strong family core of the business, Dave requires each family member to get a four-year degree and spend two years working elsewhere before they can make the decision to come back to the family farm. Dedication and a strong sense of stewardship are the most important requirements for those who choose to farm, he says.

Like many farms in the Skagit Valley, Hedlin works on contract with large seed companies, but that’s far from being all they do. “We’re broadly diversified – we do that on purpose. Seed crops are good money but they’re touchy,” says Dave. In addition to market produce for their CSA, farmstand and farmer’s market booths, they also grow winter wheat and barley, and do wheat trials for the WSU extension. Silage and green chop are grown in rotation with other crops, and they trade green chop to their neighbor, dairyman Alan Messman, in return for manure to spread on their fields.

And then there are the greenhouses. The first was built in the 1950s for Lauren’s grandmother’s bedding plant business. By now, there are 13 greenhouses, with 10,000 square feet just for tomatoes. In a region where most people don’t have ripe tomatoes until August, this makes Hedlin very popular indeed. “You get used to good tomatoes,” says Lauren. They also grow cucumbers, eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, plus starts for all of their other crops. The greenhouse vegetables are grown organically, with cedar on the ground to keep weeds down and beneficial insects for pest control. The greenhouses are also used to start up to 6 million seed crop transplants for other farms in the area.

The Hedlins value their local markets highly, says Lauren. “Even if it doesn’t make money hand over fist, it’s steady money” throughout the year. They supply about a dozen restaurants, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), local co-ops, and six farmer’s markets per week during the season, and this year they shipped vegetables to the Skagit and Bellingham co-ops all winter. They have stands at a number of markets in the Bellevue area, but Mount Vernon is their favorite farmer’s market.

The farmstand, located right by the La Conner roundabout, is a popular stop for locals. “When I was five we had a fruit stand,” says Lauren. “There were strawberries and sweet corn; that was it.” Then they introduced tomatoes, then dahlias, then gradually added a full selection of produce throughout the season, plus plant starts and cut flowers.

They also have carefully chosen local products like Breadfarm bread, Samish Bay cheese, and Well Fed Farm eggs. “We try to sell who we are,” says Lauren, finding products that reflect their belief in quality and local connection. Because the farm property is near town, customers at the farmstand often comment on the progress of the crops or Kai’s pigs. “People like to see what’s happening.”

Their CSA program has also proved successful, with about 150 subscribers.  “One of the biggest benefits of the CSA is education. We build the customer base,” says Dave. As customers get used to having an abundance of fresh vegetables around, they begin to demand that quality all the time. “There’s just no downside to people eating local vegetables,” he says.

The bulk of the CSA produce is grown at Hedlin, but to make sure of a good selection they will occasionally supplement with produce from elsewhere, such as leeks from Ralph’s Greenhouse or rhubarb from Living Rain. Fruit is included in every box.

“In berry season, that’s all us,” says Lauren, but they have an arrangement with orchardists in the Wenatchee Valley who supply weekly fresh fruit for the remainder of the season.

Stewardship is a strong link for the Hedlin family, says Dave, who was a founding member of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and has been on the board for 22 years. The farm also works with the Nature Conservancy on ways to maintain shorebird habitat within the parameters of profitable farming.

Dave emphasizes the benefits of farming here in the “Magic Skagit.” Because the soil and conditions are so ideal for agriculture, “there are 80 crops of commercial significance grown here. Major amounts of vegetable seed produced here for the world. If you eat kimchi in Korea or coleslaw in New York, there’s a 50/50 chance the seed for that cabbage was grown here,” he says. “It’s a real privilege to farm here.”

Hedlin Family Farm can be reached at (360) 466-3977 or visit hedlinfarms.com/.

Published in the June 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine

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