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Sumas River Farm: From school teacher to farmer

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

by Jessica Harbert

Farmer Helen Solem runs Sumas River Farm, a small farm tucked off the road on the bank of the Sumas River in north Whatcom County.

The barn at Sumas River Farm was built in 1934 and is listed on the Washington Heritage Barn Register. Out front, owner Helen Solem’s grandfather’s antique wheel hoe stands by the door. PHOTOS BY JESSICA HARBERT

She grows roughly three-quarters of an acre, producing parsnips, onions, beans, zucchini, winter and summer squash, tomatoes, berries, carrots, lettuce, arugula, flowers and potatoes, among others.

“I don’t have a lot of space so I try to have lots of specialties,” Solem said. She is working on growing more heirloom and rare varietals, such as purple haze carrots and violet jasper tomatoes.

The crops grown are often chosen for someone specific, such as parsnips for Solem’s mother, and also chosen based on the vibrant colors of the plant. As the farm gains a more solid customer base, Solem said she is beginning to factor in what to grow based on what she thinks will sell at the markets.

Sumas River Farm is at the Bellingham Farmers Market, running on Saturdays through December, and at the Fairhaven Farmers Market on Wednesdays, through the end of September.

The farm is USDA-certified organic, using only sun, water and good soil to grow. Solem has worked with local restaurants in Bellingham including Ciao Thyme, Semiahmoo Resort, El Nopal in Sumas, The Fork at Agate Bay and plans on working with the newly-opened Café Rumba.

The farm offers a small CSA (community supported agriculture) with only 12 shares, Solem said. The farm was approved for the Community Food Co-op Farm Fund loan in 2009, which  gave Solem the financial ability to build the first greenhouse on the farm.

“It was the kick in the pants that got me started,” Solem said.

Last year, the farm was granted money from the US Farm Services Agency to grow a wildlife native plant habitat on the south end of the farm. The recently-planted area will grow and be preserved by Solem and provide resources for holistic farming, protecting the farm from South winds, and helping pollinators and continuing native species.

The barn at the farm is on the Washington Heritage Barn Register and was built in 1934 by Ben Knight. The house at the farm was built in 1888.

With a new focus on heirloom seeds, Solem is growing a rare strand of heirloom strawberries, the Marshall strawberry. It is a West Coast berry that is only grown on Bainbridge Island and in Sacramento. Solem traveled to get the berry, which used to be the primary strawberry grown on the West Coast but became a rare varietal after it was wiped out in the 1940s.

She grows 28 varieties of potatoes, mostly heirlooms varying in color including all blue, all red and purple majestic.

In 2006, the farm began with the original garden of six or seven rows. Now the farm has expanded to have two greenhouses, the second one built last spring. The greenhouses are essential to the business, as Solem is continually working with the weather and the risks it poses to the crops, she said, hoping to extend the season this year and grow into winter.

“The risks of farming are great, abundant, unknown and sudden,” Solem said.

Growing up in Lynden, Solem has lived all over, including Alaska and Central America, but always finds herself coming back.

“This is where my family is,” Solem said, “and it’s green.”

Her grandfather was a farmer, and she uses an antique wheel hoe in her garden that is 100 years old.

Farming is Solem’s retirement job, she said, noting her 38 years of working as a school teacher. Although it seems far from retirement, Solem said she admits it is a big project but she loves farming and the lifestyle it pushes and the community it creates.

“I walk out of my house and eat on the run,” Solem said, grabbing a few golden raspberries off the plant as she cruises by the greenhouse.

“I am building a clientele at the market,” Solem said. “It’s really nice to meet the people and sell the product… Farmers markets give people a connection to the earth.”

For more information, visit helenssumasriverfarm.com/

Published in the September 2012 issue of Grow Northwest

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