By now you should know pretty reliably that when the blog goes quiet for this long, either I’m having a really boring, uneventful time, or life has gotten unusually crazy. Right? And (yes, I already hear you snickering), you also know that I seem to be constitutionally incapable of having a boring uneventful time.
So let me tell you about this story I’ve been working on. Here’s the premise: a suburban Silicon Valley family who knows nothing about, say, agriculture, finds that they have, through a series of individually plausible garden-path steps, purchased a 77 acre farm up in the Pacific Northwest. Hilarity ensues.
So, yeah. We did that thing. This is probably not all that much of a surprise for folks who’ve chatted with us over the past six months or so. We’ve been visiting Port Townsend for a couple of years now, and it wasn’t all that long before we started thinking “Hey, wouldn’t it be great to find a little cottage out on the bluffs that we could use as a family retreat up here?”
We got into the habit of meeting with our real estate agent/friend John every time we visited, spending a day or so of our visits tromping around and looking at houses and lots that seemed to match what we thought we were looking for. It was a lovely excuse to explore the peninsula and spend time with John and his family.
When John forwarded the listing for the Swanson Farm last fall, he said something like “I know this isn’t what you’re looking for, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know it was on the market.” There was no point in even looking at it. It was a farm, for Bob’s sake. We weren’t looking for a farm. We were looking for a little hideaway overlooking the water.
Besides, everything we knew about farms we’d learned from folksongs, and none of it was good. Farms took long, long hours of backbreaking work. They sucked your life savings dry. They ruined your health, your relationships and your faith in justice. And then they still failed. I mean, think about it: are there any folksongs where the farm doesn’t fail and people don’t either die right off or live out the rest of their lives as crushed, hollow shells of their former selves? I recognize that people sometimes do stupid, romantic, idealistic things based on folksongs, but those are folksongs where good things happen. But a farm? There’s not even any humor left in asking the rhetorical question of “What’s the worst that could happen?”
And yet. And yet.
And yet from the first moment that we walked down that broken fencepost road and looked out on its gently rolling hills, it…just spoke to us.
We immediately started referring to it as the “Terrible Idea Farm” because, after all, it was a terrible idea. We shouldn’t even be thinking about buying that much land. Not to mention a barn in need of a lot of work and a house that was so far beyond help that not even Sarah Palin could have seen it from her backyard.
But on subsequent trips, we kept coming back to it. Kept wandering the overgrown lane that led out to the western pastures. Kept going down to the pond. Kept watching the hummingbirds that buzzed around the old creamery building, and the hawks that hunted for field mice under the old willow.
And we started having conversations with folks around town. With Sarah and Owen at the Land Trust, and Craig at the Conservation District. With half the city planning board. With Susan and John and Karen and probably most the organic farmers on the Quimper peninsula. With Kees, the ecovillage developer and former mayor. The State Water Board. The Economic Development Council. An architect. A bunch of folksingers, just for balance. And we just kept talking to people and kept going back and looking at that Terrible, Terrible Idea that we just couldn’t walk away from.
Most people know the Terrible Idea Farm as the “Swanson Farm,” because, well, it belonged to the Swanson family (who probably didn’t think it was all that terrible an idea). Mr. Swanson ran cattle on it until he passed away a decade or so ago, and his wife remained there under the care of her neighboring daughter and son-in-law until last year. But her will specified that the farm be sold and the proceeds divided up among their three children, so there it was, on the open market.
I accidentally found myself chatting with the daughter early on in the falling-in-love-with-the-land process. It was an accidental contact – she and her husband are very private people, and conventions of the real estate industry have evolved to erect an impenetrable barrier between buyer and seller, if only to ensure that their respective agents have absolute control over any information passing between the two.
So this was an accidental contact. But once we started talking about the history of the land, and what it was like for her growing up there, I guess I was sunk. I fell even more in love with the idea of it, with the idea of this deep sense place, and with the idea of preserving and being a part of it. One thing led to another and well, here we are.
Anyhow, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. I’ll try to head things off by confessing that the answer to most of them is “We have no idea.” But here, at least, is a start:
Where is this place?
Street address is 3057 7th St, Port Townsend WA 98368. Map here: https://goo.gl/maps/3icmq9Dmceq – it’s that big open rectangle right on the edge of town (the property is actually half in Port Townsend and half in unincorporated Jefferson County, further accentuating the hilarity of dealing with regulatory agencies).
What are you going to do with all that land?
We have very little idea. But we’re committed to keeping it as open land that provides benefit to the community and respects its history as a family farm. Long term, we’re hoping to put together some sort of plan that provides low-cost land leases to young farmers in the area who are trying to get started. We’re also hoping to work in some sort of educational component. Maybe some day it will be something like Ardenwood Farm that we have down here in the Bay Area. Maybe not. We’re still figuring this out.
Are you moving up there?
No. At least not for a while. We’re committed to being in the Bay Area for at least a few years yet. Besides, for now there’s really not even an actual place to move to (see below about “Can we come stay with you?”). Longer term, we don’t know. We’re still looking at this mostly as a family/friends retreat. To that end, we’re working pretty hard at enlisting local folks who actually understand farms and the Port Townsend community to provide us the on-the-ground help we’ll need getting things up and running.
Can we come stay with you?
Heh. You know those five-page home inspection forms with a box where the inspector puts in a little check mark if something is okay, and an “X” if it isn’t? The report was hilarious. A decade plus of deferred maintenance in a climate like this… In short, everything that could be wrong was. Plumbing in imminent danger of bursting, electrical ready to set the place on fire at every flip of the switch, foundation literally teetering on a haphazard collection of oddly-shaped rocks pushed under the posts. The roof, the joists, the antique septic system…. We’d started calling it The Danger House on our first visit; it wasn’t until we got the inspection report that we realized how close to the mark we’d hit (anyone else remember The Hereafter Hilton, from Omni Magazine way back when?)
But we expect that once the Danger House has been dealt with – honestly, with a flick of the lights, the whole thing might just take care of itself – we’ll eventually have a small, comfortable and non-lethal place to stay out there. And when we do, we’d be delighted to host you.
Pictures! We want pictures!
That’s not a question. But here you go:
This place is lovely!! Looks like a really fun project. Can’t wait to hear all the details as it progresses.
Totally beautiful land and endless possibities. Hope u get the farm and a dog for Jeremy. There will be a dogsitter someplace in that area if you are traveling!
Yay! Yay! It will provide you with food 4 endless articles and stroke your soul. You deserve a farm as does the family!
Love Always, Mel
Pablo- good move. Love that country. But you didn’t mention the most important thing – it looks big enough for an airstrip.
It’s definitely a terrible idea. Can we come and stay with you? We can bring chop saws, demo saws, circular saws, hand saws, tenon saws, jig saws, coping saws, hacksaws, and pruning saws. And a dog…. But we’ll take her back with us when we go 😀
Hmmm – I’m liking this idea…
Runway length? Jay
There’s certainly enough land to put in a 2400′ runway. But 0S9 is just five miles away, with 3000′ of new asphalt, fuel, an antique airplane collection and a killer airport diner. No need to replicate…
It is beautiful! I can see why you were drawn to it, what a lucky farm and equally lucky family! I am so excited and cannot wait to read your farm tidbits! Living on some little patch of land with chickens, ducks, pigs and fainting goats is my dream…I will be living vicariously through you going forward.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A friend of mine in Howell NJ did a similar thing !!
From Cisco to farmer. Springstone Farm is growing daily. Willing to share his info with you . I am a Friend of Alice (Seattle)
Best o’ the best to you and yours ,
Thanks! And yes, please – send me email?
Congratulations, and (as a fellow farm owner) Condolences. :-) The place is absolutely beautiful, and being 5 miles from that airport is truly awesome.
If you start to get into the great battle with invasive plant species, let me know. We are into it hot and heavy in central Vermont!
Oh yeah, the couple of acres in the northeast corner have got Scotch Broom aplenty. And those wetlands over in the western triangle, well, they’re gonna need an intervention…
Washington seems to be a bit more up on things than Vermont, some of the research I have been using comes from U WA. Also Guelph and U Penn. I have testified in front of the VT House and Senate agriculture committees and they have been cooperative, but when the tough invasions happen there is coordination needed between different regulatory authorities, and in Vermont that is currently missing, as are the $ needed to fund research. At our place, invasive wild Chervil has completely destroyed the native ferns and some of the other natives along the riverfront, and destroyed some of the best low-lying hayfields in the area. (My schooling and career are now being used for this and the economics of rural broadband – go figure :-)
Maybe it’s a federal problem…?
Congrats and welcome to the Northwest! It would be great to come over and see the place. I am in Snohomish now and just a ferry hop away.
Absolutely! My guess is that there won’t be any real habitable spaces until next year, but there’s plenty of lovely land to tromp about on.
Mazel – all around! And so it begins (again!)… Lk fwd to the adventure.
So incredibly excited for you guys!!! And it occurs to me that this means … More stories!!!! It looks fabulous, would love to visit, and wish you guys all the best!!
Thanks! Yeah, I’ve caught myself confessing to friends that I often find myself making decisions that will not necessarily result in the most favorable outcome, but rather in the most interesting story. I think we may have done it again… :)
Wow David, that is quite a massive project you are taking on! I and my family passed through Port Townsend by way of the Victoria ferry at the beginning of April, and I fell in love with the lushness of the temperate rain forest and how it blankets the Olympic Mountains. Keeping a working farm is always a daunting prospect, but that is certainly a beautiful piece of land. Good luck on your endeavor!
The country girl in me says how wonderful that you have fallen in love with this beautiful piece of land and it’s history, your family will thrive there and so will the community. 0S9 sounds like a great little country airport, love those!
If you ever become overwhelmed, keep the big picture dream for the farm in the forefront!
Super excited for you all, we might have to come visit! We’re good workers, with a little experience to boot and know all about “danger houses”.
Great visiting with you at Moffett Field!
I would love to come up for a ‘help you work on it’ retreat.
Absolutely – thanks!
Pingback: An unreasonable idea | David Pablo Cohn·
Pingback: An Unreasonable Idea | The Swanson Farm @ Natembea·
Howdy! A friend shared this site with me, what a blast! My family lives in Port Townsend and feel so much gratitude for the abundance of great food, amazing folks, and a high level of consciousness around sustainability and community. We have several neighboring friends of your horrible, terrible, awe-full idea, and would love to visit with you and your family when you come back to the “country”! Though Port Townsend is a slow, casual pace, it never ceases to amaze me at how the odds are so very low to meet unfriendly, uninteresting, untalented,un-etc….., per capita! Enjoyed your writing, and style of, and look forward to reading more or your work! With kind regards, Kate
Pingback: It’s a Book! It’s a Book! | David Pablo Cohn·
Wow, so you bought the Swanson place! You might not remember me, but I’m the person who almost bought the Palindrome. I ended up buying a lovely property on Old Eaglemount Road. Let me know if you need any help out there. I know owning property can be quite the adventure… Best to have some locals on your side. 😉 ~Jessica
Wonderful to hear from you, Jessica! Would love to meet up and show you the crazy adventure we’ve gotten ourselves into, and hear about how your own adventure has gone. I’m out of town for the next month – mostly on a boat off the coast of Chile starting in a couple of weeks – but let’s plan to meet up when I return? (BTW: I started a site for the farm over at http://natembea.com/blog)