The story of Whistling Train Farm and why mental health matters for farmers

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Whistling Train Farm in Kent has been operating a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for 20 years. Their CSA is a locally grown vegetable subscription service, filled with produce grown only on the farm. Over the years, Shelley Pasco-Verdi, who owns the farm, has upsized and downsized, done a lot of experimenting, and learned a lot about how to keep subscribers happy.

We interviewed Shelley to hear about her miraculous land-purchasing story, to better understand what Whistling Train Farms means to the local community, and to understand how a major stereotype about farmers has affected her.

This past year, Shelley purchased the land she’s been renting and funded this venture in a not-so-typical way. “We have been renting this property for 18 years and thought we’d be renting for many more,” said Shelley. “Suddenly, the landowners decided to sell the property and gave us 30 days to decide whether or not we wanted to purchase it.

“We got really serious about purchasing the land but did not think we would be able to make it happen. We had to come up with the down payment ($80,000) in 30 days, so I decided to create a GoFundMe page and see what would happen.

“What came next was a miracle! I closed my computer after creating our GoFundMe page, went to bed, and woke up the next morning and saw that we had raised $16,000. We couldn’t believe it. We were able to raise all of the money in 10 days. It was quite an unconventional way of buying land.”

This experience not only allowed Shelley to buy the land to keep serving her community but also made it clear that the community truly valued Whistling Train Farms.

“It really validated our work and what my family does for a living,” she said. “The people who raised the money for our operation were showing us how much we meant to them. We were filled with gratitude during every step of the process.

“We believed this fundraising effort was only possible because of Whistling Train Farm’s long history with the people who helped raise funds for the farm,” Shelley said. “I know everyone I sell produce to and believe that keeping our operation as people-oriented as possible makes both us and our community happier and healthier. We make a difference in their lives and they were able to make a huge difference in ours.”

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This experience was not only important for Shelley and her farm’s continued service to the community, but was also important for her personal life. She realized that she had been so focused on her farm’s success that she wasn’t able to take time for herself or her family.

“No one talks about the work-life balance for farmers. I think that’s because there really isn’t one, and I want to change that,” she said. “It’s taboo for farmers to spend time away from their operation, even if it’s just a weekend, let alone a week-long family vacation.

“Summer is overwhelming, and for mental health purposes I really needed to get off of the farm and spend time with my kids,” Shelley said. “During the summer, my kids are free and I’m very busy, and during the school year, my kids are busy and I’m not as busy. It’s been hard to spend time with my family and focus on our farming operation.

“It should be socially acceptable for farmers to go off and have just as many life experiences as full-time workers with ‘regular’ jobs,” she said. “I believe this is especially true for young farmers. Many of them give up every other aspect of their lives to farm and they shouldn’t have to. So many farmers are burnt out, and burning out is much more common if you’re not allowing yourself to spend time away from your operation to recharge.

“We, farmers, should think about our lives differently than what stereotypes say,” Shelley said. “Everyone else gets a vacation, what about us?”

Shelley has allowed herself to balance her life more equally so she can spend time with her family. She has downsized her farming operation but still plans to continue their CSA program, sell at the West Seattle farmers market, and start a farm stand.

“I’m really excited about starting a farm stand, and I’m excited about what the future holds for Whistling Train Farms,” she said.

All pictures are courtesy of Whistling Train Farms.

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