Sweet Harvest Farm is a small vegetable farm located a mile outside Carnation, Washington that uses sustainable growing practices aimed at providing produce with the best taste and nutrition possible. The Local Food team spoke with Margaret Hindle, owner of Sweet Harvest, to hear about her small-scale farming operation, the challenges to small-scale farming, and how she has connected her passion for growing food to her other passions.
How have you been operating and managing your small-scale farm in King County? Do you have any plans to expand your operation?
“I currently farm one acre of land, where I cover crop approximately half and grow mixed vegetables on the other half,” said Hindle. “I do not have any intention to expand my operation. I may only farm one acre, but I’m still under utilizing this acre.
“I think I can grow much better on this acre as I continue to increase soil fertility. I would rather focus on improving the land rather than add more acreage to my operation. There are plenty of opportunities to grow more produce on the land I already have.”
Hindle makes the economics work on a small-scale farm by focusing on increasing her yields and taking advantage of the wide variety of tools on the market right now.
“Every year, new and improved farming equipment is released for small-scale farmers that do not use tractors and large-scale equipment,” said Hindle. “This equipment helps people like me who own and operate very small plots of land. With specialized equipment, I can lay down six rows of arugula in intensive spaces, which quickly increases my yields.
“However, to increase yields at all, the soil has to have a certain tilth to use it properly.
“I use compost to increase the quality of the produce. Compost is expensive, so I use it for my hoop houses and certain heavy feeding crops.”
What are your current marketing channels?
“I sell through a direct email list and hope to explore and expand this avenue in the future,” said Hindle. “With this option, I can start selling my produce before the farmers markets open for the summer season and continue selling after they end.
“At this point, I don’t open my email list to everyone as it is growing through my customers referrals,” said Hindle. “I send out an availability list letting my customers know what I have, and they come pick it up.”
“Clearly, this option is targeted at “hyper local” people who live within a short driving distance of my business. I am interested in expanding this market to see how I can improve my business.”
Hindle also sells through a local farmers cooperative, Snoqualmie Valley Farmers Cooperative. They offer a 20-week Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which provides CSA participants with weekly boxes of farm fresh food from Sweet Harvest farm and many other farms.
What challenges have you faced during your farming career?
“It’s incredibly difficult to find land to lease in King County,” said Hindle. “I’ve been growing for 10 years and have had to move five times to continue farming.
“When you have to move from place to place every two to three years it is hard to get the momentum going to build a farm business. When I move, I must start over again.
“The first year is tough because the soil quality needs to improve to be able to provide good produce quality and quantities to customers. The second year the soil gets a bit better but by the third year I have to leave!
“It has been frustrating. I have been farming for ten years but quit for three years because of leasing challenges.”
Hindle had experience. She just needed some stability.
“I got on ‘solid ground’ when I joined the Experience Farming Project through SnoValley Tilth,” she said. “This gave me the opportunity to lease a small plot of land and farm for up to five years.
“I farmed through the Experience Farming Project for three years. Then, I moved to a new site SnoValley Tilth was managing and am now on my fourth year at this site. The magic number! It feels great to have finally hit my fourth year!”
However, the owner recently sold the property Hindle was farming on to King County.
“I was afraid I would have to move again, which I didn’t think I could do, ” said Hindle. “Thankfully, King County honored the lease agreement SnoValley Tilth had with the property owner. SnoValley Tilth has now taken over management of the farm.”
Margaret gets to stay on her leased property, and SnoValley Tilth hopes to have more farmers on the property next year.
Why did you decide to come back to farming?
“Three and a half years ago, when the farming obstacles were presenting too many challenges for me, I quit farming and got a job at Hopelink doing emergency services,” said Hindle.
“My passion outside of farming is social and human services. I received my associate’s degree in social services and was able to work in and serve my own community.”
Margaret also sells to an organization called Farms for Life, which is a nonprofit organization that buys vegetables to distribute to other social service agencies that provide food to low income people.
“Farms for Life allows me to explore my two passions, farming and social services, because I can provide produce through them to social service agencies. They pick what they need from the list of food that I have available.”
“This is my fourth year selling to Farms for Life, and I love it because I can help make good quality food available to people who need it most,” said Hindle.
“I’m excited to continue farming for Farms for Life and exploring other market channels in the future. I also hope I can stay on my current property for as long as possible!”