Arriving at Zestful Gardens Farm, calamity had just been contained. The goats had escaped yet again and Holly Foster had just finished moving their fence to give them more room to roam. There is never a dull moment on a farm, even in cold, muddy January. Most consumers imagine farms to be largely quiet and still in the middle of winter; the growing season, we think, is over and grocery stores carry fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world: Chile, Mexico, warm California, Israel. And yet even though it isn't high growing season, a lot of action is still taking place on the farm. This day, another lean-to was in the process of being built on the side of the barn and will become the new washing site for all the fruits and veggies harvested next spring and summer. Machinery and buildings are cleaned, repaired and readied, and seeds have already started to sprout in the greenhouses.
And that's not all. Plans for animals and crops are constantly being made, and designs are tinkered with. A farm is an artwork in progress, a big beautiful wild canvas for the farmer to fill. While I enjoy this time of year for its wildness, Holly enjoys this time of year because the frantic pace of harvest season with all of its pressing deadlines is over. There is a little more room to breathe - not to stop working, but there is a little more wiggle room. And she needs some wiggle room, for not only is she owner and operator of her farm, she is a wife and mother of two sweet little girls. Living along with nature highlights that life is a series of rhythms: each season has its own pattern, its own needs. Things come to an end, there are new beginnings. Rinse, repeat. To live with the rhythms of the land is quite satisfying.
At Zestful Gardens, Holly and Valerie Foster are a mother/daughter team with Holly in charge of production, and Valerie doing the marketing and daily animal chores. They each have their areas of expertise and the farm is the perfect outlet for them to express their creative impulses and plans. Holly has been an avid practitioner of organic and biodynamic farming for 15 years. Among other things, Valerie spins wool from the sheep, raises herbs and is experienced in their medicinal preparation. Holly describes her mother as more impulsive than she is, bringing the element of fun and surprise into what they do, whereas Holly tends to take time deciding what the best thing to do is and when. The Turkey Example was offered to illustrate this. While Holly has deliberated for years on whether she could take on a cow yet or not, her mother had taken the granddaughters to the feed store one day and came home with 25 turkeys. That meant Holly then had to build a structure for them and incorporate their care into the daily routine, but it also meant homegrown turkey for Thanksgiving and fun along the way. Mother and daughter complement each other nicely.
While we sipped at our tea with honey (honey raised on the farm) and answered our children's questions, we also managed to talk about farming life. I got to hear and see Holly's passion for farming, one that evolved from life experiences and has now become who she is. After graduating from college with plans to continue in grad school, Holly embarked on a series of international farming experiences. What had started out as a quest to learn more about a particular community in Scotland led to farming in Australia and an apprenticeship at an organic and biodynamic farm in the Hudson Valley of New York. By then farming was firmly in her pores, but she missed her family, so she moved back home and started looking for her own land. Ten years ago, she purchased 7 acres in the Puyallup Valley; now it has grown to 35 acres.
Zestful Gardens is a certified organic farm where Holly also practices biodynamic agriculture. Her passion for learning and innovating brings her to say about biodynamic farming, "I could spend the rest of my life becoming perfect". The philosophy behind her particular brand of farming is relationships. She runs an "old fashioned CSA" where customers pay the money in spring and reap the benefits during harvest time. If there is a bounty of tomatoes one week, the shares will reflect that increase, for example. This direct contact with our food producers is what we're lacking in today's society. There are no middlemen in direct market farming. The food is harvested and washed at the farm, where share members come and pick it up. The food is not "being driven around town" from one place to another, being touched by many hands that had nothing to do with its creation. Fuel isn't being wasted bringing food to the consumers.
The relationships built over the years with diehard share holders, and also with new customers, is what drives Holly. "To me, that's what direct market farming is about - relationsips", she notes. Transparency is also important to Holly. "I would rather spend time building my soil than seducing someone into buying something that's not [truly direct market organic farming]." This year they were able to provide their first year-round CSA, the winter providing goods such as meat, storage crops like potatoes, onions and squash, and hardy year round crops like kale, Swiss chard and mustard greens. Since these plants grow so slowly at this time of year, Holly tells me that one needs to plant 4 to 6 times as many plants as are needed. Then, leaves are harvested off the plants as the need arises. Her CSA shares number around 100 every year, always enough to keep the farm going.
A healthy farm is a diverse one. Zestful Gardens has 8 acres of veggies, small fruits and herbs, 8 acres of orchard and woodland, and 15 in pasture and cover crops. Goats, pigs, sheep, chickens, roosters, a dog and a year old cow populate the farm and provide food, fertilizer, milk (one day), wool, companionship - these animals are so friendly and sweet - and plenty of escapades. A friend of Holly's keeps bees on her farm, and in return Holly receives honey. These bees add to the diversity of the farm with their pollination skills, although Holly assures me that even without them we have plenty of pollinators in this area. Hoop houses will contain peppers and eggplants in the summer months; the greenhouses already contain little seedlings that have just sprouted of onions, shallots, greens, broccoli, arugula, and strawberry plants are sleeping, ready to reawaken.
Cover crops are very important, especially on an organic farm. If a field is tilled under and allowed to remain bare for a season, then there is nothing to hold the nutrients in the soil, and invasive weeds can take hold. Erosion is also common. Organic farms can't afford to leave soil bare. Cover crops are planted to hold in nutrients and to add them. The soil is customized according to future crop plans for each field. Right now, Holly is experimenting with Italian rye grass and crimson clover. Some experiments work, and some don't, but she is always learning.
Before I leave, I am invited to come back again in the spring and summer, when the farm will be shining in all its burgeoning and ripe glory. I intend to do so; however, I love this time of year for its rawness and bareness. The essence of anything is revealed and cannot hide behind soft greenery and color. One can see the foundation and structure unimpeded, and Zestful Gardens is a healthy, stable, sustainable farm -- a local treasure.
5102 40th St. E
Tacoma, WA 98443
Love local food and farmers? Get a tasty serving of farm and food stories delivered fresh to your inbox each week! Sign up today!