A Taste of the Chehalis River Valley
exploring the vegetables and award-winning
cheeses of southwest Washington
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN
The halfway-point on I-5 between Seattle and Portland is a curtain of Douglas firs and off-freeway development. Most people zoom by, intent on their destination, taking little notice of the passing scenery. But just off the freeway, beyond the gas stations, chain restaurants, and a sprawl of outlet stores, the land is flecked with farms and creameries. Welcome to the Chehalis River Valley. If you’re looking for good food, this may be the state’s best-kept secret.
The current-day Chehalis River begins in the southwest corner of Lewis County and winds north then west, an arc that ends at Grays Harbor. The rich soil of the river valley, carved by a much larger glacial-period river, has long attracted farmers to the area, a trend that continues today. There are an estimated 200 working farms in the area.
The town of Chehalis is a natural starting point to explore the area. Since 2005, producers in and around the Chehalis River Valley—from smaller communities such as Adna, Onalaska, Rochester, and Oakville—have gathered every Tuesday at the Greater Lewis County Community Farmers Market with their produce, cheeses, and handmade products.
Like most rural markets, this one is small. A couple of dozen producers fill a downtown block. But the stalls are packed. Cheese samples are on ice, tamales are steamed and waiting, and peak-season carrots, red cabbage, and squashes are at their most vivid.
Here you’ll find farms growing produce that never makes it to an urban center. Morning Dew Farm, located just over the county line in Oakville, is known for currants, aronia berries, pears, and plums. Furrow Horse Farm’s oversized kohlrabi and shadow-green kale are grown with the aid of plow horses on a small farm in Morton. Constellation Farm displays heirloom vegetables and a pastoral array of flowers, raised on two acres in Rochester, in Independence Valley.
Producers such as Newaukum Valley Farm have a deeper reach. Vegetables grown on the 34-acre farm are served at more than 20 Seattle restaurants and direct to consumers throughout the area. Farmers and owners Melissa Henderson and Josh Hyatt hold “Chefs in Our Field” farm dinners every month from June to October, the sort of effort the county is trying to encourage.
“Agritourism is a way to help us build our economic vitality,” says Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund, who spearheaded a group to help encourage cooperation between the county’s tourism and agriculture industries. “We’ve got really top-notch food available for people, fresh from the farm. Sometimes I think it’s a little-known secret, what we have.”
Many city dwellers already consume products from southwest Washington. Newaukum Valley’s meals are designed to draw people to the farm in order to experience the beauty and the bounty of the region through meals designed by chefs from restaurants that serve Newaukum Valley produce. Each meal also highlights the products of a local food or drink artisan.
“We had been working with chefs in Seattle for so long that we wanted to come up with a way to highlight what we’re doing and what they’re doing, bring it all together, and give people an opportunity to experience local chefs and local eating,” Henderson says. In September, they’ll welcome Chef Brian Walczyk of Tom Douglas’s Cantina Leña. In October, Chef Laurel Khan of Mackinaw’s in Chehalis will create the menu.
Khan’s restaurant is located downtown, half a block from the Chehalis Farmers’ Market. She doesn’t take her proximity to some of the region’s best produce for granted.
“As a chef, I really appreciate the work that they do, all these farmers. It’s not an easy life at all, but they give us something that we can’t get through our food suppliers. I can’t get this kind of produce elsewhere,” she says. Downtown Chehalis is a small but engaging food hub. In early August, Black Sheep Creamery moved their cheese making operation to a space that includes a tasting room and cheese shop. Chehalis is a nesting spot for creameries, but since most either can’t accommodate tours or offer them only by appointment, Black Sheep is the place to stock your cooler. In addition to their own cheeses, they carry products from local cheese makers such as Rosecrest Farm, Jacobs Creamery, and Willapa Hills Family Farm & Creamery, as well as cheeses from creameries further afield. Try Black Sheep’s award-winning classics, St. Helens and Mopsy’s Best, and their sheepcow blends, Adnatou and Enchanté. Anyone curious about local wool can visit their yarn shop next door.
Tucked beneath a pink awning, Market Street Bakery is a tidy corner shop with an impressive display of tempting, European-style pastries inside. They also serve sandwiches, house-made soups, and bread by the loaf. Pick up a baguette for the road and another for dinner. Across the square, watch market goers from your table at The Pearl Café over a breakfast or lunch that incorporates local produce, eggs, meat, cheese, and yogurt.
Further up the street, Jeremy’s Farm to Table Restaurant is as much a community gathering space as an eatery. It’s spacious and welcoming, with brick walls, an open kitchen, and a corner stage that is filled with local talent on weekends. Owner Jeremy Wilhaber sources from two local bakeries and incorporates local ingredients into the menu items and weekly specials, including produce, yogurt, milk, cheeses, chicken, pork, and Cornish hens. The attached retail store carries local produce, eggs, meats, and dairy. Jeremy’s also preserves and packages its own sauces, dressings, pickles, salsas, jams, and dehydrated meats and fruits.
If you fancy a farm visit, head west on Highway 6 where you can visit two creameries on-site. Wooded hills nudge the southern bank of the river here; it’s a verdant, relaxing drive. Willapa Hills Family Farm & Creamery is located 20 miles west of downtown. When you arrive, sample an award-winning selection of cheeses in a farm store. Inside, a finished tasting room awaits, along with a cooler stocked with almost every cheese the nationally recognized creamery makes. Try the Pluvius, Big Boy Blue, and Two-Faced Blue, as well as Lilly Pad and Ewe Old Cow, the creamery’s first hard cheeses. On your way back, picnic or hike at Rainbow Falls State Park, then drop in at Rosecrest Farm. The family farm and creamery has a tree-lined driveway leading past the houses to a barn and a small cheese shed. Inside, a cooler houses their raw cow’s-milk Swiss. Tasting is open to the public most days, with self-serve samples and honor-system payment if you’d like to purchase a wedge.
If you happen to be there on a Wednesday afternoon, make your way down to the end of the road to Newaukum Valley’s farm stand, where you can buy seasonal vegetables from Melissa Henderson. A former koi farm, the area near the house has several ponds teeming with the colorful fish. You may also catch a glimpse of the fledgling orchard and fields that slope down to the river.
“I’m hopeful that this area will turn into some sort of little pocket where more tourism happens,” Henderson says. “People really do want to know where their food is coming from and they want to see it for themselves. They want to trust who’s growing their foods.” You can also buy vegetables further north, off Highway 12. Helsing Junction Farm’s farm stand in Rochester is open daily and gives visitors a taste of the fertile Independence Valley.
For an eclectic side tour, continue west to Oakville, where you can view the fields at Dan’s Dahlia’s. Dan Pearson grows 600 varieties of the flower, which bloom in a profusion of color from August to mid-October.
At Oak Meadows Buffalo Ranch, a mile further, Jill and Ed Lagergren have been raising American bison for 20 years. Tucked on the back side of the Black Hills, at the edge of Capitol Forest, the ranch is a wide, green paradise for the more than 40 bison who live there. The Lagergrens pre-sell their herd’s meat by the half and quarter animal, but if you visit the simple shop attached to their house, you can buy frozen buffalo meat by the pound that they source from a South Dakota co-op. You can also take home gloves or moccasins made from their animals’ hides. You’ll likely see the animals; the herd grazes nearby.
Wind your way back to I-5 and make a final stop at A Cottage Farm and Winery, the historic farm and homestead of Linda and Larry Remmers. The cozy shop and tasting room is full of pretty antiques (think copper pots and pans) and Linda’s hand-thrown pottery. The couple sells their own herbs and produce, featuring eight varieties of garlic. They make wine from some of their garlic, for cooking, and dry fruit wines from their own currants, apples, plums, and raspberries for sipping.
The Chehalis River Valley has all it takes to become the next destination for anyone who craves fresh food and the scenery to go with it. Make a trip down south and keep an eye out to see what the producers nestled in the curve of the river will offer up next.
Jennifer Crain is an Olympia-based freelance writer who profiles producers, and eats quite a few of their products, too. Read more of her stories at jennifercrain.com.