BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
Located just outside the town of Rice, Washington (population 930), Quillisascut is the work of Lora Lea and Rick Misterly, who bought the land in 1981. They moved there with tools, seeds, and goats, planning to build a life on 26-acres of wilderness just up the hill from Lake Roosevelt and south of Kettle Falls. They pitched a tent, eventually built a rudimentary shack, and set about making a living off the land.
“We thought we were going to be self-sufficient,” says Lora Lea. “But we quickly learned we needed money to pay the mortgage and taxes.” With few jobs in the area, the Misterlys looked into starting a home business that might support them.
Lora Lea had been making cheese from the milk of her small herd of goats—with no electricity on the farm, it was a way to preserve the milk without refrigeration. There was a fledgling cheese industry starting in the United States and she hoped to bring in some income by selling what she produced.
The local foods scene was just starting to take root in the state around this time. “There was interest in local products and chefs who were committed to using it and putting it on their menu and that really brought us along,” Lora Lea says. Quillisascut was licensed as a commercial cheese producer in 1987, selling to restaurants such as Rover’s, Ray’s Boathouse, and Café Sport.
The story might have stopped there. Lora Lea made the cheese, using techniques she had learned from her own mother, who had made farmhouse-style cheese for the family when Lora Lea was growing up in Leavenworth. Rick helped market the cheese, driving six hours to Seattle to make deliveries. They grew a huge garden each summer and eventually built a house. The herd of goats flourished, as did the Misterly’s daughter and, eventually, a farm school.
“The school grew out of the dairy business,” Rick explains. “We invited the chefs we met out to the farm. We had lots of food, we were excited to see what they could do with it.”
“Probably every farm says the same thing—come to our farm, see what we’re doing,” Lora Lea says, laughing. “But we really wanted to give back. We wanted to give people a chance to dig up potatoes and cook them and see how different they taste from what you get in the supermarket. To let them see what an eggplant flower looks like. Some of the chefs we worked with in the beginning were European-trained and had a real connection to food. We wanted to help make that connection.”
The Misterlys began inviting chefs out to the farm, to work and play with the vegetables, meat, and cheese they were producing. “We did get a few,” says Lora Lea, “but everyone’s lives are so busy, especially chefs. And they don’t make a lot of money. How are they going to take two weeks off and still pay their rent?”
The Misterlys asked teachers in the local culinary arts programs if their students might be interested and got a good response. The summer of 2002, Quillisascut School of the Domestic Arts welcomed its first students. Participants stayed in tents and in the barn, worked in the garden and cooked with the food they harvested. It was the beginning of a learning process for everyone.
Rick and Lora Lea were soon joined by Kären Jurgensen, a Seattle chef who had grown up in Republic, not far from Rice. Raised in a family of foragers, hunters, and farmers, as a child she picked wild wheat with her grandmother to bake bread, which was then shared with friends and neighbors. It was this sort of appreciation for the value of food, the process of cooking, and how it connects to community that became the foundation for the classes that followed.
“We wanted people to leave [Quillisascut] armed with ways they could make a difference in the community, and to fall in love with food again,” Jurgensen explains. “So often, chefs get overwhelmed with the stress of their own careers. They never get to sit down to meals together.”
At Quillisascut, the table is integral to everything that happens. Meals are composed of vegetables, meat, and cheese from the farm. Nothing is wasted. From potato peelings to crusts of dried bread, everything is reused, composted, or fed to the animals to continue the cycle. Students are amazed by the flavors found in such fresh produce.
“We always have people saying, ‘That’s the best peach I’ve ever tasted,’ or ‘I’ve never tasted a tomato like that,'” says Jurgensen. “I’ve had students cry over the cassoulet.”
Tears may be an extreme reaction to dinner, but how many of us will ever sit down to a meal where the beans were grown just up the hill, the animals cared for and stewarded in fields you can point to, carrots pulled from the earth hours before, the whole meal created and consumed communally? Here, farm-to-table is not a trend or political movement. It’s a way of life.
Another important lesson of Quillisascut is conservation. Participants are reminded that resources are finite. “They see how much water the garden needs,” says Jurgensen. “They understand you can run a well dry.” This commonsense frugality is woven into life, from using every part of an animal, to turning water off while you brush your teeth.
The effect of this rooted lifestyle on participants can be profound. “Life-changing” is the term most often used to describe the workshops. It’s rare to meet a Quillisascut graduate who hasn’t been moved by the integrity of the experience.
“We didn’t plan it that way,” says Rick. “We’re just doing what we do without pretense. We want to give people a real experience.”
“I think seeing another value system allows them to think about what richness they want to create in their life,” says Lora Lea. “It wasn’t something we set out to do. I just thought that if people could see the animals and the food then they would want to support it too.”
What is certain is that Quillisascut has had an impact throughout the region. Jurgensen is now a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy, where a Sustainable Foods System curriculum has been implemented. “That came out of Quillisascut,” Jurgensen explains. “At first students complained—now they come here because we do this. They have a consciousness about waste that makes them valuable employees.”
Quillisascut participants have become cheese-makers, jam-makers, gardeners, teachers, and food writers (see sidebar). “I don’t want to take credit for what people do,” Lora Lea is quick to point out. “What they do is far beyond what we give them.” Yet the core values of the farm are evident in those who have spent time there, not all of them culinary students. Quillisascut runs professional development workshops for educators, food writers, and those wanting to start small acreage farms. They offer custom workshops for the general public and, starting this summer, one of the farm buildings is available for families who want to experience farm life.
Though the impact of this small farm may be wide-ranging, the tenets are simple: good food, honest work, care for the environment, and cooking together. “The most important thing at our school is that we sit down and eat together,” says Lora Lea, after ten years and more than 1,000 students. “We all need to eat and feed each other. It’s the starting point for everything.”
Tara Austen Weaver writes about food, travel, and the environment. She is the author of The Butcher & The Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, and writes the award-winning blog Tea & Cookies.