Helsing Junction Farm

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Helsing

roots go deep at this farm-driven food shed

STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN

 

After a good rainfall, Susan Ujcic can see the Chehalis River from her front porch, winding a path beyond the trees. The fertile Independence Valley, north of Centralia, has attracted generations of farmers like Ujcic and her business partner, Annie Salafsky; its “loamy, river-bottom soil” has supported decades of strawberry farming. Today, much of the valley is home to organic vegetable farms. Of these, Helsing Junction Farm is the oldest still in full operation.

Since Ujcic (pronounced you-jick) and Salafsky founded Helsing Junction in 1992 it has grown from five farmed acres to almost a hundred, and from 75 community supported agriculture (CSA) subscribers to more than a thousand, spanning from Lynnwood to Portland and out to the coast.

In 1987, Ujcic purchased 48 acres of established farmland that had been, over a period of 80 years, farmed in potatoes, strawberries, dairy, hay, and beef cattle. Ujcic and Salafsky became what they refer to as “seed farmers”—working five acres of Ujcic’s parcel and renting parts of it to other budding farmers. They eventually expanded to all of Ujcic’s land and, later, 13 acres Salafsky bought along the same road. Today they also lease land from Salafsky’s parents. From the beginning, the two were big thinkers when it came to marketing their locally grown vegetables; they were among the country’s first farmers to try out the concept of subscriber-supported farming.

“The CSA affords this real simplicity to the overall operation because it’s very streamlined,” Salafsky says.

So streamlined that, after just a few years, they shuttered their farmers’ market tables in favor of a CSA-only model. It was a risky decision in 1995, when the movement was just getting underway.

 

“Nobody knew what a CSA was,” Salafsky recalls. “But we got to the point where we could either stop doing markets or stop farming.” Realizing that their income stream from farmers markets had a firm limit, they decided they had to try something different if they wanted to run a self-sustaining farm.

 

Focusing on subscribers has allowed them to “make decisions based on core values” that reflect an evolving understanding of the land, health, and community over the past two decades.

Both farmers grew up in the suburbs (Ujcic in New Jersey, Salafsky outside Chicago), without any background in agriculture. Salafsky learned the trade as a student in sustainable agriculture at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Ujcic, also an Evergreen graduate, studied the visual arts.

Once on the farm, they learned by doing and, later, by applying knowledge they gained from working with USDA experts in soil fertility and conservation.

“It’s been a really interesting journey into the soil,” Salafsky says.

Practices such as minimized tilling, regular soil testing, and adding a wide range of trace minerals led to better germination, increased uniformity, less susceptibility to disease, and a longer post-harvest shelf life. A boost in flavor tied all the pieces together.

“What you’re boosting is nutrition, really,” Salafsky explains. “Because your taste buds are trained to sense the nutritional content of food, minerals, and all these complex things that, it turns out, you need to run all your systems. It’s changed the way we farm, and it’s given us a sense of mission, too.”

That mission is simple: grow the most beneficial food possible — food that is integral to a healthy farming system, good for human health, full of flavor, and available to a wide range of people.

“It’s really hard to source and find nutrient-dense, tasty food,” Ujcic says, “so our goal, really, was beyond just being grateful farmers and trying to grow amazing, tasty food. It was trying to connect people with a full, whole-foods diet and helping people eat well.”

Ujcic and Salafsky knew early on that they didn’t have the capacity to achieve this alone. So when they were approached by the Okanogan Producers Marketing Association about providing Helsing Junction’s subscribers with an optional fruit share to add to their weekly boxes, they said yes.

The program was a success—enough so, that Ujcic and Salafsky spent the next five years building partnerships with small, high-quality producers, many through the small-business incubator Enterprise for Equity. Soon their subscribers were purchasing sauerkraut from OlyKraut, pastured chicken from August Farm, and yogurt from Flying Cow Creamery.

 

Today, Helsing Junction has a growing list of specialty products, including sheep’s-milk cheese, mushrooms, chocolates, charcuterie, mustard, honey — even soap. Though they never would have foreseen it a decade ago, the farmers now sit at the helm of what Ujcic describes as a “farm-driven food shed.”

The timing for such an undertaking is technologically ripe. Ujcic and Salafsky use a software program designed for farmers, which allows them to individualize boxes and track orders for the complicated system. They say they need reliable, up-to-date technology “as much as we need a tractor.”

Salafsky taps her fingers on an imaginary keyboard. “This,” she says, “is modern farming.”

 

Such pragmatism has helped the two accomplish what they envisioned: with the exception of some borrowed funds for purchasing equipment, the farm is a self-generating enterprise, completely supported by their membership.

To attract customers, they dreamed up ideas such as their “sustaining membership” program—a two-year commitment to the farm’s CSA program, paid upfront and in full, at a discount to the subscriber. When they launched the program ten years ago, the cash allowed them to buy their first tractor. Today, the payments from 10 to 15 sustaining members give them a needed boost at the beginning of every other season.

Despite their financial skills and marketing savvy, Ujcic and Salafsky are tied first to the land. Last year, they completed a dry-bean trial with Washington State University to test heirloom varieties, with an eye toward growing beans and grains to sell in the winter. They will expand from four bean varieties to six or eight this season, including a reprise of the distinctive Calypso bean, with its orca-like markings. They will also grow another round of heirloom popcorn, sold on the cob.

All this good food has led to the next logical question: How can it be made available to everyone? Ujcic and Salafsky started with their employees, who are now salaried and are encouraged to take home as much food as they want.

“There’s this idea that local, organic food is elitist, somehow,” Salafsky says.,”and we really strongly disagree with that. This is the way people have been eating around the world for as long as there’s been agriculture. It’s not some faddish thing; it’s a very important part of human health.”

To that end, Helsing Junction is expanding in any way they can dream up. This year will be the first full season that the farm accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) payments, and they will also begin deliveries to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a military installation base. They’re partnering with naturopaths to pilot a prescriptive CSA share, and they already have commitments from restaurants to participate in their Chef Share program: weekly boxes stocked with a complementary mix of vegetables and culinary herbs to help chefs at small restaurants design weekly specials.

The new ideas widen their perspective but the rapid growth doesn’t seem to threaten the awe, receptivity, and gratitude that led the two into farming in the first place.

“We’re the lucky ones,” Ujcic says. “We feel completely grateful every day when we wake up, that we get to live this farm life and help people eat well.”

Find weekly specials based on Helsing Junction’s produce at Pair, Frank’s Oyster House, Dockside Bistro, and Swing Wine Bar. CSA shares are available at drop sites and via home delivery throughout the Seattle area. helsingfarmcsa.com

 

Jennifer Crain is an Olympia writer with a Calypso bean habit. Learn more about her work at jennifercrain.com.

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