solSeedFarm

Sol to Seed Farm

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staying small in the Snoqualmie Valley

solSeedFarm

STORY BY CAROLINE FERGUSON
PHOTOS BY AUDRA MULKERN

 

The very first time Deanna Tregoning drove down West Snoqualmie River Road, she was smitten.

Over their five years of marriage, Deanna and her husband Matt had both started to build solid careers: Deanna in nursing, Matt in title and escrow. They lived comfortably in an Issaquah townhome. But all the while, they dreamed of growing their own food on their own land.

As Deanna drove through the heart of the Snoqualmie Valley that winter day in 2005, she could imagine their dream becoming a reality. Farms were dormant, crops were overwintering, and as far as she could tell, Carnation was wide open.

“We were like, ‘Oh, this is great! There must be land everywhere!’” Matt laughs as he takes a break from tending the fields at Sol to Seed, the farm that, ten years later, he and Deanna now call home.

Of course, they quickly realized that Carnation was home to a vibrant farming community, albeit one that’s hard to see in the middle of December. But their drive that day was the push they needed to start searching for their own land in earnest. In the meantime, Matt and Deanna joined nearby Jubilee Farm’s CSA workshare program, helping out on the farm and learning more about growing.

The two both hail from the Detroit area: Deanna in the city proper, Matt in the suburbs. The city’s decline saw residents moving further and further away, and for Matt, this meant a move to the country and eight acres of orchard and vegetable gardens tended by his stepfather. Helping with canning and other odd jobs gave Matt his first taste of agricultural work, and his love for the field came back when he and his wife started working at Jubilee.

 

“I went out there and thought it was amazing,’” Matt says. “Even when I was just doing something mundane.”

 

A year of workshare turned to part-time jobs at the farm for both Matt and Deanna. Meanwhile, they continued to work day jobs, and searched from Olympia to Skagit Valley for a plot of their own.

That search eventually led them right back to where it started: West Snoqualmie River Road, where the owners of Jubilee had decided to sell a 20-acre tract just north of their farm. It was an oddly-shaped property, mostly forested, with only about six arable acres going for it. But to Matt and Deanna, it was perfect.

Perfect, however, doesn’t come cheap. Land prices are notoriously high in the Snoqualmie Valley; the price of their tiny plot could have bought a few hundred acres in eastern Washington.

They reached out to Northwest Farm Credit Services, who had launched a loan program for beginning farmers the year before. The agency typically funds massive parcels in eastern Washington and wasn’t used to clients who wanted to grow market and CSA produce, live on their land, and had no interest in running a big business.

 

“They didn’t quite know how to deal with us,” Matt said.

But they figured it out, and in 2008, they became the first western Washington recipients of NFCS’s beginning farmer loan.

 

Selling their Issaquah townhome at just the right time meant they could also afford the adjoining farmhouse. But Matt admits that the lot wasn’t a great deal.

“There’s this great farming community in King County. Snoqualmie Valley is a great place to grow food, but it’s expensive to live here,” Matt says. “We made a lot of noise about it for a while. A whole conversation started in King County.”

What the Tregonings quickly realized was that the land might be expensive but the wealth of knowledge in Carnation’s tight-knit farming community was absolutely priceless. Sure, they read every farming book they could get their hands on, but none of it compared to being able to walk over to their neighbors, ask questions, and receive support. It was different from their former Issaquah neighborhood. “You would know both of your neighbors on either side of the wall,” says Matt, “but you wouldn’t know the other 200 people around you. Now we know pretty much everyone in the valley.”

Despite their supportive community, the farm’s early years were far from easy. Both Matt and Deanna were still working full-time off the farm, and every spare moment was dedicated to working the field, delivering CSA boxes, and trying to turn a profit at the Sammamish and Issaquah farmers markets.

 

“We were coming home from work and any daylight hours we had left were spent trying to get stuff done on the farm,” Matt remembers. “It was brutal.”

 

Brutal, but ultimately successful. They made their way into the Phinney Neighborhood Farmers Market, then the University District— the “holy grail,” as Matt calls it, where it’s possible to make a living from market sales. They went from selling at three markets to just one. Matt switched to working parttime from home, and Deanna started nursing at Swedish Hospital’s Issaquah campus while working toward her master’s degree. They established a CSA drop-off point at the hospital, and ceased all other deliveries.

According to Matt, they weren’t as happy or healthy when they were expanding, and their product suffered for it. For them, getting big was not the way forward.

These days, Sol to Seed continues to stay small. They only farm two acres of their land, and have no plans to change that. The excellent eggs from their few dozen hens are only available if you’re willing to drive out to the farm (unsurprisingly, some customers are).

They’re known for their tomatoes, including five to six cherry tomato varietals that fill one of their two greenhouses in the summer months. They’ve also gained a following for their padróns, a sweet-and-spicy Spanish pepper that’s a fixture on tapas tables. They don’t have interns or any other farm staff helping them harvest; Matt and Deanna are the only two people who handle Sol to Seed’s produce before it gets to the market.

“If you want to ask us a question, I pulled that seed out of the packet, cultivated everything, harvested it, and brought it to market. Very few farms are doing that,” Matt said. This allows him to spend as much time as possible doing what he loves: being out in the field.

 

“It’s amazing to me. You just realize how much stuff is happening around you that you could just completely miss,” Matt says. “People sometimes ask, ‘What’s the one thing you’d want to do with your life?’ This is it.”

Caroline Ferguson is a freelance food and culture journalist. She recently graduated from Seattle University, where she studied humanities and journalism and edited the university newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Seattle Met Magazine, Visit Seattle, and RENDER Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly.

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