The Blessings of Orcas Island
BY MEGAN HILL
George the alpaca is nibbling a carrot from the palm of my hand. His fuzzy snout is surprisingly slobber-free.
Before long, the entire troop of alpacas on Once in a Blue Moon Farm is at the fence, wanting snacks. A particularly brazen one named Rapunzel lunges for the feed bucket, spilling half its contents. A chicken is waiting underfoot to collect the crumbs.
Shana Lloyd and her children Zachary and Sarah Lefton, the team that runs the 35-acre farm, are hard at work when I visit, preparing for guests, working in the orchard, and feeding animals. The farm, just three miles from the ferry dock on Orcas Island, offers several rental units looking towards the deep green hump of Turtleback Mountain.
Despite a rich history of agriculture and access to plentiful seafood, the locavore movement on Orcas Island is relatively new.
“It wasn’t that way until recently,” says Zach, who grew up on the island. “About ten years ago the farmers market was quiet.”
For a growing number of visitors, tapping into the island’s plenitude makes for a more connected travel experience. It’s a trend the Lloyds hope to capitalize on.
“I think they want an authentic experience,” Shana says of the travelers who stay on her farm. “I try to instill the love of nature in my visitors. When you own your own land you want to share it with someone.” The Lloyds also offer personalized farm tours to visitors, which you should reserve in advance.
In addition to ducks, geese, chickens, alpacas, goats and sheep, the farm produces organically grown apples, figs, apricots, peaches, quinces, plums, pears, cherries, and kiwis.
“The trees are my project,” Zachary says. He cares for both the orchard he planted and the hundred-year-old fruit trees like the Royal Ann cherries, King, Gravenstein, and Cox’s Orange Pippin apples, and Bartlett pears. “With orchards you’re planting for the next generation. The trees will be here for a hundred years. It’s nice to plant lettuce that is seasonal but with the orchard there’s a certain majesty that the trees will be here for a long time,” he says.
At Allium in Eastsound, Chef Lisa Nakamura transforms the island harvest into luxurious dishes worthy of plate-licking. Since opening in May 2010, she’s utilized fruit from Once in a Blue Moon, shellfish from Jones Family Farm on Lopez Island and produce from Maple Rock Farm, Black Dog Farm, Boulder Haven Farm, and Orcas Farm, all on Orcas.
“In winter it’s a little more difficult,” Nakamura says of buying local. “…In winter we try to get as close to Washington as possible.” In the growing season, her selection is huge, though. “Last year in the dead of summer we were getting at least 75 percent from the island.”
Nakamura’s restaurant is nestled among the shops in Eastsound, the largest of the island’s small towns, with around 2,000 residents. Inside, tea lights flicker on tables facing a dreamy view of the sound that scoops out Orcas Island, forming its horseshoe shape.
Nakamura’s small restaurant and seasonal menu mean she’s connected with both her customers and her suppliers. “I watch every plate that comes back, so I’ll notice if there’s food still on the plate,” she says, noting she’s happy to make something else if a customer isn’t satisfied. “I want it to be a restaurant based on relationships where I work face-to-face as much as I can. The best part of opening Allium has been building positive relationships with the locals.”
Nakamura admits her motivations for sourcing locally aren’t necessarily about furthering the larger local food movement.
“I don’t consider myself a locavore. I make those decisions because they’re quality-based decisions,” she says. “I get the best quality the closer I get to home.” Food from on the island (or elsewhere on the San Juans) gets to Allium soon after it’s picked; it tastes better and stays fresher longer, so there’s less waste in the kitchen and more smiles in the dining room.
“It’s a happy accident,” Nakamura says, “that the best products are local.”
“It’s the restaurant at the end of the universe,” quips Abigael Birrell, chef at the Doe Bay Café at Doe Bay Resort and Retreat. It is admittedly a bit of a haul to the resort, which sits on the eastern side of the island’s horseshoe, about as far from the ferry landing as you can get. It’s a deceiving 19 miles from the dock to Doe Bay: It takes about an hour to drive there.
And it’s a very worthwhile trip, or bike ride if the weather and your activity level permits such a haul. The drive winds through forests and farms, slicing through Moran State Park—where you can head up to Mount Constitution for sweeping views of the Sound—before dumping you off at Doe Bay. The resort is perched on a cliff overlooking the water, and a heady mix of sea salt and Dr. Bronner’s soap hangs in the air. The rustic accommodations range from cabins to yurts to tent sites. Whether you’re there for the scenery, the hot soaking pools situated over the waterfall, or the food, it’s a trek I highly recommend.
Birrell’s creations draw on seasonal offerings from the resort’s one-acre garden. The menu is supplemented with produce from around the island: Black Dog Farm, Taproot Farm, Buck Bay shellfish, Maple Rock Farm and Orcas Farm all contribute. The café also serves Orcas Island-roasted coffee from Local Goods and Orcas-made Harmony Chai.
The Doe Bay garden is the source for about half of the restaurant’s menu, estimates Birrell. “There’s a lot of schlepping involved,” she says of collecting all the ingredients. The garden staff gives her “one week head’s up about what’s going on out there.”
Birrell also admits winter makes it tough to find local ingredients, and like Nakamura has an abundance of choice for the warmer months, saying “It’s a magical time of year.”
THE COMMUNITY FARM
Coffelt Farm, just south of Eastsound, has fed the community for 60 years. Now a nonprofit, the 185-acre farm was started by husband and wife team Vern and Sidney Coffelt.
The farm is now run by what Ruthie Dougherty, Director of the Coffelt Farm Stewards, describes as a “family-sized unit of people.”
“We see ourselves as stewards,” she says. “We care for the place and feed the community.” The farm focuses on sustainability by “reducing external inputs as much as possible.” The farm raises grass-fed beef, ewes, pigs, and lambs, in addition to pastured poultry, bees, and some produce. An onsite farm stand, in view of the apiary and the pastures. The farm also sells at the Orcas Island Farmers Market and to some restaurants on the island.
Dougherty says that although running the large farm is often a challenge, it’s worthwhile knowing she’s helping provide the community with healthy, wholesome ingredients.
“We’re blessed on Orcas,” she says, “to have people who understand and appreciate the quality of food available on the island. It’s just a joy.”
Megan Hill is a freelance writer and a rockstar grant writer. You can find more of her work online at www.meganhillfreelancewriter.com.