A farm stay in the San Juan Islands yields a deeper appreciation for the care that goes into raising your food.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY HILARY MCMULLEN
Victor and Apple seem delighted to see us. The two squat pigs — each at least the size of a wine barrel —squeal and snort as they waddle toward us.
Faith Van De Putte is clearly these animals’ true north. As they push fuzzy, mud-caked snouts towards her, she scratches their heads and tosses shards of pumpkin, which they chomp in content. Victor and Apple are a breeding pair of Idaho Pasture Pigs at Midnight’s Farm on Lopez Island, which Faith owns with her husband, David Bill.
I’m renting the farm’s charming Field House through Faith and David’s farm stay program. Not far from where the pigs relax under some evergreen trees, the two-bedroom house faces a quiet field and feels just removed enough from the farm’s activity to offer privacy, yet only a short distance from the animals and plants and people that give this place its spirit.
Farm stays are a popular way for small-scale farmers and ranchers to gain extra income by renting out a portion of their home or a separate unit on the property. And city-slickers, including me, enjoy the opportunity to soak in the bucolic surroundings and perhaps try on the agricultural lifestyle for size.
Faith and David have run their farm stay for the past four years, and it’s been a popular year-round venture. In summer, The Field House is typically booked solid, often with families who come to the islands for a weekend getaway. In winter, the property feels cozy, thanks to the wood stove, and there’s a sauna a short walk away. The property also includes a yoga studio, which overlooks the pond and offers a range of classes; guests are encouraged to drop in for a session.
As we walk the farm, Faith and I are followed closely by one of the resident farm dogs, Lucy, an aging yellow lab with a sweet disposition and a penchant for chasing rabbits. We meet the herd of Murray Grey cattle, which, along with the pigs, are one of the farm’s primary sources of income. Faith and David sell their meat through farmers markets and at the property’s on-your-honor farmstand.
Faith and David encourage their guests to get involved in the property’s goings-on, if they’re interested in getting their hands dirty. Tasks like feeding the pigs, moving the cattle, and planting and weeding the farm’s small subsistence garden are all possibilities. Guests can also peek in the windows of the small but busy Barn Owl Bakery, an artisan craft bakery that operates near the farmstand.
Faith says that a few recent guests were present on a slaughter day, and she welcomed them to watch the process. While it may make some squeamish, there’s also an increasingly popular philosophy that if you’re going to eat meat, you should be comfortable with how it gets to your plate.
I ask Faith if it’s hard to eat the animals she so clearly feels an affinity for. “I spend all this time caring for these critters — I know the arc of their lives, and I know they were well taken care of,” she says. “It’s actually weird to eat things I don’t have a relationship with. That connection is so important.”
The final component of the farm is its composting system. Composting has long been a project of David’s, who bought the 100-acre property in 1989, though the farm has only sold compost commercially for four years. His is the first compost facility in San Juan County certified by the Washington State Department of Ecology, and it’s a boon to the island’s farmers, gardeners, and landscapers. Residents drop off everything from grass clippings to post-slaughter offal, and it’s mixed with cow manure and transformed into rich compost that Midnight’s Farm sells by the yard.
Back at The Field House, I unfold a map detailing the island’s farms and their products — everything from produce to meat to shellfish to island-grown wool — an impressive array considering Lopez is home to little more than 2,000 full-time residents. Faith has pointed out several farms that have unmanned farmstands and U-pick opportunities; others ask that you call before visiting.
My plan is to concoct dinner and breakfast using as many farm-grown products as I can manage to coherently combine. Faith and David always gift their visitors with a basket of farm-fresh products, and my haul includes kale, chard, butter lettuce, two red onions, and five eggs. My kitchen at The Field House is also stocked with various basics: coffee, oil, spices, seasonings, sugar, and a few random condiments. I’m not sure what I’m going to buy or make, but I figure the meal will unfold as I shop.
Lopez Island traces a shaky, backwards J at the southeastern end of the San Juan Islands archipelago. From the ferry terminal at the northern end, it’s a short drive to a small village on the northwestern coast, where there’s a compact collection of restaurants and shops. Farms are scattered throughout the island, so it’s possible to hit several in one manageable trip.
When I visit, on an April weekday, the island is blissfully unpopulated. On my drive, past big stretches of pasture broken up by the occasional pond or patch of forest, I pass significantly more goats and sheep than people.
My stops include Sunnyfield Farm, where I buy six ounces of herbed chevre; Lopez Island Farm, where I pick up some chutneys to take home; and Horse Drawn Farm, where I pick out a handful of perfectly round purple potatoes called Purple Majesty.
I stop at the Midnight’s Farm farmstand before heading back to The Field House and select a one-pound hunk of beef sirloin tip. I notice rosemary and chives growing just off the porch, so I pluck a few sprigs of each.
My meal consists of the steak, which I sear on the stovetop and finish in the oven; purple potatoes with rosemary and chives; and a salad with the greens from Faith’s garden and the herbed chevre. I’m nervous that I’ll overcook the steak, but it turns out perfectly.
Throughout dinner and breakfast the next morning — an omelet with chard and more of the goat cheese — I marvel at the fact that both meals, save for the salt and the olive oil, have come from Lopez Island. In fact, all of my ingredients originate from a tight, three-mile radius of where I dine.
Though I haven’t met the animals I’ve eaten, I’ve met their contemporaries, and I’ve seen how they live — I appreciate the immense care and attention Faith and David devote to their animals.
“On slaughter day,” says Faith, “the animals are so relaxed. The cows are sitting in the grass, chewing their cud, and it’s all very peaceful and respectful.”
Eating in close proximity to the place your food has lived its days has a special appeal for Midnight’s Farm’s guests — so much so that they often become customers long after they’ve left, ordering beef or pork in large quantities and making the drive to Skagit County, where the animals are butchered, to pick up their order and take it home — perhaps hoping a little of the farm’s magic will come home with them, too.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.