DUNGENESS, Wash. – Steve Vause, President of New Farm Inc. (author disclosure: he’s my brother) signed a contract with the North Olympic Land Trust (NOLT) last month, selling the development rights to the 60-acre “Historic Ward Farm,” insuring that it will remain farmland forever. The deal was approved unanimously by the twelve shareholders of New Farm Inc.
Owned by my family since 1957, the farm lies along the west bank of the Dungeness River and has been leased for the past thirteen years to organic vegetable and grain grower Nash Huber, who grows carrots, beets, kale, Swiss chard, cabbage, and many other root and leaf vegetables and also wheat, barley, oats, and other grains. He is growing crops of fava beans and quinoa, the protein-rich grain from the high Andes. These crops luxuriate in the deep, alluvial soil called Dungeness loam, some of the most fertile soil in North America.
According to a story by Alana Linderoth in the Sequim Gazette, William Ward arrived on the North Olympic Peninsula as a 12-year-old cabin boy aboard a British windjammer that dropped anchor at Port Townsend in 1855. He must have been deeply unhappy – yet bold – because he jumped ship with no passport or other papers certifying his legal status, an early case of an undocumented immigrant who settled down to co-exist with the Klallam Indians in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains.
If the history, “Sequim Pioneer Families from 1850-World War II,” is accurate, he was only 15-years-old when he became a homesteader, digging a well within 200 feet of the Dungeness River, clearing the thick stands of cedar, hemlock, and Douglas Fir, planting an orchard, and many acres of clover to feed his herd of dairy cattle to support himself and his family.
When we first bought the place in my senior year at Sequim High School, a magnificent, although abandoned, Victorian mansion stood on the farm attesting to William Ward’s tireless drive to succeed – a pioneer in the mold of Daniel Boone. I did a painting of that house on a piece of Masonite. The painting vanished long ago as did the mansion itself.
My father and my cousin, Dave Helms, then partners, milked more than 100 cows twice daily filling a 300-gallon refrigerated stainless steel milk tank – one ton of very rich milk – that was picked up every morning by a Darigold tanker and shipped to Seattle.
The victory in preserving this farm is the latest triumph for NOLT and its affiliate, Friends of the Fields, which in the past 25 years saved 550 acres of farmland. It is one of the largest most popular organizations in the county and it has struggled heroically against the onslaught of real estate developers who have gobbled up most of the farmland.
These developers have turned much of the valley into sites for luxury houses with breathtaking views of the snowcapped Olympics, and to the north, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands, and Victoria, British Columbia. It is hard for farmers to compete with the real estate interests when land is so valuable for its views and its mild, sunny climate. Such a tempting location for a new suburbia. When I was growing up here, more than 200 dairy farms dotted the landscape. Now, two dairy farms survive.
Yet an American Farmland Trust (AFT) bumper-sticker, to be seen on many cars and pickups in this valley proclaims, “No Farms, No Food.” We had hoped that NOLT would obtain a grant from the federal government under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to help purchase the development rights and preserve our farm forever.
But the Republicans in control of the House and Senate know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Despite the appeals of President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his cohorts in the House ramrodded a $6 billion cut to farmland conservation in the 2014 Farm Bill.
In testimony to the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry, Feb. 28, AFT President John Piotti pleaded that the Trump Administration and the Republican majority House and Senate act now to staunch the bleeding – the loss of 40 acres every hour in precious farmland. He pointed out that President Trump promised to push through Congress a $1 trillion infrastructure repair bill.
Infrastructure repair, he told Congress, must include saving our nation’s crumbling agricultural infrastructure that generates nearly $1 trillion annually for the nation’s gross domestic product.
Yet Trump has submitted a budget that adds $54 billion to the military budget and has vowed to slash vital domestic programs, including conservation, to pay for it.
The Republicans made sure that not a single penny of our tax dollars went to help conserve the “Historic Ward Farm.”
State Representative Kevin Van de Wege – now a State Senator – came to the rescue in 2015. Together with other Democratic legislators who reside in Clallam County, Van de Wege pushed through a $344,000 grant to help fund the campaign to save the Ward-Wheeler farm. The grant fell short of the money needed to buy the development rights. But NOLT went into high gear fundraising and thanks to the skillful organizing of its Executive Director Tom Sanford, Conservation Director Michele d’Hemecourt Canale, and the publicity efforts of Alana Linderoth, the matching funds were raised to push the project to victory. The Wheeler family sold the development rights for $70,000 less than the appraised value, so we too contributed to save our farm forever.
Our property line used to run down the middle of the Dungeness River. Years ago, we donated our riverfront to Clallam County to create a lovely park named for my mother, “The Mary Lukes Wheeler Park.” It is one of the few locations where people can get access to the Dungeness River, and on hot summer days the air is filled with the shrieks of happy children wading in the river.
Now, the farm across Ward Road with the stupendous mountain views will add to the serenity of this sublime place. Don and Mary Wheeler would be happy.