Friday, November 28, 2008

Barn Project Ready For Concrete

The contractor dug and scratched; leveling the ground under the old barn and digging for footings. They brought out a mini excavator and a dandy little bulldozer. I think the operator was a little nervous working around the cribbing supporting the barn. He had to pay attention to the cribbing, the I beams, and the barn suspended ten feet over head while carefully leveling the soil to grade and trenching for the footings.

After the footings where dug they set the rebar in place and made off for the long weekend. They have scheduled concrete for Monday. Lots of folks driving out the Valley have started to wonder what is going here. Boistfort Valley is about four miles wide and fourteen miles long with Boistfort Rd running north/south. Our farm is located at the northern end of the Valley so most folks living to the south pass by to get to town. Having this thing jacked up is a real head turner but so far we have only had one, make that two stop bys specifically to ask what we were doing. I should add here that nothing would surprise my neighbors at this point.

When my wife and I first moved down here we took over a farm that was overgrown with blackberries. There were old fences run everywhere; along the roads and around the buildings. Blackberries and morning glory had all but taken the place over. It was a bank repo, and so the previous owners had taken everything of value, including most of the light fixtures, leaving bare wires hanging out of the walls and ceiling. I remember my surrogate grand mother standing in the driveway crying when we first brought her here, "Oh Michael, what have you done!" But all I could see was potential. I have been blessed with some of the best, hardest working friends in the world. I called in every favor and spent what little money we had left after buying the place getting the fields in shape. I do not think the neighbors knew that I had done this kind of farming before we moved here. I had an established market and was anxious to reunite after a two year sabbatical from agriculture.

This area is mostly commodities and dairies. I am sure our patchwork operation, which more closely resembles a ridiculously large garden than it does a typical row crop operation, raised more than a few eyebrows. I distinctly remember a lot of "good lucks" and "hope you make its". The bottom line is that our customers where very happy to have us back, and what started as a five acre field in 2003 has grown to over thirty acres this past 2008 season. And the valley residents? They are awesome. They are quick to compliment us on our hard work and the beauty of the farm.

More on the barn after Monday.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Barn Raising Boistfort Style

I signed with the contractor on the fifth of November and by the 13th a crew was here stocking steel beams and getting ready to raise the barn high enough to excavate under it with a mini. They started by getting down and dirty, digging by hand under the barn and creating enough crawl space to set large steel I beams in place to lift the structure. I caught this lucky chap in a rare moment of ecstasy while crawling with a short handled shovel below a historic barn, clearly overcome with the joy that accompanies meaningful labor. Marvelous.

After the initial hand digging the beams where jockeyed into position using a small boom truck. The beam you see pictured is one of four which run the full length of the barn and relieve the weight carried by the original 6x8 wooden beams used when the barn was built.

Next came the cribbing and lots more digging by hand while the team from CDI got ready to set the jacks and start raising the structure. Pictured in the fore ground at the corner of the barn is the 6x8 material used for cribbing the jacks. They are laid one on top of the like a game of Jenga in layer after layer as the jacks are set and reset.

This is the device used to control the jacks, each knob controls one jack, the dial indicates psi of the hydraulics, using this set of controls the operator is able to adjust the pressure and rate of lift individually or all at once. The barn went up about eighteen inches at a time. It was a totally unnerving experience to watch a structure of this size rise like that. I was surprised at the complete absence of creaking and groaning.

And VIOLA!!! Our barn is 10 feet off the ground.
The whole process took less than a week. The barn is supported by huge I beams, and the entire structure is braced and tied together using framing members and come alongs. CDI effectively bypassed all the structural components that existed in the barn and replaced them with carefully placed timbers and cables to create a secure box. Now the contractor comes in to do some more dirt work and set forms for the new foundation.

Boistfort Valley Farm Awarded Barn Grant!!!

In a letter dated March 20th from the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation we learned that we were one of eighteen recipients of the very first Heritage Barn Grants in the state of Washington. I remember the crazy timing of the grant deadline which coincided perfectly with the unprecedented flooding of December of '07. As a matter of fact some representatives of the program were due to come out and have a look at the barn on December fourth, one day after the South Fork of the Chehalis rose to record heights and filled our Valley with water. We had two feet of water in the house. My wife reminds me that they called just as the water began to creep through the vents in the floor and we were trying to arrange a rescue by boat off our front porch. When it rains it pours.

So. I wrote the grant while living in a rented house and negotiating with insurance companies over the loss of everything we owned. I have never written a grant before and after pleading with any and every person I thought could do a better job than I could I just put my shoulder to it and let the fact that we love this old barn, and are just naive enough to fix it speak for itself. This and the fact that we do live in an area of historic significance, as well as the fact that this really is a sweet old barn worth saving must have weighed heavily in the decision to grant us this opportunity. So what next? A party yo.
We invited customers and friends to the farm for a gourmet dinner, live music and hay rides. We served dinner to over 125 people cooked up by Brian a chef at Porta Fino in Olympia. It was an insane menu with grilled vegetables, herb rubbed lamb, local game hen, desert, local micro brew.....
All from within 50 miles of the farm. The music was outstanding and the company without compare. It was the best party I have ever been to. We also raised over three thousand dollars to help with our end of the matching grant for the barn. Then the work starts.......

Boistfort Valley Farm is Salmon Safe!!!

Boistfort Valley Farm was certified "Salmon Safe" by the Stewardship Partners, making us the first farm in Lewis county to receive this recognition for our conservation practices and environmental stewardship. Check out the program at:

We are also applying for a federal grant at present to restore over 2000 feet of river bank and plant trees on almost ten acres of land that borders the South Fork of the Chehalis River as it winds past the farm. We have partnered with The Chehalis River Council, the Chehalis River Basin Land trust and the Chehalis Basin Education Consortium. The project includes involving over 300 local highschool students and community members to plant over 2000 trees and provide a riparian buffer 50 to 100 feet along the river; creating wildlife habitat and enhancing water quality while educating youth on the issues which affect our river system.

We are excited to offer this oppurtunity to local students and continue in our efforts to farm in a way which enhances wildlife habitat and takes environmental factors into account when shaping the future of our farm.

Belated Flood Update

Here is the start of what was meant to be an update that went out in March.

I am a little embarresed but we started getting busy on the house etc.

Anyway it has some of the flavor of that mid recovery introspection; the "can we do this?" internal dialogue. I also remember clearly coming to terms with the fact that YES, we really did weathea shitstorm.

My earlier journal entry described the flood experience for myself and my family. I closed it sitting in front of a daunting pile of paperwork.

Shortly after the first of the year my sister came out, my hero. She took three weeks off work and dragged me kicking and screaming through the mountain of paperwork. We paid the bills, made payroll, applied for grants and loans and filed an extensive and very detailed claim with the insurance company. The experience of dealing with the insurance adjuster was one of the worst in my life. The adjuster almost broke me, the exercise of fighting to get what is due with a savage and heartless individual who is not above playing on your fears and nightmares when emotions are already so close to the surface was horrifying.

We visited family and took a much needed rest.

What is becoming clear is that we fit neatly between the cracks of the typical disaster relief organizations: FEMA turned us down for all but a minimal amount of money to grade our driveway because we were insured. SBA turned us down because our income from farming does not meet their criteria for reasonable income to repay a loan. The small business end of the SBA does not handle anything agricultural. We have yet to hear from the USDA, but are hopeful we can take advantage of their low interest loan program. Keep in mind, the last thing we need right now is debt. As farmers we went long on equipment and property. Overnight these assets turned into liabilities, our stock tanked.

Contractors have started to rebuild the house. The electrical and plumbing have been addressed. Insulation and sheetrock are next. We are working on getting our greenhouses back up and running. We have planted our first seeds in the greenhouses, and are planning for a successful growing season.

Talking about the future is difficult. I am trying hard to focus on the opportunities that this has provided. I am constantly struggling to use the potential of the future as a point of reference, rather than focusing on the past. I am determined to move forward from here to realize new goals rather than get bogged down in the woe is me of what has been lost.

We are taking it one day at a time. It is difficult to look further out than a few weeks, our lives and the business changed so drastically so quickly that it is still difficult to quantify our losses. Until we know more from the insurance company it just isn’t prudent to plan too far in advance, but I do know this:

We owe to our customers and our community. You have all been so unbelievably generous and supportive. We have been deeply moved by your actions and the actions of other organizations that rallied without hesitation or judgment.

Boistfort Valley Farm will be back, we will be back this year. We will be at the Olympia Farmers Market, the Chehalis Farmers Market and the Ballard Farmers Market. We will offer a CSA this year. I hope that many of our customers will not be able to tell that anything happened. I am hoping for business as usual with a bit more elbow grease, and a lot of careful planning.

The things that will have changed about Boistfort Valley Farm will be a bit less tangible. The flood; its devastation on our community, has done something. They say that everything happens for a reason, that every cloud has a silver lining, that what does not kill us makes us stronger. Every culture, every religion, every group and individual striving for something higher recognizes the value of struggle and adversity in strengthening character and creating opportunity for growth. A wise man once told me that in a healthy community adversity brings people closer together, it does not rip them apart.

Herein lies the advantage of experiencing such a remarkable loss of property. We have been brought closer as a family and closer to the family of people around us; I have been graced with an experience that has provided tangible evidence that human nature is kind and generous. These experiences will be the cornerstone of the Boistfort Valley Farm that rises from the ashes so to speak. We will be a farm blessed with a more objective view of our role in the community in which we live and of our impact on the lives of those people for whom we grow food. We will rebuild with a clearer sense of purpose and duty than we ever had before.

Nobody wants to be the guy on the news; nobody wants to be the guy on stage in between bands with a hard luck story. But here I am. I know I speak for the other farms affected by the flooding when I say that we have a hard time asking for help, and probably a harder time recognizing the fact that we need help. My farm and others affected will continue to need help especially as we assess what insurance will and will not cover. As we move into the growing season there will be increased need for moving mud and silt, replanting perennials and ongoing equipment repair. We are really going to find out what is going to go wrong next soon. So please keep us in mind. Get us your info and we can contact you as we schedule work parties.

So yeah. In the end we have been able to recover without taking on additional debt; thanks to the generosity and loyalty of our friends, customers, and community. Many of our vendors even pitched in with ridiculous discounts, contributions and support. I am so proud to be a part of this immediate community and part of the larger community of organic farmers and market vendors and the even larger agricultural community. I have missed a great opportunity to write about many of the experiences of the recovery process, but I have to tell you we were busy busy busy.

We did recover and attend markets, we also delivered our CSA and increased our commercial sales to stores and restaurants. Many people commented that they could not believe we were back but really could not believe that we offered the greatest diversity and quality at many of the markets we attended. Hard work, fortitude and a lot more humility than I ever thought possible went into our success this year. More later.

I also endeavored to put my money where my mouth is regarding our contribution to the community and to the farming community. I am crazy proud of everything we have accomplished this year and deeply indebted to the people that made it possible. Read on.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Flood Journal Decenber 2007

Dear Friends,

I don’t know where to start; not just in writing this but in all things right now.

On the morning of December 3rd Heidi and I were awoken by the barking of our labs. You see, this late in the season I do the market in Oly on Saturdays, and Ballard on Sundays. Because it was the weekend after Thanksgiving Ballard was closed so I did two days in a row in Oly. As a reward for the effort I was snoozing when the dogs went off at about 7am. Heidi’s parents were at the door and frightened by the fast rising water of Stillman creek which runs behind their house on the PeEll McDonald Rd. I shrugged it off to their not being familiar with just how much water can come down off Boistfort (pronounced Baw Faw) which rises to just over 3000 feet and drains into Stillman creek. I put on a pot of coffee and endeavored to ease their minds.

The water was high behind the house, but not past the point of any other hard rain with a thaw. By 7:30 the water was beginning to surround the apple trees out back, I had never seen this. Heidi’s Father, John and I began jockeying equipment; moving some of the larger stuff like seeders and transplanters away from the river which was now topping its banks, onto higher ground. By 8:00 the water was coming up into the fields and threatening to cover the road. We started moving tools up onto shelves in the shop, and raising our freezers up onto pallets. By 9:00 we were wearing hip waders and moving the tools we had moved up further up and onto stairs. We moved all the vehicles to the highest spots on the farm. We set up our market tables and started stacking anything we could on them. We quite simply looked around and tried our best to raise everything we could as high as we could. By 10:00, water had crossed the road; it had inundated our fields and was flowing across the barnyard behind the barn with significant force. Things get a little hazy from there on out. I remember raising the freezers on blocks until they touched the ceiling of the garage. I remember opening the greenhouse doors and the doors to the shop so that the water could flow through. I remember watching the level of the water rise using the printing on the Tyvek of the shop as a gauge. It was coming fast, so fast that we eventually cut the back stairs free from the house to allow the water to flow more freely through the breezeway. The exercise went something like this: locate an item, assess its vulnerability to flood damage, assess its monetary and sentimental value, and act quickly and accordingly. I remember watching certain things float away: our wash tub, our fire wood.

By noon the water was up over my waders. I distinctly remember the string of profanity as my socks got wet, not the specifics, but the ferocity. I knew.

In the house my family was safe and sound for the time being. Heidi and her mother Vicki had rolled up the carpets and pulled the lower drawers from all the cabinets. The four of us with little Natalina and our two black labs Manny and Ed were an island. From twelve on can best be described as surreal. The water could not get any higher; it had already drowned our vehicles, and was threatening to enter the house. It had to stop. Yes, definitely, the water was to stop rising and gently recede. But it didn’t, it continued to rise. John and I took turns futilely leaving the house and checking on things, or retrieving things from one vehicle or building or another. By 1pm it was time to concentrate on an evacuation plan. We called 911, were referred to EOC and got our name on some vague and distant list. As the water continued to rise we could see it in the floor vents, and when it entered the house it was like something from a Stephen King novel, and I am no Stephen King fan.

I called 911 again, was again referred to EOC and this time explained in no uncertain terms what I thought about our situation and our need for rescue. As the water entered the house I remember the confused looks on our dogs both of which continued to pace from room to room looking for dry land, their feet splashing with each step on the fir floors. We hunkered down I think its called, we waited. I ran through every flood documentary and cheesy 80’s disaster movie I could remember trying to guarantee our safety and avoid the obvious blunders of all the bit actors and unfortunate victims I could recall. We would not enter the crawl space without a chainsaw, we would not wait until dark, would not go back into the house for fill in the blank. We listened to the thoroughbreds scream across the road as the water rose in their paddocks.

Occasionally we would hear what sounded like a boat. We gathered a few belongings. I went out once more to get a watering trough from the barn, remembering that anything that could float would be an asset.

Sometime around 2pm the boat came. It was a jet sled, captained by a local fishing guide. Guides had apparently answered the call from local officials and where staging rescues from the first patch of dry ground on Curtis Hill Rd. The boat picked us up and ferried us to safety. The captain endeavored to keep to the roads, but the current and the conditions had us weaving through trees and eventually motoring through our neighbor’s barn yard, over top of his tractors and truck. When we arrived at dry land, we climbed out and stood there, a mile or so from the house, happy to be safe and dry, new refugees. We walked a bit. I guess I was looking for a phone so that I might call a friend and get a ride to their house, sip coffee and talk about the events of the day. But we were landlocked. As we passed John White’s house he flagged us in and elegantly made sense of the notion that we spend the night and join him for the meatloaf dinner he had cooked for the local Lions club potluck, which had of course been cancelled. John’s effortless generosity and thoughtful concern were to set the tone for the rest of this adventure.

We did get out the next day, rescued by Tom Knee, a friend and motorcycle enthusiast, the kind of friend we are lucky to have. He had been watching the news and realized the severity of the situation. Tom builds roads for logging operations; he is one of the few people able to visualize the circuitous route it would take to get from Chehalis to the Boistfort Valley when most every access was still covered by water. The 15 minute drive took no less than 45 minutes, over hill and dale.

Tom and his wife Wendy live across the street from my life long friend Andy in West Chehalis; a neighborhood dominated by homes built at the turn of the century by logger barons and captains of industry. We; Heidi, her mom and dad, Natalina, and our dogs, settled in with Andy and his wife Thea.

The South Fork of the Chehalis River is little more than a creek during the summer. It originates on Abernathy on the eastern slopes of the Willipa Hills. The South Fork is joined by Stillman Creek just north of Lost Valley Road, and together they flow due North into the main branch of the Chehalis just north of the Hwy 6 bridge. These waters are the drainage for the Boistfort Valley and are fed from springs and the rain that falls in the Willipa. In winter they swell with the snow melt from these hills. They come up fast and go down fast. The main branch of the Chehalis originates in the Willipa as well, about 20 miles north. Everything east of Pluvious drains into the Chehalis, everything west, drains into the Willipa River.

When the rain came it was a “pineapple express”, a storm which originates in Hawaii; warm air which picks up water as it travels east over the Pacific. When the storm hit there were no less than 24 inches of snow on Boistfort Peak. The temperature rose about 14 degrees, and an additional 12-15 inches of rain fell in the Willipa Hills. The storm was so wide that it hit both Boistfort Peak and Pluvious, melting the snow in the hills and swelling both rivers. In the Boistfort Valley the water rose 5-10 feet higher than in 1996: The perfect storm.
I went back to the house as soon as the water receded; the afternoon of the 4th. Heidi and the family stayed at Andy’s.

The Boistfort Valley was a disaster; a real disaster, a war zone. Mud, debris, the bodies of animals, flooded vehicles. The beauty of this Valley made the contrast so much sharper. The pride of ownership and careful attention to cultivated fields and homes were buried beneath silt and anything that wasn’t tied down. Our walk-in cooler, measuring 7’x28’, had floated ¼ mile down the road and was perched on a car next to the Curtis store. I went in the house and outbuildings. Everything we had tried to save, with some few exceptions, had been ruined. What we had stacked up to keep from harm’s way had been toppled by the water, or had floated. The vehicles and tractors had been submerged. The wash station and the greenhouses were still standing but everything in them had floated out and was strewn from the farm to who knows where. I saw a hot water heater from the greenhouses a few miles down the road. One of our harvest bins was hanging about thirty feet up in a tree north of route 6. Bags and boxes lined the fences north of the farm. The house and outbuildings were covered with a 6 inch layer of silt.

There is nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet.

DH Lawrence

I stood there dumbfounded, in shock. Everything I knew was gone; my home, my business, my once beautiful fleet of tractors and trucks. I would walk to the store. I needed human contact, needed to share my grief. The Curtis store had been inundated with 6 feet of water, the house next door with 8. Cheri Watt stood at the street in tears. Don Koidahl the owner of the Curtis Store extended his hand, saying something like “there’s the man”, but there was no man; there was me, feeling helpless. I shook his hand, which is about the size of a Christmas ham, looked him in the eye, shook my head. A cameraman approached me, he was using my cooler as a backdrop for the news. He asked excitedly if I knew of a “good location to shoot from, you know, a house off its foundation”, I am not proud of my response. I tried to console Cheri. I was useless. I walked back to the house.

The chronology of events is somewhat sketchy from here. I know I pulled myself together; I dug in. Friends started showing up from all over. The local grange set up an emergency response center. At night we would get calls from Olympia, Seattle, Eastern WA; people wanted to help. I called upon our dear friends the Johnsons. I called our secret weapon, Jordan. Julie and Cliff pulled in the drive and offered to rent us a house down the street. Volunteers started showing up from everywhere. We needed organization; we had a project, a big project, and the man power to get it done. I was back, I love this sort of thing; insurmountable task meets willing participant.

We moved everything worth saving to the rental. We cleaned out the shop and garage and set up a make shift command center. We listed daily and long term objectives, put people in charge of specific tasks and gratefully accepted the help of a tireless army of volunteers. The Saturday after the flood we had no less than 50 people working to get things back in order. We cleared the drive and laid down new rock. We scraped mud from the buildings. We cleaned all the tools one by one and got the shop back in shape so Jordan could start draining and starting tractors. We hauled off garbage. The previous owner stopped by and inspired us to cut back the dry wall. In a week’s time we had made some very real progress. The fir floors in the house were taken up and warehoused to dry. The shop and garage were functional. Hannah Johnson was spearheading the volunteer coordination. Donations of money and goods and labor were rolling in. The Grange was cooking three hot meals a day. Local restaurants delivered food to the farm for hungry volunteers. While all this was going on I diligently inventoried our losses and started calling insurance agents, FEMA, the SBA, the USDA, the Farm Bureau…

We have all but finished phase one of the project which was to clean up, and arrest the potential damage of wicking and standing water. Mike and a crew of lovable miscreants from Action Renovation have removed the mud and sanitized and anti-microbialed all the surfaces in and under the house. With the exception of a few loose ends and the continued necessity to try to salvage our equipment, we are on to phase two; reconstruction. Once we have established our financial condition, and spoken in more detail with our insurance agents, the SBA, and the USDA, we will form a plan and set it in motion.

I don’t know where to begin thanking people: The Gonads; you guys really rock, no seriously, the Mennonites, the Boistfort fire department, Charlie at the Market, Ashley’s dad, Hannah and Darren, Lilly, Jory and the DeLucas, the Cauliflower; without whom I would certainly have made the situation worse, Jordan, John H. and Jimbo, Andy and Thea, Julie and Cliff, Rob-o, the Oly Coop crew, Brenda B., Joey and Julie; thanks for the use of the truck, Rene thanks for the truck, and Bud; thanks for the dump truck!!, there are so many operators who stopped by with excavators and dump trucks, people that delivered firewood, Art and Elizabeth who blew me away by still being there pulling nails long after I thought you had left, the guy with the Bobcat, The Red Cross, United Way, Tim Lyons, Jerry Zabriskie; who is probably still washing dishes, the ladies in the kitchen of the grange, Noa, the guys at Polybag, The Farm store, the awesome crew at Auto Motive, Terry, Grilla Bites in Seattle, the ladies in Ballard, Oxbow Farm, Rising River Farm, Travis, John White, Rick Strange, the Boistfort EOC, Omrauh, Betsy and Kerry Hines, Leon and the crew at Barnett, the Boistfort School, those crazy electricians, the guides who boated us out, Chef Peter & Mo & the staff @ Rays Boat House, the Lewis County Farm Bureau, Bucoda Christian Assembly, SPUD, WSU, Shelli and Low, Paul and Dusty at FP, the LDS Church volunteers, the Club, that kick butt crew from Tonga, Jennie Looker, River Burke, Greg Peterson, Joe & Monika, Da Raguccis, The Tenino Drill Team, Osborne Seed Co., Danny, Hillbilly and Bubbles who picked up the sleds, all the staff and vendors at the Oly and Ballard Markets, Terry’s mom, Diana, Spyhalsky!!!!, and Kassey, Momma Kat & Peanut, Kris & Laurie, the Ladies at Sterling, Jim and Lisa Johnson & Elise, Zach Lyons, the incredible Wren family, Jerri and Jeff and the crew at Papa Rays, the Country Cousin, and especially all of our generous customers and vendors who have sent donations and good cheer. A special thanks to all the people that should be on this and are not, I know I could not have covered everyone. And another thank you to the families of those that came out to help for sharing your wives and husbands, your dads and moms.

I cannot begin to describe the spirit of the community in Boistfort. I recently watched the four part documentary by Spike Lee on the Katrina disaster. The residents of Boistfort by comparison do not know the meaning of the word victim. They are generous and graceful to a fault. They are skilled, tireless, humble, hardworking, proud, diligent, quick thinking and resourceful with a good sense of humor and an admirable sense of obligation to their neighbors. I have cried, cried because of the kindness extended to myself and my family. I have been taught the nature of humility, I have been bound through the generosity and selflessness of others to extend a hand whenever and wherever I am able. I have been graced with a sense of my duty to continue to contribute to family, customers, friends and community.

Today I am at the computer. I am supposed to be wading through the pile of paperwork that has accumulated since the 3rd. I used to joke that I measured the bills by the inch; when they got to three inches it was time to pay them. Now I have to measure by the pound. I have a box full of correspondence. I have not made payroll since the beginning of the month. There are bills, letters, Christmas cards, insurance questions, applications for loans and grants. I wanted to write this instead. I wanted to say hello and to say thank you. I wanted to get this out of me.

The fire is going in the rental, its toasty warm, and Natalina and Heidi are in the living room safe and happy. The dogs are curled up by the woodstove and life is good.
There is a certain stillness in my heart.