The Olympic Peninsula is often thought of as a destination for coastal hikes along rugged beaches or cozy restaurants with stunning mountain backdrops. Olympic National Park, the "un-dammed" Elwha River, and the annual Lavender Festival in Sequim are some of the main attractions.
There’s also a year-round Saturday farmers market in Port Angeles that has been going since the early 1980s. It was one of the first in the region. At this time of year, it’s rich with all kinds of colorful produce, as well as arts and crafts.
That market was co-founded by Nash Huber, who moved here in 1968. Huber is considered a pioneer of the organic farming movement in the Pacific Northwest. Read up on him, and you’ll find he’s considered an equal to greats such as California’s Alice Waters.
He grows his produce mostly on the fertile glacial soil of Sequim’s Dungeness River Valley.
On a sunny morning in late May, I found him tinkering with a brush hog mower in an open shed near several rows of his greenhouses. He’s friendly and self-deprecating.
“I’m not a great mechanic. But that’s about what we have right now,” he said. He points out that I chose to visit at the height of his planting season. “The real mechanics are all out driving tractors,” he said.
Breeding For Flavor: 'It's A Big Deal.'
Huber's work shows up in organic markets all over the region.He’s known for breeding new varieties of crops such as kale and spinach. He also takes advantage of the rich soil and microclimate that has allowed him to grow produce year-round on the northern Olympic Peninsula.
He’s currently developing a new kind of Brussels sprout. And, after years of effort, a new variety of Romanesco cauliflower he hybridized is expected to be available to consumers by the end of this year. There are tomatoes and basil coming up in the low hot tunnels near us. Those are a big part of his customers' diets, he says.
“You know, food that tastes like food is real important to us. It’s gotta eat good. I do like taste, I do like flavor – you know, it’s a big deal,” he said.
That commitment to flavor as well as his early use of organic farming techniques have earned him many awards over the years.
But when you ask him about it, Huber says his way of doing things is really just what came to him naturally.
A Young Food Chemist Goes West
“Growing food for people is something that’s in my genetic code I guess. You know, it’s part of the way I’m put together. I love growing food,” he said. “Even when I did chemistry, that’s what I was learning and being challenged with, (learning) how carbohydrates are put together.”
Huber is 77 now. He’s been farming the soil in Sequim without chemicals for the past 50 years. He was 27 when he left the Midwest, where he grew up on a small family farm. After college in the 1960s, he worked for a big food processing company, developing new methods for utilizing corn starch.
“I was a chemist, a rather successful chemist, a food chemist. I took stuff apart, you know, and I put it back together. I was a carbohydrate/protein chemist, and I was pretty good at it,” he said. “I could do stuff that people hadn’t done before. And it was interesting – it was challenging, beautiful, interesting work. I was turned on by it. But I could see where it was headed. And I didn’t want to be part of that.”
He enrolled in graduate school, but he still wasn’t happy.
“Blew that up. You know in '67-'68, with everyone else blowing stuff up,” he said. “I could see that we were going to completely screw up the food system, that we were going to be making foods that people really shouldn’t be eating. And I just said, ‘Ok, that’s it.’”
So he decided to go west. Huber and his girlfriend at the time piled into a green Chevy II and drove, first to California. They went up the coast and eventually landed in Sequim.
He remembers the moment he decided he wasn’t leaving. He loved the clean air and open space, but it was something else that made him stay.
Hooked By A Toll... And The Stunning View
“We’d come across the floating bridge over there, over Hood Canal that had been built in '64," Huber said.
"It cost a buck and a half then to cross the bridge. And I said ‘well, we’re not going back!’ A dollar and a half was worth quite a bit more than it is now,” he said, laughing.
Then he says he had a moment when they came over the rise heading from the bridge toward Sequim on Higway 101. He remembers the view.
“The sun was going down. (It was an) August evening. And you could see the sunset out over Sequim,” he said. “And it was a much smaller town then. And it was absolutely, stunningly beautiful. Seeing the mountains and the sun…I said, ‘Yeah, well - we’re not going back. This is it. We’re staying here.’
"It blew me away,” he recalls.
That spring he rented 35 acres on Sequim Bay. He grew hay on burnt-out fields and pieced his life together with ends barely meeting for a long time. He used the natural organic methods he learned from his parents as a kid on the farm in Illinois. To make money, he learned carpentry and worked for a while as a contractor, building houses.
He started growing vegetables for food, kept bees the way his grandfather had taught him and co-founded the Port Angeles farmers market because he and some friends needed a place to sell their stuff.
“You had to have income, you know? It takes money to live,” he said.
Nash's Now: Produce, Chickens And Pork
Eventually he expanded his vegetable growing by leasing land in the mineral-rich Dungeness river valley. And he met his wife, Patty McManus. She’s his business partner on the farm, handling promotions and, currently, poultry and egg production.
She greeted me in front of a grassy pen with dozens of free-range hens and several roosters.
“Well this is maybe only half the flock. The other half is in the barn. We - we’re kind of a different operation,” she said.
Different because they don’t use any commercial feed. Instead, they give their hens a special mix of protein-rich grains, most of which they grow themselves.
“Like here, this is a bin of our grain,” she said, opening the lid and letting a handful run through her fingers.
“We have a couple of different kinds of wheat, we have triticale, we have barley.”
And they soak the chicken feed in whey left over from local cheesemakers.
She says everything on Nash’s Farm is trying to honor the natural systems that nature provides. They talk about “growing the fertility of the soil.”
McManus says the chickens help control the bug population in a way that’s beneficial to their food crops.
“We don’t want our fields insect-free. We want tachinid flies and praying mantis and honey bees - of course we want bees! There’s many different kinds of insects that will come in. Ladybugs is the famous one, that eat aphids. We want those,” she said.
Their farm has grown. It covers about 700 acres now. McManus says Nash was instrumental in getting much of it protected from development. He worked with the PCC Farmland Trust to save the land he had come to love.
“This was their first acquisition. The Delta Farm,” she said. “You’re standing on their land. And Nash went over there and said, ‘This is the heart of Dungeness. If we don’t save it, Dungeness will go to development.’”
Who Will Farm In The Future?
Nowadays, the biggest challenge isn’t so much saving the land, it’s finding talent to keep working it without chemicals - as Nash and Patty get older.
They say right now the hope for the future seems to be a lot of young women who are stepping up, eager to do this work.
Like 23-year-old Andrea LaPlante, their livestock manager, who moved here after attending college on the east coast. She’s been farming since she was 13.
“Yeah, I’d be harvesting tobacco and I’d see dead bugs on the plants. And when I was 13, I didn’t know anything about organic agriculture. But I knew that was wrong,” LaPlante said.
Nash hired her after finding her resume on the internet. Now she’s in charge of pork production at the farm.
Just beyond the barn with the chickens is a pen in an open field with several litters of piglets and the tired sows that are still nursing them.
LaPlante has named them all and can describe their intelligent behaviors in great detail. But she says she doesn’t mind knowing that she’s raising them for food.
“It’s really satisfying when I look out and I see them playing. That’s how you know your animals are happy: they aren’t constantly eating and they have time to play with each other. And so because of that, I feel that they had a good life. And I make sure they have a good death. And I can also enjoy them after they are gone,” LaPlante said.
Explore the farm, and you’ll meet many other young women, intent on learning from Nash.
He says he’s learning from them too, as he figures out how to delegate and communicate his legacy.
“You know, if you can’t pass stuff on, then it pretty much ends with you,” he said.
Growing Markets For Organic Food
“I want to see the farm continue. I want to see the production system that Patty and I put together here continue. I want to see other people be able to utilize the land we’ve saved and the production system we’ve initiated, to be able to expand it, grow good food that people can eat and be healthy on,” Huber said.
He says a lot has changed since he first started farming here fifty years ago. It’s a lot more crowded, especially in the spring and summer times.
But he says the growing population is also a growing market for his food, which more and more urban people are willing to pay a little extra for, whether they come to his farm stand in Sequim or one of the many farmers markets that carry his produce all around the region.