When it came to their dreams of farming on the coast, these spirited local farmers ignored the cynics and found their niche in the farm-to-table movement.
Story by ANDREW TONRY • Photos by JOSHUA BESSEX
Teresa Retzlaff was looking for something different.
“My husband and I were working a series of burnout jobs in the Bay Area,” says Retzlaff, “not really making ends meet, and not really liking living in that intense treadmill.
“I wanted to do something that had more meaning to me,” she says. “I wanted to have the kind of work that I could be outside. I’ve always loved growing things. I’ve been a gardener most of my adult life.”
“When we first moved here,” says Retzlaff, “one of the first things people said to me was: ‘You can’t farm here.’
“It didn’t make sense to me because I would look at people’s gardens and see them flourishing,” Retzlaff remembers. She wondered about the hurdles. Were they social? Economic?
Regardless, the naysaying was prevalent: “You can’t farm on the coast,” she was told. “There are no farms on the coast.”
Well, there was one.
Jeff Trenary began farming in Seaside as the 1970s were coming to a close. After growing up around and working on family farms in the Willamette Valley, time spent abroad crystallized the then 29-year-old’s vision: Farming would be the life for him.
“I traveled around Europe a lot, and that made me decide I could do what I’m doing,” Trenary says. “In Europe a lot of the farms are smaller than you see in America.” Subsequently he realized that a small, non-industrial-sized farm could be sustained by direct, local purchases. “I came back, and I was gung ho.”
But Trenary had no intention of breaking ground in the Willamette Valley, where the vast majority of Oregon’s commercial produce is grown. His heart tugged him to the North Coast.
“I love it here,” Trenary says. “It’s really beautiful. I also surf, and Seaside has some of the best surfing in the entire world. I wanted to be where my roots were. And farmland was still relatively inexpensive back then.”
Of adapting crops to the chillier, wetter, and highly unpredictable coastal climate, Trenary “just assumed it was doable.” He began with a 12-horsepower rototiller walking tractor on a rented, 30-acre plot. It was the first time the land had ever been cultivated.
“I didn’t know anything,” Trenary says with a smile. “I really didn’t know what I was biting off.
“Everybody thought that it was just too wet and too cold over here,” he adds. “Which it was.”
But through determination, trial, and error, Trenary figured out what worked and what didn’t.
“I realized you can’t grow tomatoes outside here and make a profit,” he says. Such “high-profit” crops need more dry heat. Potatoes, on the other hand, do really well. So do leafy greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, and arugula.
After a few years, Trenary’s modifications to his rented plot began enticing the property’s owner. Eventually she decided to take it back. In 1986, he started anew, buying a large chunk of land along the Nehalem River, about five miles east of Nehalem. He also started a small nursery, growing flowers. With his then-wife, he purchased a retail store in Tillamook County. They began selling produce and flowers from the nursery.
“There was nothing else like that where we were, so our business took off really well,” he says. At the time, there were few other outlets — farmers markets had yet to emerge in the region, and Trenary’s farm was not large enough to be able to compete against the low prices of mono-crop farmers in the valley. Then Trenary and his wife separated. She got the store, and he kept the farm.
“Once I decided I was gonna do this, I decided nothing was gonna stop me,” he says. “I’ve had some real hardships and didn’t know how I was gonna make it, but I wasn’t gonna quit.” The vow was as much of idealism as financial necessity.
“It’s a very political, social thing,” he adds. “When I was just out of high school in the late ’60s and the early ’70s I became a vegetarian for about 10 years. I was into macrobiotics.”
He learned about organic practices, sustainability, and became acutely aware of the differences in taste and nutrition between genetically modified and organic crops. “California had organic farmers maybe 15 years before we had it here,” Trenary says. In Oregon, however, he was a pioneer.
In the early ’90s the public was largely unaware. But a chef in Portland, Greg Higgins, proved ahead of his time.
“Greg is kind of the grandfather of Oregon’s farmer-to-chef connection,” says Trenary. “He was a huge promoter of it. At first I was bringing him all kinds of leafy greens. Then later I learned how to grow warm weather crops like peppers, tomatoes.” Sensing opportunity, Trenary tried to replicate the farmer-to-chef relationship.
“I wouldn’t even call them,” Trenary says of his pitches to the restaurants. “I’d just load my truck up and go to Portland. They’d say, ‘What’ve you got?’ And I’d take ’em out to my truck.”
Trenary sold to restaurants on the coast as well. John Newman, proprietor of Newman’s 988 in Cannon Beach, was an early adopter. At the time he was the head chef at The Stephanie Inn. Today, Trenary’s produce can be found in a number of North Coast eateries, including Fort George Brewery and the Blue Scorcher Bakery & Cafe in Astoria, The Wayfarer Restaurant & Lounge and Cannon Beach Cafe in Cannon Beach, Blackbird and Bread & Ocean Bakery in Manzanita, and more.
As such, Kingfisher Farm is now almost wholly devoted to growing produce. The flowers are long gone. In their place, long straight rows of greens rustle in the wind. Carrot tops sprout through the soil, across from an acre of potatoes. Trenary also has a cluster of long greenhouses, covered with tarps, where he grows tomatoes, peppers, and the like. He keeps some of them going year-round. Pulling back the doors to peek inside, a burst of hot, humid air rushes out, some 20 degrees warmer than the brisk breeze outside. The majority of the pasture, though, is reserved for greens.
“My salad mix alone has eight crops in it,” Trenary says. “Five different kinds of lettuce: endive, frisee, radicchio, arugula, and sometimes we put spinach in there too.” During the height of the summer season, Kingfisher Farm produces some 80 to 100 pounds of the salad mix per week, most of it going to chefs.
“When I got involved with restaurants,” Trenary says, “it all started to work out.”
Getting produce into restaurant kitchens is every bit as important as selling in retail — maybe more so. Some people cook and some don’t, but few understand, showcase, and trumpet quality as do proper chefs. And when it comes to underscoring the value of fresh, locally farmed food, taste is paramount.
“To me, the way you shift people to eating a lot of fresh food is that it tastes amazing,” says Teresa Retzlaff. “If it tastes like crap, even if it’s really good for you, why would you eat it?
“One of the things that’s advantageous in buying food from local farmers is that food was likely picked that morning,” Retzlaff adds. “Fruits like tomatoes or strawberries, when they’re allowed to ripen on the vine, the sugars develop; the flavors develop. That’s what we’re going for. It’s that flavor.”
Fortuitously, fresh taste and health go hand-in-hand.
The growth of Retzlaff’s own farm, 46 North, which is located just south of Astoria in Olney, mirrors the growth of regional farmers markets. From her newly purchased plot, Retzlaff began selling flowers and plant starts at the Astoria Sunday Market in the early 2000s. At the time, the market trafficked as much in produce as it did in crafts.
“There was tremendous response,” Retzlaff says. “In addition to local food, a lot of people wanted to grow it. People wanted organic stuff.” She sold starts for an array of leafy greens, broccoli, peas, and more. Today she sells flowers, produce, and plant starts at Astoria’s Thursday River People Farmers Market.
“People always want tomato starts,” Retzlaff says, “even though it’s a heartbreaker out here. It’s just too cool, too wet. Tomatoes like a long, warm, dry growing season.
“A lot of people aren’t comfortable starting plants from seed,” she adds. “So they want plant starts, and they really want a source for that. It’s still a big part of our business. I love that relationship with people when you help them grow food for themselves.
“Most people are never going to be self-sufficient in their gardens,” Retzlaff continues. “But it develops an appreciation for how good fresh food tastes. And it also develops an appreciation for how hard it is to do.”
For Retzlaff, even getting the chance to discover the difficulty of farming on the North Coast was a struggle.
“We could not get a loan as a farm,” she says. “It’s kind of an infamous story that we essentially had to lie to our lender. They were really concerned that we had a history of farming. We basically did it as a home loan.”
And while getting loans to start farms is difficult anywhere, it’s especially twisted by the increased value of land near the coastline.
“Even though our property is zoned for agriculture and forestry, it was not priced to be a farm,” Retzlaff says. “It was marketed to be your luxury rural residence only 10 minutes from a latte.”
At Starvation Alley Farms on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula, Jessika Tantisook and Jared Oakes faced a different challenge when they began running the cranberry farm in 2010.
Cranberries are one of the few crops native to the coastal climate. But growing them organically for profit was heretofore wholly unheard of. Tantisook began asking “Why not?” She called the nearby Washington State University Long Beach Research and Extension Unit, a satellite center specializing in cranberries.
Tantisook says she persisted with different approaches and pitches but was continually stonewalled. Eventually, Starvation Alley simply went for it.
“The first two years we saw very significant decreases in our production,” Tantisook says of going organic. “We lost about 70 percent from before. Similar to a person, if you’ve been on steroids and you take your body off of that, in general there will be an adaptation period.”
After the initial losses, Starvation Alley has been rebounding. “In the past three years we’ve seen increases in production,” Tantisook says.
Still, the cranberry farm is producing less than half of what it did before going organic. Tantisook acknowledges that they may never approach the levels of genetically modified crops. But the organic cranberries they’re growing, she says, are far superior.
“Our cranberries are really dark,” Tantisook says. “They have rich, purple juice and a higher concentration of pectin. The reason those things are is because the growing season is milder and longer. It’s like wine grapes: What’s the terroir?”
And like grapes, Starvation Alley’s cranberries go to make a drinkable product. The majority of their fruit — as well as some bought from neighboring farms who’ve adopted organic practices — go into a raw juice. Undiluted, the flavor is bitingly tart, sour. In most applications it acts as a concentrate. And though raw cranberry juice has numerous health benefits, Tantisook and company have found their juice also makes a great mixer.
“One of the markets we’re a part of is the craft cocktail industry,” Tantisook says. “We’re probably in close to 100 bars in the Northwest.” (Locally, that includes Bridgewater Bistro and Astoria Coffeehouse & Bistro in Astoria, as well as Pickled Fish Restaurant in Long Beach and Nancy & Jimella’s Seafood Cafe in Ocean Park.)
And while thrilled the juice company is taking off, Starvation Alley’s stated mission goes beyond business.
“Organic farming is really important,” says Tantisook. “Growing things in a way that’s good for people and the environment is really important to us.”
As such, Starvation Alley’s owners are sharing what they’ve learned with other cranberry farmers in the area, that going organic is indeed an option.
Says Tantisook: “I’m pretty sure if you call the WSU cranberry office now they’re not going to say that growing organic cranberries is impossible.”
Some three decades after Jeff Trenary began commercially farming on the North Coast, the burgeoning industry remains as much driven by social and political values as by dreams of profitability. But the movement hardly remains static.
The word “organic” wasn’t in the common lexicon when Trenary broke ground. Indeed, the growth has been multi-faceted: from the increasing numbers of small farms like 46 North and Starvation Alley, to the spread of farmers markets (during summer there is one almost every day of the week in the Columbia Pacific) and the continued adoption of locally sourced products in restaurants. Also growing are a slate of state and educational programs, both aimed at supporting small farms and increasing public access and awareness.
“The thing that makes me feel really optimistic is that there are so many more resources available in 2015 than there ever were in 2003 when we started,” says Retzlaff.
“I think right now demand is greater than supply on the North Coast,” she adds. “There’s opportunity here. And challenges.”