Celebrating the 2020 Our Valley Our Future Award Winners

Posted on June 9, 2020
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Shauna Flores – SPF’s Future Achievement in Agriculture Scholarship Award

Shauna Flores fell in love with agriculture when she was a third grader, showing her rabbits at the Skagit County Fair with her 4-H club.  And since that time, agriculture has kept popping up in her life. It was her dad, Chris Flores, who urged her to take horticulture classes with Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Bennett at Sedro-Woolley High School.

Shauna began learning about greenhouse management, landscaping and horticultural plant science. She was hooked: Shauna was fascinated with different native plants and how the earth has pushed them to evolve. Now, she can’t imagine doing anything but agriculture.

Shauna graduated this June from Sedro-Woolley High School and is enrolled in the Washington State University at Pullman CAHNRS program this coming fall. The College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences is one of the largest and most innovative colleges at WSU.

Flores hopes that a lot more young people become passionate and invested in agriculture for it to be sustainable.

 

Diane Szukovathy, Jello Mold Farm  – SPF’s Innovation in Agriculture Award

 

On a brisk spring Skagit Valley morning, Diane Szukovathy carefully looked through her just-blooming Icelandic Poppies. Tiny slivers of coral, salmon, and pink peeked through green buds. The flower is notoriously finicky and difficult to grow. They are picked in the early morning, before the buds open up too much, to ensure a long vase life.

For one perfectly bloomed salmon-colored poppy, it was too late. The flower’s delicate, papery pedals rustled in the wind. Diane set it aside, unfit for market.

“We farmers don’t see a lot of color,” she joked. This is the great irony of flower farmers: the best blooms are saved for later – wedding days, dining room tables or other special occasions, far from the gritty fields where they’re grown.

This is the key to the success of Diane’s Jello Mold Farm. Not only has she mastered her passion for growing flowers, she’s sorted out how to make the business side of it pencil.

Years ago, Diane saw that regional flower farmers with a similar ethos to hers – salmon-safe, good stewards of the land, and high quality standards – would be better off working together, so she helped found the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, located in Georgetown. Seventeen farms from Oregon and Washington belong to the cooperative, including three other Skagit Valley flower farms. Their storefront draws buyers from some of the most well-regarded restaurants and florists in Seattle, as well as grocery stores like the Ballard Market and Burt’s Red Apple in Madison Park. Because these farmers work together, they spend more time growing and less time delivering, which Szukovathy says is critical for the success of small farms.

Diane is also dedicated to sharing her knowledge with others – both the farming and business aspects. Her vibrant intern program brings a steady stream of passionate growers through Jello Mold Farm, some of whom have gone on to start their own farms. “It’s a different kind of crop,” she said as she picked a sleeping bug off a branch she was cutting, carefully placing it on another leaf to continue its nap. “They fill you back up with their creativity.”

Diane thinks of her seven-acre farm as a habitat sanctuary for wildlife. A White-Crowned Sparrow recently made a nest, laying four speckled eggs in one of Diane’s hoop houses. Frogs and toads are regulars. “The farm itself is nature,” she said.

Szukovathy’s goal is to sustainably compete with large flower growers in tropical areas that abuse people and planet by flying their industrially-grown flowers around the planet, for slightly cheaper than you can buy locally. “That’s f** up,” she said. “You can quote me on that.”

With Covid-19 challenging the globalized model, Szukovathy hopes for the better, although the pandemic is cutting into Jello Mold Farm’s revenue as well. Large weddings and events are cancelled. But like always, Diane’s entrepreneurial innovation is helping keep Jello Mold Farm and the rest of the cooperative going. Flowers and fashion are intertwined and ever-changing, so she’s used to adapting. Mother’s Day was the biggest they’ve had yet, weddings are turning into elopement flower packages, and more people are buying bouquets of flowers at home to cheer themselves up.

Diane recently received a call from an immune-compromised Seattleite who regularly picks up Diane’s specialty Colibri Icelandic Poppies at the Ballard Market this time of year. The woman said every year she looks forward to the poppies – watching them in the vase until the petals fall off, continuing to watch the stamen after that. The customer can’t go in the store, but wanted to know if she could order some of the poppies to pick up curbside, which, of course, Diane will supply.

For years, Diane and her husband Dennis have been dedicated to bringing nature to the places it’s needed most, and, she said, it’s needed now more than ever. “That’s why we do this,” Diane said. “The flowers are an ambassador for nature.”

 

Oscar Lagerlund, Lagerwood Farms – SPF’s Community Legacy in Agriculture Award

 

Against the backdrop of the North Cascade Mountains, 195 black and white Holstein cows graze peacefully on bright green spring grass. They’re part of a quintessential Skagit Valley farm, built and evolved over the last 100 years by the same family.

A large white farmhouse, built in 1913, has been home to the Lagerlund family since they purchased the homestead in 1919. Blackberries surround an abandoned cinderblock and cedar milking parlor – it was state-of-the-art when built in 1953 by Oscar Lagerlund and his father Ed, who passed away in 1981 at age 89. Three large red barns, built over the decades, still house some of the farm’s current herd. A smattering of older buildings and equipment lie scattered around the homestead. John Deere tractors line up against one barn, ranging in age from 1953 to 1977. Very little is shiny or new. It’s clear that dedication and hard work built the farm one day at a time, unlike corporate farms built in a season with money from deep-pocket investors increasingly snapping up farmland across the country.

Not only has Oscar left behind an economically feasible farm for his family, his legacy reaches the entire Skagit Valley.

“I’m no prophet,” Oscar said on a recent walk through the farm. “But it was pretty obvious what was going to happen.”

Back in high school in the 1950s – when small family farms were the norm in Skagit County – Oscar could see that if pressure for cheap food continued, corporate farms would take over the food supply and farmland. Also, later on, immense profits to be made by selling and developing farmland would increasingly become irresistible for struggling small farmers to resist.

In an effort to combat these forces and retain Skagit County’s character as a valley of small, family-owned farms, Lagerlund, in his position on the Skagit County Planning Commission, became instrumental in preserving Skagit County’s farmland.

Among other things, Oscar was a leader in increasing the minimum agricultural parcel size to 40 acres, as well as introducing zoning laws that discourage residential development and commercial activities other than farming. Eventually, he said, he was kicked off the Planning Commission because he was “too farming-centric.” Since then, he has served in many other capacities in the fight to protect Skagit’s precious remaining farmland from going the way of bulldozers and asphalt.

One of the main reasons the Lagerlunds have been successful over the last century has been their willingness to embrace change. Oscar built up his own herd from two heifers purchased when he was fourteen years old, to 400 cows.

When his son Nels Lagerlund wanted to take over the farm, they went organic, a niche that would allow them to compete with large corporate farms. Oscar left for the night, and Nels sold all but six heifers to rebuild the now 195-cow organic herd. Oscar couldn’t bear to watch his lifetime of work sold away, but he knew it was best for the farm and its future.

“It’s the only reason we’re still here,” Nels said.

“They’re farming like we used to,” Oscar added. “These [organic] cows have a lot less stress. And the milk, it just tastes so much better.”

Farming, of course, isn’t an easy life, and the Lagerlunds say it’s becoming harder as ever-increasing government regulations, reporting requirements and licenses put more pressure on small family farms, Nels said, by creating an environment where giant corporate farms, which can afford attorneys and lobbyists and the newest equipment, have a significant competitive advantage.

Resisting the forces of consolidation and corporate farming, the Lagerlunds continue to adapt and strive to survive as a smaller farm for the generations of their family to come.

“I was always going to be a farmer,” Nels said. “It’s a heritage thing.” Nels’s great-grandfather was a dairy farmer in Sweden, bringing his occupation to Skagit County. Oscar’s grandson, Nels’s nephew, the fifth generation of Lagerlund farmers in Skagit County, is headed to college this year to learn more about agriculture.

Oscar remembers plowing fields at nine years old, and recalls the days when his family used horses to work the fields. Oscar’s father was disabled when Oscar was 12 years old, and the burden of keeping the family farm going fell on him after that.

“It wasn’t like I chose it,” he said.

There were times that he dabbled in other kinds of farming, like growing peas and seed crops, but he never left dairy.

Since Nels took over the farm in 1996, Oscar said he comes to the farm almost daily to visit his son and the cows. He wears a cowboy hat, jeans and a John Deere coat. His gait is that of a man who has worked hard his entire life, enduring injuries both large and small.

“I didn’t want to be a dairy farmer,” he said. “I didn’t like waking up at 4 a.m. everyday. But I tell you what. When I’m not around them, I miss the damn things.”