The Farmer and his Edmonds vegetable plot: ‘Developers think I’m nuts’

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    The farm, complete with scarecrow and Merry Tillers rototiller.

    Story and photos by Lara Alexander

    If you have ever turned up the hill from 9th Avenue, heading up Walnut Street toward Yost Pool, you may have noticed the neat rows of corn, tomatoes growing in buried plastic buckets, and big sunflowers towering over the fence. If you are a gardener yourself, you may have even stopped to stare enviously at the huge vegetable plot, daydreaming about what you might grow if you had such an abundance of space. How has this mini-farm survived for so long without becoming the foundation for some new construction project?

    After strolling past this small farm so many times, I grabbed my chance to talk to the Farmer when I found him out there one day, dressed in overalls and boots and looking like a twin to his scarecrow. The small farm has survived, as it turns out, because it has only exchanged hands once since the Great Depression.

    The Farmer and the farm’s former owner, old Cooper, met around town and hit it off like good buddies. Cooper lived in the little white and red house until he was 100 years old. He never had kids and his wife died about 20 years before him. Cooper and the Farmer became good friends over time and when Cooper died, the Farmer inherited his house and land.

    “Real estate developers think I am nuts,” the Farmer says. “They come around trying to buy the land off of me, thinking it’s crazy to use it for growing vegetables, and I just ignore them. Then they really think I am nuts.”

    Cooper had the land since the depression, says Farmer. He built the garage first and then lived in it with his wife until the big house was ready to live in. “The house is pretty much the same, even the old wood stove,” Farmer says. When I told him that the photos I was taking would end up on the Internet, he said he would tell his kids. “I don’t have a computer. I don’t have a cell phone. I have one of these phones,” he mimed, holding a separate ear piece and mouth piece. “They call it a candle stick phone.” He said he didn’t mind me taking photos of the plants; people stop and do it all the time he says. “One guy set up a tripod, was taking pictures of the sunflowers. Sometimes they talk to my scarecrow. They think it’s me! You can take pictures, just none of me,” he says, “And leave out my name,” he added. So we’ll call him Farmer.

    Cooper worked his land for decades. Farmer has been at it for six years. “This is not what I thought I would be doing with my retirement. I thought I would be working on old cars, until I got this house,” he said, peering out over the rows of tomatoes. “You can’t just put it out and leave it. It’s like having kids — you gotta keep up with it.”

    A close-up of the original rototiller.

    Farmer has lived in Edmonds for a long time, and he collected a lot of stories from Cooper. He knows that the property was used for promotional photos for the Merry Tillers catalog, an Edmonds company that started manufacturing the gardening equipment in 1947. Farmer has one of those old tillers posed next to the scarecrow stationed at the top of the yard. The Merry Tiller owner used to wear overalls and looked the part of a farmer, says Farmer. “And he could grow corn in concrete.” (We found an old Merry Tillers catalog to share here.)

    “If you dig down, the dirt gets pretty hard,” Farmer explained to me. “You’ve heard of the term skid road? They used to do that here — skid the logs down the hill to the water. They had four or five mills down there at one time. Making shingles mostly. I’ve found old bottles and such in here. No bodies though.”

    The vegetable plot is a full city lot of its own and is a lot of growing space for one man. Farmer has his own system down well and if there is one thing that you notice when you drive by, it is the neat rows and the organization of it all. “I don’t know if you would call it rotational, but I do move what I plant every year,” he explains. “Next year, the corn and pumpkins will be up here and I’ll put the potatoes at the bottom. It’s a cold spring, so you take a risk planting corn. but if you don’t, you miss your chance. You know what they say — it should be knee high by 4th of July — but I have only had that twice. You get corn if it’s warm enough to germinate, you just get it late.”

    This year, he is growing early varieties of tomatoes, like Oregon Spring, Walla Walla onions, telephone pole peas, a few kinds of summer and winter squash, raspberries, plums, corn and “a mess of different potatoes.” He grows more than he can eat on his own, so he enjoys being generous with his neighbors, keeping them in fresh vegetables for part of each year.

    He leaves room every year for a patch of pumpkins. A group of preschool kids come down annually and pick their own pumpkins. “Because, you know, they think those pumpkins grow in the back of the supermarket.” He likes doing his part to teach them differently. “A lot of kids, they don’t like to get dirty, but out here they don’t seem to care.”

    With some luck, there will still be places to get dirty and grow seeds when those preschoolers are old enough to retire to their own gardens.

    A culinary adventurer, Lara Alexander grows, cooks and writes about food from her home in Edmonds. You can read about her garden and kitchen fun on the blog Food-Soil-Thread.

    7 COMMENTS

    1. The world needs a lot more “nuts” like this guy. He lives the life he loves and just ignores those who don’t get it. I hope he finds a way to pass this place along to someone else who places more value on sprit than money.

    2. For our family this ‘urban farm’ has been one the highlights of our community. Not just that it’s unique, but as the article notes, it is treasured and made available for viewing or the taking (the pumpkins). It would be great to see a few more farms that would be linked to the Saturday market activities.

    3. I have done considerable gardening in Edmonds, and as a consequence, have spent a lot of time with pick-axe and making a fine collection of rocks. I have always marveled at the terrific condition of his garden and soil. I always make sure I take a look when I drive by to see what is doing well. I hope through this he knows just how many people enjoy his wonderful and now all too rare vegetable garden, and hope it remains for years to come.

    4. I believe the Farmer is the normal one and that the developer is the one that is nuts. I grew up passing this farm and watching it change thru the seasons. I hope it never never changes.

    5. Beloved Edmonds Farmer, you are definitively NOT nuts!!!
      Your garden was my inspiration when I started the Edmonds Floretum Garden Club Community Garden three years ago. Your garden is just beautiful and an inspiration to many. When you have too much of any crop, please remember that the Edmonds Food Bank welcomes fresh vegetables. Transporting them to the church on Monday night is the only acquirement , no washing for example, etc.. and much appreciated by all the recipients. Everyone should remember that vegetables can be planted and look beautiful among flowers and that you don’t need much land or any even (think containers) for growing food.

    6. I have known the “Farmer man” for many years. He is as the article makes him appear; dedicated, generous, humble and very kind. He is a no bells-and-whistle kind of guy dealing with life and it’s challenges as it comes. The highlight of his year is when the preschool kids visit and run around the garden (even the muddiest part!) investigating every plant and asking an infinite number of questions. Probably about the best reality lesson they will receive in preschool and far beyond! He always down-plays his farming ability but, every single year, it is very obvious how much this man knows about gardening and how much he enjoys answering the many questions from the kids and the folks who stop and lean against the fence admiring the exceptional garden view. Carry on just as you are Farmer man, candle-stick phone and all – you are priceless!

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