Home to more than 50 farms and nurseries, the Sammamish Valley offers deep roots as a rich and fertile land for both large and small farmers.
The valley doesn’t typically experience intense frosts during the winter, according to local farm owner Noa Kay. She said this makes it especially desirable for farmers.
“Western Washington is such an amazing spot to farm because a lot of the things that grow well here are winter hearty,” Kay said.
Kay and her husband Mark Albonizio have operated Songbird Haven Farm for three years. The half-acre farm is part of Viva Farms, a nonprofit offering bilingual training and access to farm essentials in both King and Skagit counties.
In the winter season, Songbird Haven Farm grows a variety of leafy greens and vegetables such as kale, cabbage, tender Asian greens, lettuces, carrots and parsnips— just to name a few.
Kay said she enjoys the winter season because fewer pests ravage the crops, unlike the spring and summer seasons. On the other hand, not everything can grow in the colder weather, like flowering fruit.
“You have to pick the right variety for growing throughout the winter,” she said. “It never goes quite according to plan, but we try to utilize the best crop and a good spot for it.”
Songbird Haven Farm also uses a no till practice, which means the farmers do not disturb the soil. This method allows crops to form a relationship with the living organisms in the soil.
Healthy soil can retain rainwater more effectively, according to the Songbird Haven Farm website. The diversity that untouched soil creates is also beneficial because it can prevent crop loss from pests and harmful diseases.
Kay does not plow--or even walk--on the half-acre that they care for, she said. Instead, the farmers rely on hand tools and earthworms to aerate the ground.
“It's pretty important for us because we turn over crops a lot,” she said. “We grow in the winter and the summer. We're planting more than one thing during a given season.”
Anthony Reyes, farm operations lead at 21 Acres, said wintertime on the farm is spent planting cover crops, which are plants grown to benefit soil health instead of crop yield. The farm typically aims to plant a large portion of its cover crop by mid-September and mid-October.
Cover crops help preserve nutrients in the soil while controlling soil erosion, Reyes said. It also prepares the land for the upcoming season of crops.
“The wintertime is a period to take a break while putting seeds in the soil that are going to be benefiting the land in the next year,” he said.
Reyes added that 21 Acres bases its cover crop regimens on observed patterns from soil testing and samples. Other factors like weed pressure and disease cycle also play a role.
“Cover crop is one of our greatest tools for addressing a lot of these challenges,” he said.
Mostly carrots and beets will be grown at 21 Acres during winter, Reyes said. Other crops like spring mixes and radishes will be planted in a high tunnel, which is a hoop structure covered in plastic or fabric.
“For our farm and a lot of [those in the] valley, we have such heavy soil,” he said. “That makes where and how you’re doing winter production trickier,” he said.
Many small farm owners are still trying to determine if they want to farm full-time, Kay said. At first, starting a farmstead can be risky due to weather conditions, crop choice, sales and other factors that could make for a feeble harvest.
“Especially for those of us with really small farms, even if you just purchase a couple of things from a local farmer, it makes such a big difference,” she said.
The farm is a part of a Community Supported Agriculture program, where residents commit to buy from that farm ahead of time. It’s like a subscription service, she said. Enough crops are produced in the winter for six CSA boxes, or one box per month.
The farm delivers produce to pick up locations in Green Lake (Seattle), Meridian Park (Shoreline), Ridgecrest (Shoreline), and Woodinville (at the farm) six times between November and March. People can also buy one-time veggie boxes at pop-up CSAs throughout the season.
She said CSAs can be helpful for smaller farms that want to spend less time marketing their crops during the season when they are the busiest.
“Things need to move quickly because you can't store carrots and fresh greens,” she said. “We're still getting a hang of the timing, but we would love to offer more boxes.”
Providing the community with fresh vegetables and produce connects to Kay’s personal mission. Since college, she has been interested in work where both human and environmental health intersect. She decided to change careers in 2018 after dedicating several years to the public health field, she said.
“I wasn’t feeling satisfied with the work I was doing from afar on issues I really cared about,” she said. “Food systems, and opportunities to improve them, is really what drew me to public health in the first place.”
Kay realized farming was the right decision for her when she discovered farmers practicing small scale and no-till methods. She and her husband visited and volunteered at several farms to learn the basics before opening their own farm in 2019.
To learn more about Songbird Haven Farms, visit songbirdhavenfarm.com/.
For volunteer opportunities at 21 Acres, visit https://21acres.org.