SisterLand Farms honored as 2023 Farmer of the Year

There’s a tiny farm in Port Angeles, WA that grows enough food to feed around 45 families per week, processes tons of kitchen waste each year, donates fresh food to area food banks, and employs and educates a growing team of future farmers–each a minority in their field. And they do it all on less than one acre of regeneratively-grown vegetable beds.

The folks running the operation at SisterLand Farms, who just celebrated their fifth year in business, will be the first to tell you that what they do is about more than just harvesting delicious tomatoes and salad greens. They operate on a two word mission with a big impact: Grow Radically.

“Once I started farming again in 2018, I knew that I wanted to do it differently than I’d seen it done in the past,” owner and lead farmer Jenson has said. “I wanted staff to be treated with dignity, I wanted their health to be priority, I wanted their opinions and ideas to carry weight, and I wanted to build a thriving community of people who believe in that work.”

SisterLand Farms

SisterLand crew member Benji with an armful of scallions.

Community comes first at SisterLand. Over 15% of their harvests are donated to food banks and mutual aid groups that bolster local food security, their staff are equally-paid and share equity and voting power in decision making, and they host an annual summer camp for LGBTQIA+ adults. 

In support of their fellow farmers, SisterLand staff co-founded–and helps administer–the Clallam Growers’ Collective; a grassroots network of farmers, gardeners, and volunteers supporting each other through educational opportunities, work parties, a shared tool library, and networking.

Sustainability is a key practice at this totally queer-owned and operated farm. Staff and volunteers weigh and track all of the farm’s plastic use and all of their products are packaged with readily compostable materials like cotton and paper. The farm also grows on strictly no-till beds, with buffers in place to capture run-off and protect the on-site wetland. Additionally, SisterLand is home to the county’s only kitchen compost pick-up program and is turning tens of thousands of pounds of food scraps annually into soil that rotates through cut-flower beds, fruiting crop beds, and–lastly–the vegetable operation.

Eli, another crew member, holds a bucket of plastic waste to be weighed.

Farmers are industrious and find many different ways to meet their needs, make a living, and build community on pieces of land of varying sizes. SisterLand Farms is the embodiment of doing a lot with a little, all while making sure the land they work on and the soils there stay healthy.

“In this community, we’re finding that farms are no longer focusing on the commodity market but instead turning their business models to revolve around niche products,” said Tom Sanford, North Olympic Land Trust executive director.

Lavender and organic fruits and vegetables are common niche products in Clallam County. These niche products tend to have a higher profit than commodity products like corn or wheat. Niche products can also be tied to value added products like jam or fermented foods, and can lead to producers forming direct relationships with consumers.

Working in a niche market can also lead farmers to engage in activities that aren’t typically related to farming, such as retail sales, online marketing, agritourism, educational workshops, and consulting.

According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, Clallam County has the second oldest average age of producers, 61, of any county in Washington. Shifts are starting to happen in Clallam County’s farming community as we see many of these folks move into retirement and a new generation of farmers tend the land.

“The Land Trust is so excited to present this award to a local farm that really exemplifies what this future of farming can look like in our community,” Sanford said.

Farmer of the Year

In recognition of their inspirational commitment to land stewardship, environmental innovation, community building, and local entrepreneurship, North Olympic Land Trust has honored SisterLand Farms with the 2023 Farmer of the Year Award.

From left to right: Benji (he/him), Jenson (they/them), and Eli (they/them) of SisterLand Farms.

For the first time, nominations were opened up to the greater community for the Farmer of the Year – an award honoring individuals and/or organizations that have positively and significantly impacted the local farm community. Community members were also asked to share why they nominated farms.

“SisterLand Farms creates a space in agriculture where people can see themselves in and actively participate,” submitted one community member.

“The network that SisterLand has provided via a summer camp every year, Growers’ Collective work parties, and collaborations with local businesses to take compost has made the farm a hub for getting things done in our small town,” read another submission. “One of their biggest goals is to create environments where people can come to learn about farming and local food networks without gatekeeping the nitty gritty information necessary to learning.”

“That we were awarded this year, of all years, means so much to us,” Jenson said. “SisterLand isn’t a farm overseen by a single person calling the shots. It’s a whole network of community members who are invested in a shared vision; who want things like food waste recovery, queer spaces that feel safe and enriching, collaborative learning opportunities, and good things to eat. We’re so committed to this idea–that we can be rooted in community first and foremost–that we actually make democratic decisions within the crew, and invite volunteers, customers, and donors to an annual town hall meeting to inform our year planning. We want everyone to know how important they are to us, and now they’ve shown us that we’re important to them too. It’s very special.”

SisterLand Farms is joining a wonderful group of honorees that have made major contributions to agriculture in Clallam County. Mark Bowman, the Farm To Farmer Coordinator and operator of Bowman Farms, received the award last year. Others include but aren’t limited to farmers such as Doug Hendrickson and Lee Norton of Salt Creek Farm, Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Produce, Tom and Holly Clark of Clark Farms, and Steve Johnson of Lazy J Tree Farm, as well as individuals such as Bob Caldwell, Neil Conklin, and Gary Smith, and such organizations as the Clallam Conservation District and WSU Extension.

Harvest Celebration

A crowd of 250 Land Trust supporters gave a standing ovation as SisterLand Farms was announced as Farmer of the Year on Saturday at the organization’s annual Harvest Celebration. The group was gathered at the Holladay Barn in Dungeness to show their support for local farmland conservation.

A Harvest Celebration guest arrives by bicycle. Photo by Gretha Davis.

In April, the community permanently protected its 25th farm, Dungeness Hub, through a conservation easement with North Olympic Land Trust. “The protection of our 26th farm is just right around the corner,” announced Sanford at the event. “27, 28, and 29 are all lined up for the near future too.”

Three generous local families recently pledged $96,000 in matching support for local conservation. Over the last few weeks, the Land Trust has been working to raise an additional $96,000 for a total of $192,000 towards the conservation of habitats and working lands in Clallam County.

“Right now, landowners are coming to us with incredible conservation opportunities at an unprecedented pace and we need to grow as an organization to meet this demand,” explained Sanford. “This match campaign will allow us to quickly expand and make moves on these projects.”

Caring community members showed their support at the event and helped the organization surpass their original fundraising goal. Locals have raised over $200,000 so far, making it one of the largest fundraising efforts in the Land Trust’s 30-year history. Contributions to the Land Trust can be made online, by mail to PO Box 2945, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or by phone at (360) 417-1815.