Adele and Darrell Westover of Westover Farm know what it means to grow deep roots. And for nearly a decade, these farmers have shared their hard-earned wisdom with MESA: from immersing Stewards in the daily work of the farm and market, to welcoming them into their Pacific Northwest community and multiple generations of family.
While the Westovers will “retire” as hosts this year to enter a new chapter on the farm, we wish to thank them for their enthusiastic support as hosts and mentors, and for their living example of farming as a way of life. Read on for Darrell Westover’s reflections:
Westover Farm Beginnings
There is an old saying “You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” I guess that is true of both Adele and me as we were both raised on farms.
In 1974, the family and I returned from a job on Kwajalein Island, the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific. It was while working on Kwajalein that I had my first experience with hydroponics. Several of us began a hydroponic greenhouse to grow fresh vegetables, as were tired of the mostly spoiled vegetables arriving on Island by ship, already two weeks old before we even saw them.
On our return to the U.S. in 1974, we purchased the 10 acres that we still live on today in Maple Valley, WA. Our three children were 14, 12 and 9 yrs old. We had chickens and sold eggs, raised fryers, butchered and sold them. We also raised New Zealand white rabbits, butchered and sold rabbit fryers and pelts. In addition, there were fruit trees, grapes, raspberries, and a large garden. And we got into sheep – raised and sold lambs and some older sheep. We also had the wool from shearing the sheep spun into yarn and rovings and sold that. Our daughter also had a horse. All girls should, and most want, to have a horse!
In 1980 we began planting tree seedlings for a choose-and-cut Christmas Tree business. The kids grew up, off to college and careers, and I was still doing a lot of business travel. Adele couldn’t handle the animal care by herself, so we sold all the animals and focused on Christmas trees. We still have six acres devoted to Christmas trees, a small gift and ornament store, and fresh, hand-made wreaths and swags from mid-November to Christmas.
While waiting for the trees to grow we made and sold fresh apple cider for several years. After that, our next project was a rather large Kettle Corn operation, selling at festivals and fairs across WA with our two granddaughters.
About the year 2000, I attended a 3-day class at the University of Arizona, Tucson, on hydroponics. I returned home confident that with my experience on Kwajalein and technical training in Arizona, I knew I could start a hydroponic vegetable operation. The first step was convincing Adele. We then explored the Farmers Markets in the area to determine which product I could provide earlier in the season than anyone else at the market. We decided…tomatoes!
With the help of family and friends, we built our first greenhouse, complete with grow lights, fans, and a sophisticated nutrient delivery system utilizing drip irrigation. July 22, 2004 was our first Farmers Market. We took 18 pints of cherry tomatoes and five pints of grape tomatoes and sold out! Our sales were $74.75 and the rent was $20.00. Sales the second week were $277.50 and rent was $25.00. And the rest is history? We ultimately were at five markets a week.
We also found out you can’t be a “one trick pony.” We now grow 5-6 varieties of tomatoes, Japanese eggplant and cucumbers, two varieties of peppers, strawberries, Mexican Gherkins, tomatillos, a hot pepper, potatoes, onions, and pink pumpkins.
Growing with MESA
Quite honestly, we couldn’t have accomplished what we have without the support of MESA and our wonderful stewards. We first heard about MESA at our very first Market. I was impressed by the Steward I observed, and the farmer provided MESA information. Two years later we had our own steward.
Over the past nine years, we have been blessed to have nine outstanding individuals come to us through MESA. They have all shared our home, our family, our birthday parties, granddaughter’s weddings, and even one great-granddaughters birth. They truly were and are a part of our family.
Our last Steward, Eun Jee Lee, was from Inchon, South Korea. When we picked her up at the airport, she asked “Have you ever been to South Korea?” I said, “Yes, I was at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, during the start of the Korean War.” Eun Jee replied, “Oh, wow, I’ve read all about you in our history books!” It was at that point I realized we might be getting old and cutting back is the right thing to do!
Farming as a Lifelong Path
Let’s face it…farming is hard work. For us, what made it worthwhile was the people. To introduce people to the things you grow, that you are proud of, that you’re sure they will enjoy, and the banter between customers and vendors. To give out samples of vegetables that people hadn’t tried before and make them new customers. To introduce them to cherry type tomatoes called “chocolate cherry tomatoes,” or a Japanese cucumber to eat like a popsicle. And every year to introduce a new variety of tomato, or try a new vegetable like a Mexican Gherkin. Anything to get that conversation going with a new or returning customer, even cooking demonstrations. That is what made it worthwhile.
Farmers constantly research new items, attend seminars, visit other farms when possible, talk, share, go to classes, keep good records, and drop items that don’t pencil out financially or labor-wise. And if you don’t enjoy people, you hire someone to run the market for you.
Adele and I are now in our 80’s. This year, we are cutting back from five Markets, and are selling only at the farm. It will be a combination of U-pick or We-pick. We have slowly cut back from four greenhouses to our original 30'x130’ one this year.
Yet, we are still excited about farming and food. This year we are introducing two new varieties of eggplant and a new variety of strawberry. We are also planting 220 Hazelnut trees! A customer told us "When you plant a tree, you plant hope.” Well, in five years we hope to have Hazelnuts to sell. HA!
Darrell and Adele Westover
24030 SE 192nd ST
Maple Valley, WA 98038