Deb Howard began her farming career at age six, when she harvested wild cacti and replanted them behind the AC unit. The experiment was a success, and since then plants have flourished everywhere she’s gone.
Deb has farming in her blood, but getting a farm off–or IN–the ground is never easy. To partially fund the project, Deb participated in seven network game shows and taped four network pilots. This on top of working full-time as a global marketing director for a Fortune 100 high-tech company.
Her hard work paid off: Willapa Bay Heritage Farm has been up and running since October 2017. Since then, Deb and her crew have produced bounties of organic fruits, veggies, eggs, and even solar energy. The farm has placed in the Top Ten Most Sustainable Farms in America by Agribusiness Journal. And with plans to produce wine, cheese, and sweets as well, Deb doesn’t plan to curb production anytime soon.
We asked Deb to tell us about the farm and her experience running a business in Pacific County. Here’s what she shared with us:
Why did you choose to start a business in Pacific County?
It was the algorithms/artificial intelligence that brought me here.
I’d been looking for a farming property my whole life, but began seriously looking in 2015. I had certain parameters plugged into the search functions of various real estate tools, and I was looking in Central California, Northern California, and Oregon. I looked at 100+ properties, but nothing seemed right.
Then one day the algorithms said, “Well, what about Washington?”
I said, “Algorithms, I’m not looking in Washington. Why are you showing me this?” and the algorithms said, “Because we think you’ll really like it.”
So I looked at pictures of the place and went, “OK, artificial intelligence algorithms, you’re right. This place is amazing; I think Pacific County is the place for me to be.”
What made you choose your industry?
Like many farmers, I have a full-time job outside of this, for health insurance and to afford my addiction to the farming lifestyle. It’s about balance, but I also think it’s baked into my DNA.
Both sides of my family have a farming background, including Swedish potato farmers and Russian wheat farmers. On my mother’s side, I have ancestors who immigrated to central Washington pre-statehood and started a farm.
However, I don’t have it in my socialization. While my grandparents were farmers, my parents resolutely were not.
I started my gardening/farming career when I was six. I learned about the dish nopalitos, which is made from nopales (cacti). For whatever reason, I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and I wanted to make it.
I was living in Florida and somehow managed to find wild cacti in the woods. To mimic desert heat, I planted the cacti on the hot side of the air conditioner pump and, sure enough, they grew marvelously. (I later learned my paternal grandfather had a cactus garden of over 400 specimens. Something in the DNA!)
When the cacti grew big enough, I harvested them and made my mom nopalitos. But no one had told me about the tiny, almost invisible, prickly hairs on the cacti. I hurt for weeks, having those little hairs in my fingers.
That’s the practical side of farming. You might have the DNA for it, you might have the inclination, and you might have people who taught you some things. But there’s always something you can learn.
What products or services do you offer?
I’m kind of quirky and eclectic, so it’s a little bit of everything.
We have a half-acre planted with Pinot Noir clones. Due to the grafted root stocks I’ve selected, they’re well-adapted to our wet climate.
We have many different herbs, cover crops, and a whole panoply of fruits and vegetables. Including rhubarb that we sell to Adrift Distillery for their award-winning Rhubarb Elderflower Liqueur.
We have a small orchard with dwarf trees, so we don’t endanger ourselves by climbing up ladders at harvest-time.
We also have rabbits, chickens, goats, and soon we’ll have pigs. And then, just for fun, we have ferrets, a rescue Shih Tzu named “Rosie”, and new rescue Shih Tzu mix, “Bertie Boy”.
We use many native plants for greenery and consumption. We plant cover crops for soil fertility in the vineyard, then feed those plants to the chickens and the goats to build our manure stock for our compost program.
To complement what we produce on the farm, we have a community composting program, where we pick up coffee and paper products from BOLD Coffee and organic fruit and vegetable peelings from a couple of others. We’re completely organic and biodynamic and try our best to be sustainable.
We also grow solar power, with 21.5 kilowatts from a large ground-mount solar array. It’s bifacial–one side facing the sun and the other groundward–so we’ve put oyster shells under this solar array to hopefully get 20-25% more refractivity and production. We are the first on the Peninsula to try this bifacial approach.
How did you come up with the name for your business?
My farm is on the site of the former world-famous Clark Rhododendron Nursery. So it’s been zoned agricultural for many years and has had many incarnations. It’s been a cranberry farm, it’s had cattle, and of course the rhododendron nursery.
Because of its great history and heritage, I call it the Willapa Bay “Heritage” Farm. I am just the caretaker for this instantiation of the farm, with its long heritage stretching from prehistoric times up through the Chinook nation and on to the present day.
How do you view your role in the community?
The farm is a learning laboratory for anyone interested in any aspect of farm life. Even if you don’t want to live the farm life, and you just want to know where your food comes from; or if you’d like to know how to be more organic and sustainable, our demonstration farm is for you.
We’d also like to start doing farm-to-table training for the local high school culinary program, 4H, and Future Farmers of America.
It’s all a way to share our knowledge with the community, and to absorb their collective wisdom too. And it’s just so doggone fun. I’m learning every day, too, from the people that visit and the animals and plants themselves. And the kids! I get such a kick seeing them pet the goats or pull a carrot out of the ground, wide-eyed with wonder.
To continue this work, I intend to donate the entire farm and its operations to the community when I’m gone. I have a nonprofit called the Willapa Bay Heritage Farm Foundation, and everything will be gifted to the nonprofit board when I die.
If you had a piece of advice to offer someone starting a business in Pacific County, what would it be?
Have patience and a sense of perseverance. And be conscious of your money and time; everything always costs more and take longer than you think it will.
For any project, it’s hard to find the right people to help you. The good ones are always booked out six months to a year in advance. But ask around, ask questions, and be humble.
One of my mantras is that, for any successful farming project, you need money, labor, and good weather. Hard to have all three at once, so repeat back to patience!
Also, join the Long Beach Merchants Association. I’ve been so struck by how kind people are on the Peninsula—how giving they are of information and support. I’ve never felt as supported by a community, and I’ve lived in some great communities. It’s a real blessing.
For any aspiring business owner in Pacific County, here are a few key takeaways from Deb’s experience:
- Stay open to how your vision may change.
- Have patience and be adaptable.
- Be thrifty with time and money.
- Make connections in your community.
- Don’t stop learning. There are many lessons to absorb from others—the people, the plants, and the animals.