EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — It’s just dirt right now, but soon Nate Perkins will be discing the ground for the start of his fourth season as a small-scale urban farmer.
It’s not Seattle or Portland, but his 14 acres surrounded by new housing is about as urban a farm as you can get in this city of 13,000 people on the banks of the Columbia River.
Perkins is among thousands of aspiring farmers in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation who are thriving on small acreages by selling their crops directly to local consumers, often with a side serving of entertainment courtesy of a petting zoo, corn maze, hay ride or other family entertainment.
The USDA defines small farms as generating less than $350,000 in annual gross receipts and on which the owner works. In Washington state, 35,269 farms — or 90 percent of the total — are defined as small.
Kellie Henwood, a regional coordinator of Washington State University’s Small Farms Program, said agritourism — including the other activities besides a farm stand selling crops — is a way for small farm operators to diversify their income sources.
“More and more people are looking for opportunities to connect with their food source, either locally or in their travels,” Henwood said. “Agritourism has shown that farmers are constantly innovating and adapting and without a doubt contributing to the economic development in their communities.”
But what makes Perkins’ small farm unique is its location — smack dab in the middle of a new housing development and just outside the city limits. Instead of the city growing up around an existing farm, he chose the location to take advantage of its easy access to customers. Visibility is good for selling produce right out of the field, as he does, because it’s a high-traffic spot on the south side of four-lane Grant Road leading to the regional Pangborn Memorial Airport. New homes line South Mary Avenue to the west and will soon populate the nearby 207-lot Maryhill Estates subdivision to the south and east. The development will include 96 apartment units and 5 acres for businesses.
The entire area used to be apple orchards. Perkins’ 14 acres went fallow for years. Pumpkins were grown on a small part of it for a couple of years as a school fundraiser.
Perkins, 41, a fruit salesman for one of Washington’s largest fruit marketers, Chelan Fresh Marketing, wondered why someone didn’t do something bigger.
“I saw it as a massive opportunity,” he said. “The perfect location.”
He views the current and coming housing as a big asset, providing plenty of potential produce customers. And the developers like his farm.
“It’s great. It’s a nice activity for the community during Halloween and he makes nice produce so it’s a win-win for everybody,” said Jason Gaul, a Maryhill Estates partner.
In 2015, Perkins leased the 14 acres and with the help of his then-girlfriend, Annie Weaver, started Annie’s Fun Farm, growing and selling pumpkins, squash, melons and offering family entertainment in the form of a corn maze, an apple sling shot, a big dragon castle bounce house and hay rides.
After a second season, Perkins bought 11 acres, continued leasing 3 acres and entered a third season as sole owner of the business, keeping the name Annie’s Fun Farm.
County records show Perkins paid $825,000 for the 11 acres — that’s $75,000 an acre — and $355,000 for an adjoining home on 1 acre.
Gaul said he and his partners had previously looked at buying the ground as part of their development, but it was too expensive.
Perkins acknowledges that some may think him to be a “little nuts” to spend so much to grow vegetables, when he could have found cheaper ground farther away from town.
But it wouldn’t have been the same, he said. Elsewhere, neighbors couldn’t have seen their food growing right next door. To him, that’s what “makes it cool.”
“It’s a passion. Something I enjoy,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a good career and so I can buy some land and do this.”
Affinity for farming
Perkins was born in Toledo, Ohio, and from the age of 10 grew up in Loveland, Colo. His mom worked in banking and his father in construction, but his great-grandparents, on both sides, had farms and as a youngster he helped plant crops.
“We always had family gardens and my mom canned our baby food,” he said.
One of Perkins’ first jobs was in a King Soopers grocery store, a Colorado chain owned by Kroger, one of the nation’s largest food retailers. He worked in produce and stayed with the company during and after college. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in restaurant and resort management at Colorado State University in 2000.
Perkins ascended in the Kroger corporation and in 2005 was assigned to Wenatchee as the company’s national buyer of apples, pears and cherries.
Chelan Fresh Marketing was a client he bought fruit from and in 2010, the company recruited him to join its domestic sales desk.
“I love produce. I’ve always loved and missed the retail side of it, working with the consumer. So this kind of fits in with that,” he said of his small farm.
He gets that direct contact with consumers by selling about 95 percent of what he grows right out of the field in a temporary stand he puts up and takes down each season. The rest of his crop is sold to other produce stands in the area.
“I have a vision of having a fruit stand and sustainable small farm. Growing unique varieties that taste good. Not necessarily high-yielding but good quality and flavor,” Perkins said.
He realizes he’s a bit of an anomaly — someone who works for and believes in corporate agriculture but also works in and believes in small farming and the local food movement.
“I like the idea of supporting the local community in general and bringing the community closer together,” he said. “The farm becomes part of the community and helps build a sense of community.
“A lot of people thank us for being here because it’s fun for the family. It’s outside. People come and spend hours. People come from Seattle and buy stuff. They say they like the flavor of the fruits and vegetables from this area.”
But his goal isn’t to create solely a tourist destination, but to be a part of and serve the local community — a place where people can see their food growing and get to know the people growing it.
The season starts with tilling, discing and ground prep, adding a base layer of fertilizer and making growing beds with plastic mulch and drip tape irrigation. Transplanted tomatoes, peppers and onions are the first to be planted in May.
Strawberries he planted last year will produce their first crop this year. He grows several varieties of watermelon and cantaloupe, 20 varieties of hard squash, a large variety of summer squash, pumpkins, all sorts of cucumbers, a range of chili peppers, sweet corn, egg plant, tomatillo, onions, basil, cilantro and other crops.
“Half of my customers are Mexican so I have people working here who are bilingual,” he said. “I cater to the whole community.”
He adds entertainment in October to attract even more customers. In addition to the bounce house and apple sling shot, he has a corn maze and petting zoo with miniature ponies, goats, turkeys and chickens.
The only pesticide he uses is to combat worms in his sweet corn. He’s fought aphids with lady bugs and wants to move toward greater use of cover crops to replace fertilizers and keep weeds down.
“Buying seeds is cheaper than buying chemicals,” he said.
His farm is not organic. If it were, he would have to spray more often since organic sprays are “soft,” he said. Neighbors have asked about his sprays but haven’t complained about the noise from his 75-horsepower John Deere tractor.
“They probably get as much noise from Grant Road as they do from my tractor,” he said. “The only complaints have been about dust so we try to make sure not to be doing field work when it’s dry and the wind is blowing hard.”
He bought a corn seeder from Kallstrom Corn in Ephrata, Wash., but plants and harvests everything else by hand, employing up to six people at the season’s peak.
Parking can get crowded on busy weekends in October, but he picks crops inward from South Mary Avenue to make room for parking in the field. Neighbors Howard and Steve Delp allow 20 to 30 cars to park at their place to help out.
“We love having the farm here. He does an excellent job and every year is trying to make improvements like more drip irrigation and less overhead,” said Howard Delp.
“You couldn’t have a nicer fellow for a neighbor and he has a real passion for what he does,” Delp said. “Anything we can do to help him out, we do.”
Sales continue from August through October. He sells melons by the pound and sweet corn by the ear, $6 to $8 per dozen. Mini-pumpkins are $2, larger ones are $12 and giant pumpkins go for $25 to $50 each.
Perkins smiled when asked about profitability.
“We’re not even close to being profitable if you add in the cost of the land,” he said. “A goal is to get annual revenues to service the land debt. I do have a joy for it. I like doing it, but I want it to pay for itself and I think long-term as I build up the retail side it can be very profitable, but it will take a lot of years to get there.”
He won’t make it, he said, on an August through October sales season. He would like to turn his field into a Christmas tree lot in November and December to augment income but hasn’t done so yet.
“I do not have any partners or investors. I put my life savings into the purchase and still have a sizable debt,” he said. “I barely broke even on operations last year even though sales were up 70 percent and have increased each year.”
His advice for others: “Have a good day job. Like anything, you have to be in it because you love doing it.”