Urban farmers make it work in residential neighborhood

LONGVIEW, Wash. — For more than 25 years, Scott and Dixie Edwards have farmed where you don’t expect a farm.

They have 7 acres two blocks outside Longview in a residential neighborhood at the foot of a big hill named Mount Solo. There’s a church up the street, and Wal-Mart and McDonald’s are close.

In this case, the farm benefits by being near people. Scott Edwards, 64, and Dixie Edwards, 66, are tapping into the desire that some consumers have to buy local and eyeball their farmer and the farm.

Beginning after the Fourth of July and continuing into mid-fall, the Edwardses deliver boxes of fruits and vegetables to customers each week. In the box is a letter written by Dixie Edwards with cooking tips. “If you have never roasted zucchini, it is worth a try,” she advised in July.

Other customers come to the farm to pick up produce. They are young and old and in between. A requirement appears to be willing to try different vegetables.

“We do a little bit of everything,” Scott Edwards said. “You have to be into eating healthy.”

They started the farm and a native-plant nursery in 1993. The nursery brings in more money, always has. The couple reports, however, that after a quarter of a century, the food thing is catching on.

“Farming was always more of a lifestyle than a business, and now it’s becoming more of a business,” he said. “It’s finally becoming profitable.”

For years, they sold produce and plants at weekend farmers’ markets in Longview and Astoria, Ore. Loading and unloading goods was physically hard, and working the markets left no time to rest from the week’s labors. “It was a killer,” Scott Edwards said.

Five years ago, they started selling food to members of an Episcopal church who signed up to receive weekly boxes of fruits and vegetables. After two years of that, they looked to expand into community supported agriculture.

The business didn’t grow; it exploded. Organizations in the private and public sectors got interested. More than 50 employees at the local community college signed up for shares.

“It was too much,” Scott Edwards said. “Everything was good. It was just stressful as heck.”

The interest by institutions in participating in community sustained agriculture waxes and wanes, making planning difficult, they said. The past two years have been smoother. More customers are coming to the farm to buy produce, and it’s best when the shoppers come to them, they said.

Scott Edwards grew up in Longview. He and his wife farm land that has been in the family since 1962. His parents bought it to farm, raise cattle and rent out the house on the property. Scott Edwards said it was his second home growing up and calls it a “rural Eden on the outskirts of town.”

Dixie Edwards also lived in Longview as a girl until her family bought a farm near Stella along the Lower Columbia River and not far from Longview. They went to the same high school, two grades apart, and were married in 1988. Scott was working for a conservation district in Kitsap County, while Dixie worked in water-quality programs for the county and later a public utility district.

In 1989, they rented land in Kitsap County for a native-plant nursery and a few years later moved to Longview and opened their business, Watershed Garden Works, which combined the nursery with an organic farm. “This was our way back to the farm,” Dixie Edwards said.

Scott Edwards studied organic agriculture in the 1970s at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. “Doing something organic was almost like crackpot back in the day,” he said.

The Edwardses say they’re following organic practices, but haven’t paid the fees and filed the paperwork to obtain certification. They said if they were marketing to a broader population they would, but their customers can see what they’re doing.

For the farm and nursery, they employ two full-time and two part-time workers year-round, along with a couple of seasonal workers. Good help is hard to find, they said.

Many of their customers are new to the area, they said.

“I think Longview and (neighboring city) Kelso are going through a big change, like a lot of communities are,” Scott Edwards said. “There are a lot of possibilities for farmers.”