Shelley Pasco’s all-organic Whistling Train Farm in Kent has been an exercise in downsizing. And it’s made all the difference.
Story by Jackie Varriano
Photos by Hilary McMullen
The Instagram page for Shelley Pasco’s Whistling Train Farm features glamour shots of her dirt-covered hands holding vegetables; snapshots of her winter road trips; and close-ups of the bugs that share her dirt. The bio reads, “recently-downsized four-acre urban farm.”
While some things are just better when they’re bigger — things like pizza slices and airline seats — when it came to farming, Shelley says, “Big wasn’t working for me.”
Understanding her reasoning hinges on knowing what makes Shelley tick: She’s always wanted to be a farmer, but everyone she met discouraged it. “They said, ‘You need a lot of space and cows,’ or ‘You have to grow corn,’ or inherit land.”
Instead of going to veterinary school or working on a farm, Shelley got into graphic design. It wasn’t until a tour of a CSA farm in 1996 that inspiration struck hard enough to force her out of her backyard in Ballard to a half acre in Kent.
She met a man named Bob Tidwell, who not only became her neighbor, but became her mentor, leasing her that first half acre. “Bob was really invaluable to me, and he taught me a lot — a lot about growing things and about equipment.”
Slowly, that first half acre expanded to two. In 1999, she started her own CSA, signing up 20 families while still working in graphic design in Seattle and commuting to the farm in Kent.
“I was pretty dedicated,” she says with a laugh.
From 1999 to 2013, Whistling Train Farm was “going like gangbusters.” Shelley was growing on nearly 20 acres, selling vegetables, flowers, eggs, and the occasional side of beef. The CSA ballooned to 200 families, and she was personally hauling her organically grown produce to — and working at — three area farmers markets while raising two kids. She had a full crew of people working on the farm and a co-manager. But something didn’t feel right.
“I was just hardly ever here. I was just doing a little harvesting and markets. I wasn’t seeing my kids; I wasn’t doing any growing. I was just this super manager, which was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to have a farm.”
Over the next two years, she looked at where she could make cuts, realizing that she was selling at two markets just to cover payroll. If she scaled back enough to drop the markets, she could drop the labor. She also downsized the CSA slightly — and has plans to scale back even further.
Downsizing gave Shelley her farm back and got her back to what she loved doing.
“I really like experimenting and growing all these crazy things from all over the world, and with that bigger model, I couldn’t do that.”
The “crazy things” are what the Whistling Train farmers market booth has become known for: prickly pears and tiny cucamelons, artichokes, and ginger. She also grows different varieties of staples: purple napa cabbage, elephant garlic, and watermelon radishes.
“I have a lot of greenhouses, so I do a lot of things really early,” she says of her harvesting. “I was the first one to have sugar snap peas, carrots, and cucumbers. I can beat everybody by about a month. It’s specializing in a different way.”
Now, her 40-week CSA consists of 75 families, a few of whom are among the original 20 that started with her 20 years ago. She says she goes out of her way for them — even delivering to their houses.
“It really makes it more of a community; we’re all entangled together. There are people who have known me before I had kids, and now their kids are buying from me. That community part is really a big piece for me.”
In October 2017, she had an opportunity to purchase the property, but she only had 30 days to raise the $80,000 down payment. Her community stepped up; 100 people raised the funds in just 10 days.
As for 2019, Shelley is focused on her crops and her CSA. She’s planning to bring back an honor-system farm stand that she used to run on the farm, selling vegetables, fruit, and eggs. She has a booth at the West Seattle Farmers Market on Sundays.
She’s also paying forward the knowledge that her mentor, Bob Tidwell, instilled in her long ago by mentoring a young farmer named Chris Sechrist, teaching him that “something always fails. It’s not always the same thing every year, but something always fails. You have to be resilient enough to overcome that emotionally and business-wise.”
Shelley notes that it took her 10 years to learn that, and she knows that time isn’t infinite.
“You have to figure it out pretty quickly, which is why mentors are so important. Which is what I’m trying to do for Chris: cut three or four years of learning out.”
Through all the waves she’s ridden — from one-half acre to 20 to 4 — Shelley still loves being a farmer.
“It just feeds my soul. I love growing things, and I love feeding people and all the relationships I have with the customers. I just love all of that.”