Mixing seed diversification with habitat

Rasmus Koudal emigrated from Denmark to SouthDakota in 1904 and then to La Conner, Wash.,in 1906. By this time, small dikes had been builtthroughout western Washington’s Skagit Valley. Today DaveHedlin, his grandson, farms 400 acres of prime delta farmland,primarily producing cabbage, beet and spinach seedthat is exported to major seed companies throughout theworld. The Skagit delta produces more than 80 percent ofAmerica’s beet seed and half the world’s cabbage seed.

Organic peppers at the market stand.

“If you eat sauerkraut in Germany, kimchi in Korea or coleslaw in New York City,” Hedlin said, “there is a really good chance that the seed that grew the cabbage came from Skagit Valley.”

Everything Hedlin grows is Salmon Safe Certified and 200 acres are farmed organically. He is currently participating in a pilot program that would have dumbfounded his grandfather.

Flooding the land

Hedlin’s grandparents and parents spent all their time trying to keep their land drained and dry, so he was naturally skeptic when The Nature Conservancy (TNC) offered to lease land for flooding.

Hedlin is partnering with TNC in the Farming for Wildlife program that benefits farmland and shorebirds. The vision is to create a sustainable landscape that supports a thriving agricultural community, while providing critical habitat for wildlife. The program is studying both the agronomic impacts – the effects on soil nutrients and crop pathogens – and the ecological benefits of flooding. TNC launched the program in cooperation with Washington State University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Packard Foundation, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and the Western Washington Agricultural Association.

“During spring and fall migrations, up to 10,000 shorebirds have been seen in any one particular flooded field,” said Julie Morse, ecologist with TNC of Washington in Skagit Valley. “Shorebirds are wetland birds that breed in the Arctic and migrate south as far as South America to winter.”

Watering cabbage transplants.

Thousands of sandpipers, dowitchers and yellowlegs fatten up in flooded fields. In return, farmers have reported that flooding farmlands produces higher yields and better control of weeds and pests, reducing the need for fertilizers and fumigants. Soil tests show that formation of bird habitat has increased nitrogen levels by more than 50 pounds per acre while farm fields were flooded. The program is especially helpful to farmers who want to pursue organic certification, which requires that pesticides not be applied for three years. A total of 150 acres have been flooded under the Farming for Wildlife Program in Skagit Valley. Three farms are currently participating in the program, each flooding 25 acres.

Wetland-crop rotation

“Farmers tell us which fields work for flooding,” Morse said. “Farmers build berms so that water does not flood into neighboring properties. Before flooding, weeds or crops have to either be disked or mowed.”

Afterward, the land is sheet-flooded. Surface ditches are no longer plowed in the fall to drain water, and, in some instances, water is pumped from drainage ditches onto fields. Water seeks a level of roughly two inches, which provides land manageability and the best bird habitat.

Daughter Lauren, Dave Hedlin, wife Serena, son Arne and sister Mary.

“If you sheet-flood a parcel and leave it alone, the land becomes an incredible shorebird habitat the first year due to mostly bare soil and macroinvertebrate activity,” Hedlin said. “Halfway through the second year, vegetation – including cattails – crowds out shorebirds, and the fields start looking like wetlands. In the third year, cattails are taller than a tractor cab. In addition, heavy clay causes water to perch and seal.”

TNC agreed that Hedlin sheet-flood the land during spring and fall bird migrations and drain it in the summer. After draining, half the trial acreage is mowed and the other half is disked and mulched to build soil nutrients. Research protocol includes fertility testing and microbiological activity. Hedlin has certified previously flooded fields as organic.

Cabbage plants almost ready to ship.

Trading ground rotation

Beyond flooding and the usual crop rotation practices, Hedlin trades ground with his neighbors.

“Eighty crops of commercial significance are grown in the Skagit Valley,” Hedlin said. “As family farms specialize, we trade ground to maintain a five-year rotation. I may give my neighbor 30 acres for potatoes and take 30 acres of his for cucumbers. You basically achieve rotation by trading ground.”

Skagit Valley has few corporate farms. Family farms evolve to corporations or LLCs, equaling a vast amount of closely held family businesses.

Custom transplant operation

Although the family business focuses on beet, cabbage and spinach seed, Hedlin diversifies to keep his farm viable. Custom transplant work for seed companies requires growing four to six million cabbage and cauliflower plugs for the seed industry. Companies include Syngenta and Seminis, the largest developer, grower and marketer of vegetable seeds in the world. The intense, custom transplant operation requires a three-to-four week window. An M/T 5000 mechanical transplanter drops plugs into the soil from a rotating carousel. Hedlin maintains two International Harvester Hydro 86 tractors that are front-end loaded with water tanks for transplant watering.

Greenhouse gardening

The 30,000 square-foot greenhouse operation extends the growing season and helps spread risk. Seed contracts pay well and provide consistent cash flow. Consistent year-round employment produces higher productivity and lowers risk of crop failure. Greenhouse bell peppers, basil and tomato varieties expand the growing season from May through the end of November. Tomato varieties include three beefsteak, 35 heirloom and cherry tomatoes. Hedlin purchases tomato seeds from Tomatofest of Little River, Calif. The company offers over 600 rare varieties of organic heirloom tomato seeds from around the world.

Fresh market gardening

Hedlin Farms sells fresh fruit and vegetables to three hospitals, a dozen restaurants, a food co-op and 160 shares of community supported agriculture (CSA), primarily to Skagit Valley customers. The farm participates in five farmers’ markets, including Seattle.

A small, whitewashed market stand marks the spot where buyers seek organic vegetables from artichokes to zucchini and herbs and berries. Approximately 70 acres are appropriated for fresh market gardening. In 1977, Hedlin and his wife Serena Campbell sold only strawberries at the market stand. By 1998, they offered a full line of fresh market fruits and vegetables.

Berries, berries, berries

Strawberries adapt better than any other small fruit crop to western Washington’s climate. Puget Reliance, Puget Summer and Shuksan are among strawberry varieties grown at Hedlin Farms. Rainier is productive and disease-resistant and a Northwest favorite. Puget Summer has a sweet flavor and a low rate of fruit rot. Puget Reliance is resistant to viruses and root rot. Shuksan demonstrates good virus resistance and low runner production. Hedlin utilizes Maschio and Multivator cultivators that are essential for weed removal around strawberry plants.

Hedlin Farms also grows Duke and Bluecrop blueberries. Bluecrop is the leading commercial variety in North America and grows best on sites where most other crops fail. Duke blueberries are resistant to stem blight disease and exhibit a long shelf life for storage. Hedlin Farms hires up to 40 workers in the summertime and employs seven workers full-time.

Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland

Hedlin is a founding member of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and is on the board of directors. The organization is dedicated to preserving farmland and wildlife habitat. The organization promotes the following: farming as an economically viable livelihood; educational opportunities for farmers to improve their marketing and management skills; preserving farmland and wildlife habitats; and educating the community in the process.

The motto is, “Protect Skagit farmland, pavement is forever.”

Eighty-two percent of Skagit Valley residents in 1996 agreed that Skagit County should be doing more to protect farmland. Ninety percent recognized the importance of farming, wildlife habitat and open space. That same year, county commissioners voted to impose a property tax increase that is funding the purchase of development rights from willing farmers. The tax program is called Conservation Futures.

“Conservation Futures provides a mechanism to assist any landowner and provides an option to help farming families plan succession,” Hedlin said. “We want the farms to pass on to the next generation, but we need enough money to retire. So, development rights are sold to the county and successors agree to farm and generate revenue. Agricultural buildings are preserved. Soil viability is maintained and impermeable soil limits are set. Limits include agricultural buildings and driveways covering only two percent of the land.”

The future of Hedlin farms is connected to diversification, flexibility and commitment. Hedlin loves to farm and seeks balance between farming, serving his community and Skagit Valley’s ecological sustainability – preserving the magic of Skagit Valley.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Poulsbo, Wash.