Gordy and Chris Wilson are visibly moved when they speak about leaving the land they have lived on and farmed for more than 40 years. But they cheer up considerably when talking about the land they plan to retire to in Eastern Washington in a few years. That’s because, although they’ll be leaving behind decades of memories and gorgeous Olympic sunsets, they’ll be gaining some new, wilder acreage plus Lake Roosevelt fishing.
The Wilsons are the owners of Island Holly Farm and U-Pick Blueberries on North Madison (near Valley). They’ve begun to sell off their 10 acres, which Gordy’s family has been farming since the late 1800s. They’re selling because of taxes—but not the taxes on their farmland, which come to only about $60 per year. They’re selling because they can’t afford the “staggering” taxes on their house and the land it sits on. By law, they must pay regular property tax on at least 1.5 acres of the total 10, even though their house occupies considerably less than that. So they looked for and found much more affordable land east of the Cascades.
They received an offer on the first parcel of land just six days after it went on the market. It eventually sold to a young couple with children. The young family wants to continue the blueberry operation. After their house sells, The Wilsons plan to live in an apartment over a neighbor’s garage for a year to mentor the new farmers in running the blueberry operation. Their first choice for buyers of the rest of the land is people who intend to keep farming it.
I asked how many blueberry customers they get per year. They said they had no way to estimate the numbers of visitors but they guessed that each year 1,500 to 2,000 carloads of people stop by the farm. Visitors come from as far away as Manchester (one family does it 3 to 4 times during the season), Gig Harbor, and Seattle. And, of course, many people come from farther away when visiting family on the island.
The U-Pick operation is pesticide-free and deftly run. Customers first sanitize their hands and then are given steel buckets fitted with a plastic bag insert and brief instructions about what rows to pick from and about the different varieties of berries. After the picking, the Wilsons weigh the bags and charge the customers accordingly. Then the customers head off to make blueberry pies, blueberry pancakes, blueberry muffins, and blueberry jam. Or perhaps they just toss handful after handful directly into their mouths, no rinsing required.
Chris told me about a photograph he has of his grandfather posing on the farmland with a 1917 Excelsior motorcycle. In the background Yeomalt Point is surprisingly visible. Chris said that, growing up, he could see the ferries traveling to and from Seattle—that’s how he knew if the ferry was on time. They also had a view of Mount Rainier, and Chris watched the Space Needle being built in Seattle from the top of the hill where the farm sits. Since then, the trees have grown back on the Island, and now the couple just has peeks of Puget Sound, but they showed me where they sit in their lawn chairs to watch the sun set every evening.
Gordy’s father planted the holly farm in the 1950s. Over the 43 years of their marriage and living on the farm, Chris and Gordy raised three children, added 200 holly trees, and then planted rows and rows of blueberry plants. I asked if any of their children wanted to farm the land. They said, yes, but that it’s not affordable for them. Their daughter, who owns and rents out 1.25 acres of the family land, has no plans to live here but also no plans to sell.
While we talked, every few minutes a loud shriek emanated from their house. I asked the Wilsons what it was. Gordy laughed. “It’s an electronic bird scare.” He said that it probably didn’t do much good. Cedar waxwings and robins are especially fond of their berries. Chris told me that the most effective strategy for scaring off the birds is having children run up and down the rows while their parents pick blueberries.
Before they took me on a stroll through the rows of plants which are still full of berries, I asked Chris and Gordy what they liked best about their years running the Holly and U-Pick businesses. Chris didn’t hesitate: “We love it, love all the people. The customers are great.” She added, “There might be one or two a year that—” and I had to finish her sentence for her: “. . . aren’t so great.” But it was clear that these customers are in the minority.
She told me about a couple of fond customer memories she has. One is of a “very pregnant woman” at the beginning of the blueberry season who somehow managed to bend over and pick a bucket of berries. By the end of the season, she had returned, this time with a baby in her arms, and somehow she managed to pick again.
The other is of a toddler, whose face, Chris says, she’ll never forget. His family picked and paid for a small quantity of blueberries. These they handed to him to eat while they went back to fill up their buckets. Chris watched him contentedly and methodically working through his berries. I can imagine the expression on his face.
The Blueberry U-Pick is still open because of the late harvest. This Friday and Saturday, September 23 and 24, stop by at 11054 N. Madison between 10 and 5. You can call 842-6116 to find out what the next week’s schedule will be.
Photos by Sarah Lane.