Tilth honors farmers and advocates
This article was originally published in March 2022
The Farmer of the Year honored at the 2021 Tilth Conference was more than just one farmer. The honor went to Hedlin Farms in the Skagit Valley, a “third or fourth generation” family farm on about 500 acres outside La Conner.
Recipients of the annual awards are nominated by members of the agricultural community and given to individuals who have had a profound impact on Washington state’s food system and on agriculture statewide.
Dave Hedlin and wife and business partner Serena Campbell began work on the farm in 1974, with other family farmers including sisters Carol and Mary Hedlin, daughter Lauren Hedlin, nephew Kai Ottesen and brother-in-law John Baker. When accepting the award, Hedlin also called out brothers David, Martin, Augustine and Antonio Rodriguez, who have worked with them for decades. Hedlin’s grandfather, Rasmus Koudal, came over from Denmark in 1904 and spent two years with relatives in a sod hut in North Dakota before coming to Seattle “and up to the Magic Skagit” in 1906, he said.
“He landed on the best of the best,” Dave Hedlin said in a video at the Tilth Alliance conference. “We call it the Magic Skagit, but it’s just an incredible place to farm.”
The business produces both organic and conventional produce. Crops include beet, spinach and cabbage seed (see this story), along with tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, peas, and a few dozen other crops for local farmers markets, restaurants and wholesale buyers.
Hedlin gets asked often whether their focus on stewardship and sustainability is against their short-term interests. Sustainability, though, requires a larger perspective.
“The land is everything. And if you don’t take care of the land, it won’t take care of you long-term,” he said.
Agriculture involves complex interactions, he said. They don’t do everything right. But they try to learn from their mistakes and embrace the complexity of the work rather than instant gratification.
“I sometimes think that idea in America today of long-range thinking is buying green bananas. Food with good stewardship may cost a little more but only in a very short term. Long term, it pays huge dividends.”
True success for him, he said, means leaving the land better than he found it for the next generation.
As well as stewardship on the farm, longtime Skagit farmer Anne Schwartz said, the Hedlin family has contributed in many ways both locally and statewide, both in formal roles and in informal supports. Hedlin and Campbell were primary members of the Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland organization, “an incredibly important, critical organization in our county. They worked with the Northwest Agricultural Research Foundation and the Washington state Farm Credit Bureau, and various family members have served in board roles as diverse as the local school board and the local farmers market. “In addition to growing amazing food and growing their amazing families, they just give and give and give,” Schwartz said.
Advocate of the Year
Laura Raymond, who leads the Regional Markets team for the Washingtom State Department of Agriculture, was named Tilth’s Advocate of the Year. She was applauded by presenters for “Wonder Woman-like skills throughout her career, revealing a breadth of knowledge about the Washington food and farming system, and a sense of the possible.” Recent achievements included responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including bolstering existing programs and pursuing new investments in relief and recovery.
Karen Ullmann, who accepted the award on her behalf, said Raymond brings people together “against challenging odds and through difficult conversations by changing perspectives, and disrupting conventional belief systems.
“You’re a nuanced facilitator who is eloquent, smart, emphatic and bold. What I love most is how you build leaders as you lead, always providing a context, historical knowledge and transparent intent with egoless motivation. You teach and it lifts other people. That’s what builds a movement.”
Raymond, in prepared remarks read to the group, said that “the path many of you laid before I joined you on it is what makes it possible for me to advocate for nuts and bolts programs, policies, funding, awareness, and appreciation for what you do.” She said she had loved hearing at the conference earlier in the day from “what I call Demeter women” of the early push toward a more sustainable and just food system. “They, along with Mark Musick, were the leaders who welcomed me as a very young woman into this movement in Washington.”
Lifetime Achievement Award
Vashon Island farmer Mary Robinson, who helped organize the Tilth conferences for some 20 years, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The presenter called her “an educator at heart” who worked with farmers, researchers and industry people to develop workshops and panels. She served on the board of the Vashon Island Growers Association and farmers market and was instrumental in helping secure funding for both the market site and a permanent shelter for farmers there. Working with another farmer on Vashon Island, she reinstated the horticulture program in the Vashon Island School District, helped develop a curriculum for it, and then taught lessons that encompassed gardening and cooking and soil science for high school students. “She played a very important role in helping to organize several events during the international protest that happened in Seattle when the World Trade Organization met to negotiate food and trade,” including an international panel, and organized a breakfast to feed 400 farmers that came from around the world to participate in the protest.
“She’s also been involved with other local efforts to gather and ship needed tools to Honduras, after national disasters there, and her work was always full of integrity, full of direction, full of all of the things that make us happy to get up in the morning.”