by Tahlia Honea
Anne Schwartz is a self-described rabble-rouser. The 66-year-old blueberry and raspberry farmer has dedicated her life to growing organic food, fighting all the way to the international level for organic food standards and better farming practices.
Against the backdrop of Sauk Mountain, plump, perfect blueberries hang from rows of blueberry bushes she planted fifteen years ago at Blue Heron Farm, across the Skagit River from the town of Rockport.
They’re on the cusp of harvest, destined for the Skagit Valley Food Co-op in Mount Vernon. Schwartz has been supplying the Co-op, and coordinating with other growers that supply the Co-op, for more than three decades. At the peak of her farming days, she was selling 30 crops there, plus a popular CSA of her own.
Over the years, she has become a fixture both in Rockport and the larger farming community with her passion for organic, ethical farming, and her ability to survive as a small independent farm in the upper Skagit Valley.“
It hasn’t been easy doing it way up there,” said John Roozen, one of the founders of the Washington Bulb Company, one of Skagit Valley’s most well-known Tulip farms. “She’s worked her absolute living butt off up there.”
On a 90 degree summer morning, Schwartz filled buckets of berries from her 15-year old plants, her signature long, gray braid resting against her back. She is keeping her two acres of raspberries and blueberries, but is passing on her annual crop operation to a younger generation of farmers who share her vision.
It’s now called Long Hearing Farm, and is run by two young women. Both consider themselves activist farmers as well. Schwartz grew up on the east coast, attending Rutgers University in New Jersey, planning to become a veterinarian. But on a road trip to California in the mid 1970s, she happened to stop here in the Skagit, and the universe had other plans. “The Skagit Valley hooked me,” she said. “The red carpet was laid out for me. Work was easy. Everything was easy. I found my tribe.”
After working a short time as a lab tech at the grains lab at Washington State University in Pullman, she moved to Skagit Valley to work with local dairy farmer John Mower caring for cows and learning what it was like to be a farmer. “I fell in love with it,” she said.
Schwartz started working for Cascadian Farm, moving to her forever home in Rockport. During her 11 years at Cascadian Farm running crews of up to a 100 people, she learned what she needed to start her own farm. Along with Martha Bray, Schwartz started Blue Heron farm in 1979, just across the Skagit River from Cascadian Farm. Part of the farm is on her 10-acre homestead, and two other small pieces of land from nearby landowners.
Blue Heron Farm quickly gained a reputation internationally for its innovative organic and regenerative farming practices. Schwartz was featured in several documentaries, including “Global Gardner,” hosted by Bill Mollison, a documentary film series about sustainable farming throughout the planet. Just like the legacy of her own farm, Schwartz has also left her mark on the greater farming community.
While Schwartz has strongly voiced her opinions to area farmers about using less chemicals and more natural farming practices, she has done so with a civility that has endeared her to many of the Skagit Valley’s conventional farmers.
“Anne has been a great one for togetherness,” said John Roozen, a major tulip grower west of Mount Vernon. “She’s been so involved with issues that need to come out in agriculture. She’s never been shy on her opinions and the difficult things that have to be said sometimes. She has a deep sense of stewardship.”
Schwartz and Roozen’s lifelong friendship is somewhat unlikely, but grew out of a mutual respect for nature, agriculture and hard work. “We can’t afford to lose any farmers,” Schwartz said. “We all need each other to survive, so though I have always advocated for organic and sustainable systems, I also know, respect and appreciate how difficult it is to survive in agriculture. We need everyone to survive and support all the necessary services that growers need – equipment, crop inputs, lime etc.”
Roozen said Schwartz has changed his mind and practices over the years, along with other farmers in the area. When Schwartz’s barn burned down in 2001, destroying a huge crop of garlic and much of her equipment, Roozen had a tractor delivered to her doorstep to borrow indefinitely, said Schwartz, who teared up with emotion as she retold the story. In the rare moments when Schwartz wasn’t working on her farm, she’s served on a wide range of boards, both regionally and nationally.
She is also a volunteer firefighter with Fire District 19, responding to emergency calls throughout the rugged upriver area, day or night, including first response to the Oso landslide. “She just gives and gives to the ag community,” said Dave Hedlin, a farmer in the lower part of the valley. “And she gives and gives to the whole community.”
Over the decades, she took numerous trips to Washington D.C. helping to craft the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the original national-level organic legislation, including organic livestock standards, as well as serving as the first woman on the board of the Northwest Agricultural Research Foundation.
Schwartz also served for many years on the Organic Farmers Association Council, working to harmonize organic standards across the United States and Europe, also serving on the Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic Advisory Board, guiding state organic policy, definitions and labeling. She’s served 37 years on the Tilth Alliance. She served on the board of the Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) since 1989. She continues her work there, building “the three-legged stool” of sustainable agriculture programs: research, teaching and outreach to the ag community.
The advocacy work goes far beyond those listed as well. “It’s a huge commitment,” Hedlin who has served on some of these boards with her, made even more time consuming by her remote location. “We all drove 10 miles. She drove 80.” As Schwartz looks back at her legacy, she is most proud of her work on these boards. She made life-long friendships there, all the way up to the White House staff. “It was more than life changing.
It was life building,” she said. “We’re all looking at how we can treat the soil better, and how we treat the earth better.” She has felt a sense of loss giving up growing for the Co-op, and the joy of being known in the community for her carrots or greens. “People loved my stuff,” she said with a laugh.
Now, Schwartz says she’ll focus on all the other things on her land that she’s cultivated through a lifetime of hard work. She also plans to remain, as she describes it, an “activist rabble-rouser.”
This story was originally published by Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland (SPF) as part of their on-going “Meet a Farmer” series.
Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland works to ensure the economic viability of Skagit County agriculture and its required infrastructure through farmland protection, advocacy, research, education and public awareness.
SPF’s meet a farmer series documents the hard work being done by Skagit farmers every day to create a resilient and sustainable food system.
To find more stories about the women and men farming here in the Skagit or to learn more about Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, visit www.skagitonians.org/ or follow them on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.