Washougal farmers find new possibilities during pandemic

Their Skamania County farm 'on verge of dying,' local couple reaches out to their community, discovers new source of revenue

Contributed photo courtesy Lara Scanlon A pig searches for food at the Colibri Gardens organic farm in rural Washougal.

Colibri Gardens owner Lara Scanlon looks over her 40-acre property in Washougal on Aug. 20.

Derek and Lara Scanlon, with their 6-year-old son, Nate, gather outside their Washougal home on Aug. 20. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Contributed photo courtesy Lara Scanlon Colibri Gardens owners Derek an Lara Scanlon use their sheep, including Icelandic and Katahdin (above) breeds, to produce meat and wool. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Derek and Lara Scanlon were terrified the dream they had worked so hard to achieve was on the verge of dying.

In 2017, the couple had purchased 40 acres of property in rural Skamania County and turned it into Colibri Gardens, an organic farm, homesteading school and event venue, and began to generate a modest amount of money offering classes, tours, cabin rentals and weddings.

“For the past three years, we’ve thrown a lot against the wall to see what sticks,” Derek said.

But after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to cancel events this spring and summer, the ScanlonsĀ  found themselves in a vulnerable financial position.

“We had been (worrying) about how we could hang on to this place,” Lara said. “Our economic margins were so high. We had to get a mortgage deferment for three months. And, quite frankly, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to keep this farm. It was really scary. It was heartbreaking.”

Near desperate, Lara reached out to the community, emailing nearly every local resident they knew and asking if anyone was interested in buying their lamb, pork or beef.

“We got the most amazing response, that we were not expecting,” Lara said. “We were thinking a couple of people would say, ‘Yeah, that would be interesting.’ Literally everyone we sent the email to said, ‘Yes, please. Tell me how much money to send you.’ We were able to massively expand our animal operation this year.”

Once they began to deposit the checks, the Scanlons felt “like a huge weight had been lifted” off of them.

“We felt that we were being supported to do what we always wanted to do,” Lara said. “For the first time, we could actually see us making it as a farm.”

From the beginning, the Scanlons said they knew they wanted to utilize their knowledge and resources to raise and sell pastured meat, but hadn’t been able to fully commit to the process because they were spending so much of their time hosting weddings.

But with no nuptial events on their outdoor chalkboard calendar for the foreseeable future, they were free to embrace their original vision, which has helped them to get into a better financial position and plan for the future.

“We knew we were heading there, but COVID essentially forced us to just go for it,” Lara said. “COVID really illuminated to us that using our farm as a teaching center or an event center is only sustainable when you don’t have all these other mitigating factors — but people always need to eat.”

“We’re right at the precipice of becoming the place we want to be,” she continued. “We had to go through a lot of growing pains. One of the things that I’ve learned is how important it is to stay true to your vision, and to not be ashamed to tell people that you need help.”

Sparking a ‘small farmer revolution’

Lara, a longtime organic farmer, and Derek, a former paraeducator and special education teacher, use their farm to feed their family, which includes their 6-year-old son, Nate, and neighbors, and to teach visitors about gardening, farming, animal care, rural living and traditional skills.

“I’ve talked about a small-farmer revolution, and how we’d really like to see that in our country and around the world,” Derek said. “Sometimes just having people come to the farm — Lara giving her spiel, talking to people about sustainable agriculture, what it really means, the day-to-day — and having the (interns) come, all this is part of our grand scheme, or whatever you want to call it, to get people interested in farming.”

Lara wants to “spread a message that it’s not that hard to actually create a functioning, sustainable food system, but people have to be willing to pay for it.”

“We really want to help shift people’s consciousness about supporting small family farms, because right now we have a food system that’s not working for the land and not working for the people,” Lara said.

The Scanlons periodically host interns from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of national organizations that facilitate homestays on organic farms.

Ally Haas, of Gresham, Oregon, recently interned with the Scanlons.

“I was originally going to be here for a week, but I’ve stayed for two-and-a-half months,” said Haas, a Mount Hood Community College student. “I’ve been able to be completely immersed in this experience, become part of the family and gain knowledge I never would’ve gotten otherwise.”

The Scanlons own large parcels of undeveloped land they would like to put to good use, possibly for different types of events. And Lara said she hopes to someday establish an organization or foundation to help young people purchase land to farm.

“We have been supported by this community, and we are so excited to continue to grow as a farm and continue to offer a wider variety of classes and workshops,” Lara said. “We want to create the world we want to live in, and create a model for a way that little farms and communities could grow really healthy food and support one another. We’re dreamers. The sky’s the limit.”

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