Back to Nature: Washougal couple commits to full-time farm life

Andra and John Spencer’s Get To-Gather Farm will be part of Clark County Harvest Celebration Day farm tour on Saturday, Sept. 18

Doug Flanagan/Post-Record John Spencer waters a plant at Get To-Gather Farm on Sept. 2.

Doug Flanagan/Post-Record The retail stand at Get To-Gather Farm in Washougal opened earlier this year, selling a wide variety of locally grown produce.

Doug Flanagan/Post-Record Get To-Gather Farm's orchards include a wide variety of fruit trees, including figs.

John Spencer had an epiphany during a lunch meeting in the summer of 2019 when he suddenly realized that he wasn’t content with what he was doing for a living and that something had to change. It all started with some wise counsel from a client and trusted friend.

“I told (him), ‘My project for you isn’t done yet. I just haven’t been able to focus on it. I’m sorry.’ He turns to me and says, ‘Well, that’s because you don’t love what you do,'” Spencer said. “It was one of those classic light-bulb-over-the-head, launch-the-midlife-crisis (moments). Over the next few months I said, ‘He’s right. What do I love?’ And what I came back to is (my farmland). The reason I wasn’t getting that project done, the reason I wasn’t focusing, was that I was out on the land all the time taking care of it.”

So later that year, Spencer and his wife, Andra, decided to become full-fledged farmers, a radical departure from their careers as a business analyst/consultant and educator, respectively.

During the past year they’ve worked diligently to transform their Washougal property into a commercial farm, planting hundreds and hundreds of vegetable starts, fruit trees and flowers, and opening a retail stand.

Now, they’re getting the word out that their life-changing venture, Get To-Gather Farm, is open for business and has big plans for the future. The farm will be part of the Washington State University Clark County Extension’s Harvest Celebration Day, to be held from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18.

“I hope that the farm will be bustling with interested locals checking out all the amazing work (John and Andra have) done and consider purchasing their fruits, vegetables, flowers, eggs, etc. in the future from them, along with sharing the love with our other wonderful farmers,” said Carie Maniscalco, who volunteers at the farm. “I absolutely adore the two of them and their whole family, and how hard they are working to build and operate an amazing vegetable and flower farm and host special events.”

Couple takes advantage of ‘COVID opportunity’

In order to turn his dream into reality, John first had to convince his wife that they (probably) wouldn’t go bankrupt.

“I’m definitely the risk-adverse one in the family, (but I knew) we had to lean into it,” said Andra, who is continuing to work as a human development professor at Clark College. “We (told ourselves) that we weren’t going to starve because we could eat what we grow. When we do our taxes this first year, I’m sure I’ll be (shocked). But you make choices. John gave up his plane. That’s when I knew things were real.”

John and Andra are leasing about seven acres of John’s family’s 150-acre property for the farm, located at 1913 SE 303rd Avenue in Washougal.

“When (the family) bought it, we were young, having families and working,” Andra said. “Now we are into the next phase of life. This is what I call a COVID opportunity. Things shifted. (The pandemic) made the decision for us, let’s just put it that way.”

“I stopped (consulting) cold turkey. COVID kind of stopped it for me,” John added. “I had the idea for the farm pre-COVID, but COVID just happened to be a really, really convenient (reason to get started). Part of the advantage we had was that we already had the land. It’s not just that (a lot of the infrastructure) was already there. It’s that we didn’t have to pay for it. And I truly did not intend to earn any money this year, so we’ve got that advantage of being able to figure it out as we go.”

The farm offers a large variety of fresh produce grown by the Spencers; partner farms such as Shady Grove (Camas), Windy Ridge (Washougal), Finca (LaCenter) and Dilish (Vancouver); and friendly neighbors.

“We’re looking for partnerships and working with people and coming together to create a community that’s developing here,” John said. “Part of it is (having) volunteers and helping each other out, and part of it is partnering with other local farmers, giving them an outlet and getting their assistance and spare produce.”

The Spencers envision their farm as a true community hub, capable of hosting a variety of classes, social events and even business meetings. They’ve already hosted several classes, including a salsa-making workshop that was so well-received that they had to schedule a second session later that day.

“(The instructor) sat there and chatted with the people for three hours because it was a beautiful spot, a beautiful day, and I was just thrilled to see that people were gathering,” John said. “(I thought), ‘This is what this is about.’ I’d like to have cider press nights and ‘come-roast-chestnuts-over-the-open fire’ nights … and get people out for parties. We want to make it (about) the experience.”

“People are so excited to be here,” Andra added. “There’s a positive vibe. People say, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this.'”

John’s orchards are planted on about two-and-a-half acres of the property and produce a wide selection of fruits, including staples such as apples, pears, cherries and plums, but also exotic varieties such as paw-paws, goumis, gojis, thimbleberries, elderberries, pomegranates, figs, seaberries, mulberries, aronia berries, yuzus and mayhaws.

He also planted kiwi berry vines and nut trees containing filberts, hazelnuts, almonds, chestnuts and walnuts.

“I try to do stuff that’s different,” he said. “I spent many, many hours in front of the internet (researching these varieties). I also discovered One Green World, a nursery in Gresham (Oregon) that specializes in all of this weird stuff.”

Andra focuses her time on the other end of the farm, a three-quarter-of-an-acre plot that holds large vegetable and flower gardens.

“This (farm) is just upping the level,” she said. “I’ve always had a garden and I’ve always enjoyed the land.”

The vegetable garden includes pumpkins, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, jalape?o peppers, eggplants, zucchinis, onions, beans, stevias and rhubarbs, along with ground-growing fruits such as watermelons.

“Joe’s Place Farms (in Vancouver) closed last January, and we purchased a lot of things from (the owner),” Andra said. “He’s kind of become a bit of a mentor to us. He checks in on us and offers things to us. We’re really fortunate.”

Andra’s flower garden includes dahlias, zinnias, sunflowers, cosmos and carnations.

“It’s a fiesta of color,” she said. “My new love is zinnias, but my first love is dahlias when it comes to plants. Dahlias are forgiving. and zinnias aren’t.Our kids started the sunflowers and we took it to the next level this year. We added lots of layers to the garden.”

They’ve both learned a lot about farming and the agricultural economy. They’ve endured some challenges, such as a February storm that destroyed their recently-built greenhouse. They acknowledge that the first year “has been tough” as they work to grow the farm as well as a viable business model for the future.

But now that they’re doing it, they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“It feels good to make use of the farm,” Anda said. “For a long time, it’s just been (here).We’ve enjoyed it, but we realized that we were (missing out) on some of the potential.”

And as for John? So far, his “midlife crisis” is going just fine.

“I love being outside. And it’s as I predicted in the beginning — I love tending to the plants. It feels good,” John said. “The work isn’t going to ever end, but that’s kind of cool. I look forward to being the grizzled, 80-year-old farmer who finally keels over from a heart attack in the middle of his field. That’s what I want.”