Fair Mountain Farm has always been part of someone’s dream. Surely the first person to stake it out and file papers on it back in the 1880s dreamt of a well-kept, snug little homestead in the shadow of the Soldier Mountains. A place where, with vision and hard work, they could grow and prosper and lead a simple, rewarding life. And who knows, maybe they did. But if they didn’t, at least their dream is still attached to the land and will continue to remain so, despite a succession of owners.
Owners, is perhaps not an appropriate title. For the longer my wife Tona and I live here, and the more we work this land, the better understanding we have of our relationship to it. And deeded papers and encumbrances notwithstanding, we know we will never truly own it. It has merely passed into our custody for awhile, and we are just its current occupants, stewards for better or worse of its health and well-being. Taking from it that which sustains us, and hopefully leaving some improvement and personal imprint that will be appreciated by subsequent occupants.
It has been called the “old Wardrup place,” the “old Pahl’s place,” and “the old orchard” by people in Camas County where it is located (about 60 miles from Sun Valley on the way to Boise). We have named it Fair Mountain Farm in honor of the 10,000–foot peak that graces the northwestern skyline and the little community of Fairfield, which sits on the prairie seven miles south. We also wanted a descriptive name with which to label our produce and food products.
Our favorites, who were first among the many previous occupants, are the Wardrups, Jack and Adelaide, and it is their legacy we admire the most. They were renowned for their generosity and hospitality. It is said that Jack, (who planted the orchard, and whose favorite activity was gardening) would have been a wealthy man if everyone who owed him had repaid. And no one ever left Adelaide’s table hungry. It was their dream that built the house and planted the first garden. The creek that waters the orchard still bears their name. And it is the Wardrup’s legacy that Tona and I feel we hold in trust.
For we too have brought our dreams to this place, and they are much like we imagined the first homesteaders to be: “To grow and prosper and lead a simple, rewarding life.” We have added “challenging and meaningful” to that. And so far, despite the minor missteps and misfortunes of first-time farmers everywhere, we are satisfied with the results. Although a commercially-viable vegetable farm above 5,000 feet in altitude adds new dimension to the word “challenging.” And harvesting at ten o’clock at night by flashlight can stretch the definition of “meaningful."
The farm produces a variety of normal, as well specialty vegetables and fruit. The mix is dictated by our own curiosity and customer demand. We add or subtract something every year for the sake of challenge and education, as well as variety. There is always a new type of carrot or disease-free variety of green bean or spicy salad green to try. Like farmers everywhere, the weather plays a large role in our success/failure ratio with any given crop, and we agonize over grasshoppers, flea beetles, and frosts. Right now we supply produce to about twenty-five individual customers. Evergreen, Piccolo, Cristina’s, Il Naso, and The Catering Company have all purchased produce from us in varying amounts, and our farm has a stand across from Atkinsons’ each week in the summer at the Ketchum Farmers’ Market. Besides twenty-five types of vegetables (some with many varieties), and fruit and herbs, we sell eggs, free range turkeys, and a variety of products developed from our kitchen. Fudge sauce, salad dressing, brownies, jams and jellies, etc. >>>
Much of the satisfaction of this lifestyle is derived from attempting the new and untried. There is a conscious effort to make all things on the farm contribute to one another and all of these a contributor to the harmony of the whole.
Thus, almost everything has at least a dual function and many have more than that. A good example, is that of the orchard. It produces apples, pears, and plums, but contributes much more to the overall health of the farm. The trees create shade for livestock and shelter for birds, the blossoms attract bees who in turn pollinate other fruits and vegetables and make honey. The pruned limbs provide chips and branches for smoking and barbecue flavoring.
The picked fruits go into jams and jellies, sauces and ciders. The windfall fruit provides feed for the turkeys and chickens or is composted and goes back into the land. All of that aside, to stand in the orchard in May surrounded by the sight and smell of spring blossoms, is alone worth the effort of growing the fruit.
Tona’s true passion, the flower gardens, are also made to do double and triple duty. Many varieties are grown, not only because they are aesthetically pleasing, but also because the blooms are edible or salable, or because their fragrance and color attract beneficial insects, birds, bees, and butterflies. In the vegetable garden, crops are grown for the market but also for the nutrients and minerals they fix in the soil to improve its overall health. On a farm, everything works together. It has to. All of this cycling and recycling is ancient practice for farmers, yet in the “throw-away” society that we live in, it is extremely rewarding to regenerate, reuse, or transform practically everything you lay your hands on.
Farming, even on a small scale, seems to fill an almost primal need in the people who engage in it. And it points out the interrelationship of all things and how those things combine to create a circle of existence—one that is visible and tangible and present.
Modern life can distance us from the daily workings of our existence. Voice-mail, e-mail, and fax are great tools for connecting, but not for communicating with others. Packaging prevents interaction. A cut of meat pre-wrapped, precludes conversation with the butcher. A fast food restaurant, by its very nature, discourages discussion of the menu. Everything seems to exist at a remove.
For us, life on the farm is reversing that process and we have made a pact, if a neighbor or other visitor stops by we will put down our tools and lean on the fence and “shoot the breeze.” It’s funny how a seemingly small decision like that can have such powerful results. And the decision to sell directly whenever we can, to those who consume our products, or those who prepare them for others, has helped us reconnect in a positive way with our fellow man. We have also found that our customers like knowing that the farmer has a “face” and value the exchange as much as we. And the exchange is not just reconnecting to one another, but to that which sustains us all—the land.
Another great and important source of satisfaction here at Fair Mountain Farm is the setting: The farm’s seven acres are on the original site of the “old Wardrup” homestead, and consist of the main house (over 100 years old) and a “mother-in-law” cottage (about half that vintage). Counting the orchard under fence and the fruit trees scattered throughout the grounds alongside the wild plum thickets, there are about 180 producing fruit trees interspersed with wild primroses, cottonwoods, aspens, and willows. Our homestead has several ancient out- buildings, shops, sheds, a chicken coop, etc., some of which only remain standing because of the mature cottonwood trees that surround them, supporting time, which leans heavily on these structures. There are also corrals, pastures, lawns, and flower gardens. Everywhere we gaze, in all seasons, there is beauty. >>>
For the first three years we lived in the “mother-in-law" cottage while remodeling the main house, creating the greenhouse and main vegetable garden, and planting flower, herb, and berry gardens. Ongoing was the restoration of the orchard, the reclaiming of pasture ground, the raising of chickens, turkeys, and lambs (one year only, thank god!), and the marketing of the farm’s produce and products. The overall plan is to continue to enhance and beautify the personal setting of the farm and build and maintain the health of the soil that it sits on. And to make a living from the fruits (pun intended) of our labors. We are not there yet. Both of us work part–time jobs elsewhere; and together, with my son David, own a small publishing company, Silver Creek Press, which produces wildlife calendars and for which we work in the fall and winter when the farm is dormant.
Like many in the Valley, we have both held a variety of jobs. Tona at one time was a partner in a Ketchum restaurant, worked in many others, and gardened for herself, as well as other people; I have had experience in the saloon, restaurant, and construction businesses. Our main purpose in moving to the Camas Prairie was to find a place where we could combine our individual skills and knowledge and make a lifestyle both creative and self-sufficient, in a beautiful setting. Much of what motivated us was the simple desire to make each day’s work contribute more directly to the life we wanted to lead. Rather than work elsewhere to earn money to buy things, we prefer to make or grow them ourselves. Or at least sell what we produce directly and use that money for our needs. If you want eggs, raise chickens. Want jelly on your toast? Make it. And make the bread for the toast. Most of us figure we haven’t got time for that stuff. But remember, you are trading your time for money to buy it, so why not go the direct route? It’s much easier than one might imagine, on a smaller scale than one might think necessary, and the rewards are tremendous. Sounds too idyllic? Well, it is possible.
Converting a “passion" or “dream” into a business can sometimes be an exercise fraught with pitfalls. The most dangerous and common of which is blunting that passion or dream with stress, and the sometimes drudgery of transforming a romantic idea into reality. So far that hasn’t happened to us and our advice is to keep perspective, maintain a long–term vision; yet, set shorter–term, attainable goals, and constantly monitor whether or not you are enjoying the process as you go. Remember what you started out to create.
When we talk about the lifestyle we have chosen at Fair Mountain Farm to friends or even strangers, Tona and I remark that often the response from our listeners is a soft, faraway look in their eyes. As if we had tapped into a secret longing or a private dream. Perhaps the same dream that was first attached to this land. It is a look we are both familiar with. For we both still get that same look when we talk about how much work we have ahead of us.
And how much of the dream we have yet to harvest.
Clarence Stilwill is a writer who has lived and worked in the Sun Valley area for 35 years.