As it became clear that restaurants were not going to be operating at their usual capacity, or at all, we had to re-create our business literally overnight. Instinctually, we knew that people would still need to eat, no matter what. And with the possibility of interruptions in the larger food supply chain, we felt that a small local farm, like ours, would be best positioned to feed our immediate community.
Petrina and Jonathan Fisher were on a whole other career trajectory when they began exploring the impact of living off the land versus living for themselves. The land won out, giving them Skylight Farms — 20 acres in Snohomish’s Cathcart Valley, beside the mighty Snohomish River — and quite the responsibility to both eke out a sustainable living and provide for the community.
That was 2012. Today, Skylight Farms is known throughout Western Washington for its colorful vegetables and pasture-raised eggs. The family-owned and -operated small farm has been through its fair share of trials and travails, from seasonal flooding, bugs and critters, to COVID-19. They’ve adapted nicely, discovering the true value of community and what they’ve been trying to do since becoming farmers.
In mid-August, Welcome Magazine interviewed Petrina Fisher about the hard work that goes into Skylight Farms for the fall/winter issue.
What made you and your family get into small, sustainable farming?
We never planned to become farmers. After our son was born in 2010, we re-evaluated where we wanted to be. Jonathan had been a lawyer and I had a background in non-profit management. Neither of us had ever farmed before. However, we were both passionate about sustainability and land conservation. We lived in Seattle at the time and what began as an exploration into the surrounding rural communities, turned into a full-fledged interest in starting a small farm. We purchased our farm at the end of 2012, the same year that our daughter was born, and began farming in 2013.
What’s the size of your farm and when did you get started?
Our farm is 20 acres with about five acres in vegetable production and chickens enjoying another five+ acres.
How many in your staff are actively helping to keep the farm going?
We have six part-time employees.
Skylight Farms is known for its eggs. How’d that get started?
I had always joked about getting backyard chickens when we lived in Ballard, so once we had the space, it felt fitting to have animals as part of the equation. We were inspired by the idea of incorporating animals into our production as a way to build the health of our soil. I have long been opposed to the inhumane conditions that animals – chickens in particular – are subjected to in the name of producing cheap food. It’s always been important for me to understand the origin of my food and I can’t imagine raising chickens in a way that doesn’t allow them to just be chickens.
Della Terra Catering sources eggs from you, as do several other prominent small business artisans. Who are some of your major customers, and how does the average person get in on these amazing eggs?
Grain Artisan Bakery uses our eggs in her amazing pastries. Several restaurants, such as The Herbfarm, Stoneburner, Sunny Hill, and Porkchop & Co. also use our eggs regularly. A small pasta company called Mixtape Pasta started using our eggs as well. When we have the supply, we also stock a few local farm stands and CSA’s. We sell our eggs (and veggies) at the Bellevue Farmers Market, as well as through our online webstore. We also started a drive-through farmstand at our farm on Saturday mornings, where we have a limited number of eggs.
When is egg-laying season? Hens don’t lay eggs all the time, apparently.
It’s true. The hens’ egg-laying coincides with day-length. Prime egg season is May through September. We see a dramatic decrease in egg-laying in October and through the darkest months. Our hens also molt in the early spring, which is a natural process. But it prevents them from laying eggs during that time.
Skylight Farms also grows a nice, diverse array of seasonal vegetables. What are your best-selling items? Any new produce you’re experimenting with?
I think we’re known for our colorful cauliflowers, purple especially. I love to grow purple varieties – purple carrots, purple kohlrabi, purple dragon beans, etc. Farm-fresh carrots are always a big hit. Cherry tomatoes and Persian cucumbers are also very popular. This season we’re growing ginger for the first time. The fun thing about owning a small farm is that you always get to experiment.
What do you grow in the fall/winter? Do those sell well? Obviously farmers market season is your best-selling time…
Growing late into the fall and winter is always tricky because our farm is in the floodplain. Last year, it flooded in October and while we didn’t lose any crops, it was a good reminder that we need to plan carefully, so that we don’t potentially lose too much. Speaking of experiments, I’m always experimenting with trying to grow things later and later into the season, such as kale, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, as well as planting things in the late summer for early spring production. We have a few pockets of slightly higher ground that typically doesn’t go under water during a flood, so I plan my production in a way that I can take advantage of that. We also have storage crops, such as winter squash, carrots, beets, and onions that we sell during the winter.
After September, what’s your main focus at Skylight Farms?
Getting ready for the winter. A lot of work goes into bringing in all of the storage crops that I mentioned above. Plus, there’s an enormous amount of field clean-up that needs to happen. We don’t want to have anything floating away during a flood.
Our other focus is on baby chicks! Every fall, we get a new batch of baby chicks that will become part of our laying flock for the next season. We keep our chickens year-‘round, so there’s never a day off.
How has COVID altered the way you do business going forward?
It’s heightened our awareness of how we physically interact with our customers and each other at the farm. We’ve increased the level of cleaning and sanitizing at the farm. I think that in the food business, you can’t ever be too careful about cleanliness.
It also forced us to take the reins of who we’re doing business with and to be a lot more intentional about creating lasting relationships with our customers. I’ve realized that in this shared experience, our best customers are the ones who feel a mutual support, connection, and appreciation for us, and us with them.
Over 33 percent of small businesses have shut down and most will not be able to bounce back from the lockdown of this pandemic. Why are you in a unique position to save your business? What is it about being a small sustainable farmer that worked in your favor, to be able to pivot to online preorders, and to provide people with wholesome food their bodies need to beef up their immunity?
As a small sustainable farm, our business was fairly evenly split between the farmers market, selling direct to restaurants, and working with a distributor. The beginning of the pandemic coincided with the start of our season. There was a lot of “wait and see” early on, when we were uncertain about whether farmers markets would open. As it became clear that restaurants were not going to be operating at their usual capacity, or at all, we had to re-create our business literally overnight. Instinctually, we knew that people would still need to eat, no matter what. And with the possibility of interruptions in the larger food supply chain, we felt that a small local farm, like ours, would be best positioned to feed our immediate community.
Because we’re a small, family-owned business, we were able to simply adapt right away and decided to launch an online store. It caught on quickly and one of the best things to come out of the pandemic has been meeting and seeing my customers every week at the farm. I always wondered if people would be willing to come to our farm to pick up their food and it’s been incredibly heart-warming to have people come from as far away as Mt. Vernon and Renton. But our core customers are between Monroe and Snohomish, of course. I think we also have the advantage of being part of the fabric of our community. Hundreds of people drive past our driveway every day and have seen our sign for years. Once they had the opportunity to come down and visit, many jumped on that opportunity. And now that they know their farmer and can see where their food comes from, that experience is irreplaceable.
What’s been the response in the community to saving its small businesses and farms? How do you cultivate that close-knit community?
Oops. I kind of answered that above. I’d say that the response has been phenomenal. We never really knew our surrounding community until this season and I feel embarrassed to admit that. I was talking to a chef a few months ago about how the definition of “community” has been turned on its head. It’s like I never really understood it until the pandemic hit and then all of a sudden there were people buying my eggs, cauliflower, and spinach online week after week. A lot of people have found us through word of mouth or on social media. For me, cultivating a close-knit community begins with gratitude and authenticity. I try to make sure that my customers know how much they mean to us, because I know it would be a heck of a lot easier to just go to the nearest grocery store. For a lot of our customers, we’ve become more than just a place to pick up your veggies and eggs. Coming to the farm each week has turned into an experience that they value. They’ve gotten to know us as people, and I try to make sure they know what’s happening at the farm. I also try to be accessible to my customers for questions, special orders, etc.
Why do you do what you do? It can’t be easy, especially now. Why is it worthwhile for you personally and professionally? Give us an idea of what it’s like.
To understand how challenging it is to run a small farm, it’s important to also know that I have two kids, ages 8 and 9. They’ve been at home since schools closed in the spring. To be completely frank and honest, this is such a tough question to answer, because I struggle with the balance of giving my children the time they deserve and giving my time to oversee all the demands of the farm. Running a farm is grueling. Being a parent is grueling, too. Luckily the farming part slows down to a manageable pace from November to April. However, both farming and parenting are constantly demanding.
Sometimes, I question whether it’s worthwhile. The days are long. I do fieldwork, work at the farmers market or make deliveries during the day and then cobble together dinner with my family, tuck the kids into bed, and do computer work for another couple of hours almost every day of the week. From June to October, I’m really, really tired.
But once in awhile, I can’t believe how lucky we are to be having this experience with our kids. This season, we decided to grow a flower garden with the kids. They were involved with every step, from planting the seeds in trays to growing their plant starts to planting, weeding, and now harvesting the flowers. They started making bouquets to sell in our farmstand. This has probably been the highlight of our entire farming experience and it has nothing to do with our actual farm business.
There’s certainly some ego involved in knowing that our food is on the menus at top-notch restaurants in the region, but the most fulfilling aspect of running a small farm is the powerful connections that we make between people and food, at all ends of the spectrum. We intentionally partner with organizations like Farms for Life, so that we can supply high-quality produce to the vulnerable populations that are served by their agency partners. I also get a kick out of knowing that the very same carrots that we’re sending to a high-end restaurant are also going to a daycare program. I know that food access is a serious problem and I’m glad that we’ve been able to make sure our food reaches the plates of a diverse and broader community.
What makes Skylight Farms special? Why go with small farmers when it’s much more convenient to go to your nearest supermarket?
Haha. I just said that earlier. The main reason to support a small farm like Skylight Farms is that there’s a tangible difference in the quality of the food, because it’s grown just minutes from our customers’ doorsteps. Our produce is harvested just days or hours before the customer receives their orders. We’re also happy to talk your ear off about a vegetable that you’ve never tasted and introduce you to new flavors that you’ll never find at a supermarket. But I think the most important reason to support a small farm is that you’re supporting a family in your community, who in turn is employing people in your community and spending the money that we earn back in our very own community. Unlike the big chain supermarkets, small local farms don’t answer to a corporate office. We can incorporate feedback from our customers immediately and we truly value their opinions.
What do you hope for in the near-future, for your small farm, your customers, your community, in the face of this growing pandemic?
Oh man. So much. I could practically write a novel about this, but I’m going to end here. In a nutshell, I hope for a continuing sense of community, camaraderie, and general support for each other in the face of this growing pandemic. We’re all in this together.