“We thought if we could make it farming here, we’d be living the dream,” recalls Julie Johnston of her decision, with husband Blake, to put down roots on bucolic Lopez Island (population 2,500) in 2008. Of course, the island’s 360-degree ocean views come with more than a few difficulties: rough coastal winds, poor soil, feed and fertilizer that must be ferried in – not to mention a transient consumer base of summer folk.
The upside of isolation? A local, year-round economy that’s borderline barter-system. The Johnstons pay the lease on their 50 acres with food: “Annually, our rent costs a CSA share, half a pig, a quarter cow, and 20 chickens,” Julie says. Two summers ago, an anonymous donor contributed a new tractor. “Community generosity changed everything for us,” she adds. “If you put yourself out there, it’s amazing how people support you.”
Yes, Julie admits, there are days – say, after wireworms decimated her newly transplanted kale, broccoli, and cabbage plugs – when she’s “fantasized about normal jobs I could get in town.” But she and Blake aren’t giving up on Helen’s Farm (named for her grandmother and his great-grandmother) anytime soon. “Every year, I get a little more confident that what we’re doing is going to work out,” she says. “The only thing I’ve ever felt viscerally sure I want to do is farm.”