Family takes over longtime Puyallup filbert orchard

TACOMA -- The teeth-rattling roar of a harvester is shattering the peace at Filbert Acres in Puyallup.

The commotion erupts from a "hazelnut picker" that farmer Jonathan Nichols pulls through the rows of his 60-year-old filbert orchard.

The picker crawls over acres of nuts that, enticed by autumn's cool temperatures, have plummeted to the orchard floor and been swept into piles by volunteer farmhands. The machine scoops up the earth, separating filberts from leavesand twigs, then spits the nutsdown a chute and onto a flatbed trailer.

It's time for harvest and renewal at Filbert Acres.

Nichols, 35, and his wife Alison, 34, are resurrecting the only filbert farm in the Puyallup Valley.

The farmstead has been a fixture on Pioneer Way since at least the 1940s, but fell into decline when its former owner died a few years back. With help from their parents, the Nichols family took over the 9-acre spread in September 2009 and are working to make it a viable enterprise.

"Some days, we look out and say this place is still a mess; it's been a year," Jonathan said. "At the same time, we also look out and say we've got a lot more done than we would have dreamed was possible. And mostly that's due to friends and family that have volunteered."

They continue to harvest the farm's namesake: the filbert, a meaty nut also known as the hazelnut that can be eaten by the handful, bathed in chocolate and baked in pies and entrees. The couple sells the nuts at their farm and at the Proctor Farmers Market on Saturdays.

But the Nichols family also has added vegetables and berries to the farm's yield, and are raising a flock of chickens that eventually will find their way to market.

It's a demanding, yet rewarding lifestyle.

"Sometimes, I'm trying to get a website together. Other days, I'm harvesting tomatoes. Other days, I'm off at the market. It's interesting because it's something different all the time," Jonathan said. "We didn't have any illusions it would be nonstop fun and success. We thought it would be hard but something we'd like to try. We're really happy with it."

Chris Benedict with the Washington State University Extension is elated that the family is maintaining Filbert Acres as a farm.

From 2002-07, Pierce County lost about 17 percent of its farmland, said Benedict, WSU extension educator in Pierce and King. Hopes of saving existing farmland lie partly in the growing trend of people without traditional agriculture backgrounds, such as the Nichols family, becoming farmers, Benedict said.

Exploding consumer interest in locally grown foods and the people who produce them is supporting the movement. More and more small farmers do business by selling directly to consumers.

"The Nichols are pretty symbolic of how things are being reborn in a certain way," Benedict said.

For the family, the support comes in the encouraging comments and free labor from friends, nearby farmers, youth groups and even strangers.

Agnes Thomsen met the couple in the spring when she saw the filbert sale sign at their farm. The hospice retiree offered to lend them a hand. She's volunteered at the farm about five times and brought friends along to thin strawberries, haul weeds or do whatever chores need tackling.

In talking with them, she said, "I felt a real sincerity and real quality of caring for the Earth. Obviously if they bit off this big chunk, I just saw work everywhere."

Running a farm is a huge undertaking for a couple bringing unconventional backgrounds to the tradition.

"I was a suburban kid from Kent," Nichols said. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy and a master's degree in education, which he conceded, "are not very useful for farming."

Two mornings a week, he teaches Latin at Covenant High School in Tacoma.

"Ali has the legitimate agriculture background," he added. "I'm the one who reads soil textbooks for fun."

Alison, who holds degrees in biology and crop science, once worked at the WSU King County Extension agricultural program. The daughter of missionaries, she interned on a farm in South Africa and prepared for a career in development of third-world countries.

After meeting at college in Illinois, the couple served as missionaries in agricultural development for five years in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world. Though the climate and crops were practically the opposite of the South Sound's, they got a glimpse of a constant reality in farming. "We sort of learned to make do over there," Jonathan said. "You couldn't always get the right tool, and you couldn't always do everything the right way."

Their dream of having their own farm someday materialized in 2008, when they returned to the Puget Sound in the depths of the recession as real estate values were plunging. With the help of relatives, the Nichols family obtained the farm in September 2009, and harvested their first crop while their boxes still were packed.

Though just a 20-minute drive from Tacoma, the farm is a rural haven nestled between berry and vegetable fields and a grove of trees. Diru Creek, stocked with pink salmon from a nearby hatchery, runs through their acreage. Their turkey's high-pitched whip-whip-whip mixes in with the clucks of chickens and the laughter of the couple's boys, 4-year-old Davis and 2 1/2-year-old Henry.