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Keeping Farm and Employees Thriving – The Alm Hills Gardens Story

Posted by struscott | August 12, 2008

The dilemma: How to maintain the viability of a long-standing family farm and retire.

The solution: Lease it to a group of energetic, new-generation farmers and current employees intent on providing exceptional quality to valued consumers.

A Unique Approach

Alm Hill Gardens booth display at WSU Farm Walk on July 28
Alm Hill Gardens booth display at WSU Farm Walk on July 28

Alm Hill Gardens, a diversified, fresh-market farm in Whatcom County, is undergoing a rare transition. The owners, Gretchen Hoyt and Ben Croft, are willing to let go of the day-to-day management of the 35-year old enterprise but want to remain an integral part the operation. During the late July Farm Walk, over 80 participants from around the state gathered to learn how the couple is transferring responsibility of the land to their twenty Latino employees and many new farmers working with the non-profit group Growing Washington.

Clayton Burrows, director of Growing Washington and part of the WSU Small Farms Team, says leasing the farm is a unique approach that is working.

Alm Hill Gardens owner Gretchen Hoyt among the blueberries
Alm Hill Gardens owner Gretchen Hoyt among the blueberries

“Normally farmers want to keep payroll as low as possible. Our model is to keep it as high as possible by working cooperatively and sharing the profits. Everyone does better as a team than we would do individually,” explained Burrows.

Growing Washington affords an unconventional opportunity for aspiring farmers to apply their skills by leasing, instead of buying, land. It also provides mentorship from current farmers and owners.

The Farm Walk, part of a larger farmer-to-farmer educational series organized by Tilth Producers and the WSU Small Farms Team, was offered for the first time in Spanish and English. This allowed diverse participants to learn about season extension using greenhouses and high tunnels, crop diversity and berry production.

Hearing from Latino Farmers

Growing Washington and Alm Hill Latino employees at the WSU Farm Walk
Growing Washington and Alm Hill Latino employees at the WSU Farm Walk.

WSU Small Farms Latino Program Coordinator Malaquias Flores thinks hearing from the Latino farmers was inspirational for all involved.

“A real benefit was that we had the opportunity to talk directly with the people making it happen,” said Flores. “All the farmers at Alm Hill have a specific task to do at the farm, they do a good job and that is what makes it a success. Latino farmers are eager to participate and be part of the future of agriculture in the state of Washington. For them farming is their way of life, they love the land and they take good care of it,” said Flores.

Numerous varieties of berries occupy the 15 hoop houses on the property. Other crops include root vegetables, salad mixes, cucumbers, squash and asparagus grown on 47 acres of land.

“Much of the farm’s success today can be attributed to the planting of perennial blueberries 25 years ago,” said Doug Collins, WSU Small Farms Educator. “Good planning, commitment, and the providential discovery and publicity of the health benefits of blueberries have put the farm in a strong market position today.”

By Betsy Fradd, WSU Extension