It's not uncommon for kids to be fascinated by tractors. They're pretty cool. But for Ryan Lichttenegger, his interest in tractors was no fleeting boyhood amusement.
You could say that a love of tractors, and one tractor in particular named Olive, were a big part of how Ryan and his wife Kim got to be where they are -- the owners and operators of Steel Wheel Farm located in Fall City, Washington.
Tell us a bit about your farm. Steel Wheel Farm is a first-generation family farm, owned and operated by husband / wife team Ryan and Kim Lichttenegger. The farm, which is located less than 20-minutes outside of the Seattle area in the Snoqualmie Valley, is 6 acres of fertile, farmland nestled along the river's edge. The farm is a diverse market farm that specializes in over 50 different verities of seasonal fruits and vegetables. In addition to produce, SWF maintains a flock of 50 hens for eggs, cultivates honey bees, and raises heritage turkeys to harvest each fall.
Is it just you on the farm? My wife Kim farms along with me and handles the farm's marketing strategies. We also hire two seasonal employees and have a few apprentices that help us throughout the season. The farm is my full-time career and Kim has a job in Seattle.
How did you get into farming? I grew up in a small town just outside Minneapolis, Minn. and was immersed in dairy country. I fell in love with farming at a very young age, collecting toy tractors and farm equipment. Before leaving for Washington with my family in 1999, I worked on a dairy farm where I helped milk 60 Holsteins cows, produce hay and grain and got my first taste of operating tractors. After moving to Washington, I couldn't seem to get the farm out of my blood, so I found an old tractor and made her mine. Olive, (the 1953 Oliver 77 row crop tractor that I bought) and my Minnesota roots are what really led me into vegetable production. In 2007, I found a great farm to store my old tractor and got a job where I could learn the ropes raising organic fruits and vegetables. While working full time on another farm, I decided to try my hand (part-time) with my own operation and started leasing property a few miles down the road. In 2010, I started my own business and now work for myself.
Have you had other jobs/professions in the past? What made you want to become a farmer? I worked as a landscaper for many years and I really enjoyed working with plants in landscapes. But, I have always wanted to be a farmer! I really enjoy be able to provide fresh produce to the public and educate folks about the importance of buying and eating local.
What do you produce? A majority of the crops we grow are roots like carrots, beets, radishes and parsnips. We grow a lot of brassicas such as cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, and romanesco. We specialize in fresh cut salad mixes for restaurants and farmers markets.
What are your markets? A majority of what we grow is for our local farmers markets. We also supply locally grown items to over 10 restaurants and to our 50 member CSA program.
Why do you feel natural practices are important? Natural practices are important, not just for healthy food production, but for the health and stewardship of our farmlands, environment, communities—today and in the future.
Why did you get involved with CNG? CNG is a small grass-roots organization brand which appeals to our farm's brand. We also strive to cultivate partnerships with businesses and organizations that have similar values and goals to SWF. We also wanted to carry a certification that could help to educate food lovers and the public about different growing practices for small farms that are available other than organic certification from the government. We love the community aspect of CNG!
What is unique or unusual about your farm? One of the things that is unique about our farm is that we started with almost nothing. We built our business from the ground up with just an old tractor and some leased pasture. We also have some of the most fertile valley soils around allowing us to grow a huge variety of crops.
What was your most positive farming experience? Most frustrating? My most positive farming experience is getting feedback from customers about how much they love the taste of our vegetables or how they gave their neighbor a CSA box when they left town and the neighbor became obsessed with the produce. Most frustrating? Probably dealing with the unpredictability of mother nature :)
Favorite farm tool? My favorite farm tool is my 1953 Oliver 77 Tractor...if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be where I'm at today!
Favorite vegetable? I love Kohlrabi, it reminds me of my childhood.
Who is your hero in the food and farming world? Chefs are my heroes. They are essential in educating customers and showing them all the wonderful things can be created with farm fresh, local (and unusual!) produce.
Favorite season? Spring time—the season is fresh, everything turns green and the excitement starts all over again.
What plans or hopes do you have for your farm in the future? My wife and I hope to purchase our own property soon so that all the hard work, time and money spent on the business can be invested in our own piece of farmland.