By Kelli Samson
After spending the perfectly golden twilight hours with farming couple Jerry and Janelle Stokesberry one June evening, I drove home with a feeling of contentment. Someone is out there doing this farming thing right, and it makes me feel so hopeful.
Stokesberry Sustainable Farm flies under the radar for most citizens of Thurston County. I had never heard of it until I was perusing the offerings of The Pantry in Seattle. One of their summer trips was to Jerry and Janelle’s Olympia farm, so it was time to investigate.
The Stokesberrys didn’t start off planning to own a farm. They met in college while studying to become special education teachers, but the writing was on the wall. Jerry had grown up helping out on his grandfather’s dairy farm near Carnation, and Janelle’s first date with him was to a livestock auction. “I was hooked,” recalls Janelle. “I saw somebody that could take care of himself and teach me how to do that, too.”
“Farming has been my life-long dream,” explains Jerry.
The two raised turkeys out of college, then pursued other careers. “In 2006 we were both starting to get grey hair, and Jerry really hadn’t realized his dream of being a farmer yet,” says Janelle. “He really wanted cows like his grandpa. Eventually, we decided we needed to make money at farming, and we knew we could get in and out of chickens really quickly. We could eat a lot of chickens if we needed to, but cows take forever to get a herd up. We started with chickens, and I said I would do it as long as we could do it organic. To me, it’s about nutrition and bringing good food not just to my family, but to many families.”
The owner of Tacoma’s Indochine restaurant wanted “real” chicken, and she was their first big customer.
Stokesberry Sustainable Farm is split between two locations, one near their home and one south of Millersylvania State Park. Jerry and Janelle, in addition to their two full-time employees, make the rounds to the livestock at both locations daily, sometimes multiple times.
Janelle sums up a typical week. “Monday and Tuesday are our days off, which really just means we’re doing projects, interviews, and paper work. Wednesday we process birds, and Thursday we deliver them and pick up new chicks. On Friday we process birds again for the markets. Every day it’s feed, water, and clean every animal on the farm, then repeat. We also collect and wash eggs three times a day.”
Adds Jerry, “On Saturdays we get up at 4:00 a.m. to get ready to go to the markets in Seattle, and we get home at about 4:30 p.m. On Sunday, we sleep in an hour.”
Janelle learned how to process birds from her mother-in-law, though she could only stand to pluck feathers at first. She learned canning from her mom, and loved taking home economics classes growing up. “Jerry’s mom knew how to do these things on a much larger scale,” she says.
They have mainly stuck to raising chickens, turkeys, pigs, and ducks. Recently, however, Jerry has been trying his hand at beef with a small herd of chocolate-brown Devon cattle, which are an old breed that does well on forage. I can tell you first hand that they are the sweetest cows I’ve ever met. They adore Jerry, too.
While their products are not certified humane, they are “treated with respect,” explains Jerry. “They are not humans. We give them what they need so they can thrive, not what a human needs or what we think they need,” adds Janelle. The farm has been certified organic since 2007.
What sets Stokesberry Sustainable Farm apart from many others is the fact that they try their very best to keep their farm sustainable. They feed their livestock grass, not grain. Their poultry is kept in tractors, which move about the farm each day. The pigs and cattle do the same, with rotating pastures. The livestock is never allowed to forage for too long in any one spot, as they don’t want the grass to be decimated, just topped off so it doesn’t go to seed and die.
This works impressively well for the farm. Their goal is not to have to buy hay in the winter, but so far they usually find themselves having to do so by about March for a short time.
Anything that’s not sold at the markets gets eaten or made into sausage or stock. All of the waste from processing the birds gets composted, and any birds that don’t end up being food grade get made into pet food.
In addition to tending their flocks, both Jerry and Janelle bring their meats to two farmers markets in Seattle each week – one in the U-District and a second one in Ballard. They also are the suppliers for some very well known establishments in the city, such as Delancey, The London Plane, and Sitka and Spruce.
The Seattle Seahawks’ chef met them at a farmers market five or six years ago, and the team has been eating eggs and poultry from Stokesberry Sustainable Farm ever since. “They’re really nice people; easy to work with, and they care about what they’re doing,” says Janelle. “They also buy bones from us, and the chef tells me that he makes broth from it that the players drink when they come in off of the field.”
“The balance of selling to restaurants and at farmers markets has been a winning combination,” says Janelle. “We’d like to be more local, but we don’t have the same density of population here.”
Farming is not romantic; rather, it’s incredibly hard work. There’s not a lot of sleep, and there really aren’t any days off, but the Stokesberrys believe in doing it anyway, and that speaks volumes. Jerry sums it up best when he says, “We’re just trying to make the earth healthier than when we came out here, and to pass on the good, healthy food off of this healthy land.”
In Thurston County, their goods can be enjoyed at The Mark or purchased either at the Yelm Food Co-op or directly from the farm. Interested parties need only contact the Stokesberrys to set up an appointment.