Winter isn’t always the best time to visit a farm, especially if you’re hoping to see the verdant abundance that populates our romantic notions of the good life. Instead of robust fields full of the promise of crops to come, you’re more likely to see the remnants of a fall harvest, with hardy brassicas picked thin and the remaining plant material decomposing back into the soil.
But there are also many reasons why winter is an ideal time to visit a farm. Without the adorning foliage and technicolor fruits and flowers, one can view the operation in its most stripped down form, much like viewing the blueprints of a building. Plus, winter is also when farmers have the time and capacity to plan, dream, and show the odd visitor around their fields and home. Such was the case when the NFM showed up at Skinny Kitty Farm in late January.
Skinny Kitty Practices and Aspirations
Located on Fir Island, in Skagit County, Skinny Kitty Farm is a 12 acre diversified operation owned and operated by Bonnie Briggs and David Mackie. When David and Bonnie purchased the farm in 2013, it was overgrown and unwieldy. The previous owner, who had started with grand plans, made numerous improvements to the land, but after several years of neglect, blackberry bushes had started to takeover, outbuildings fell into disrepair, and the farm was ripe for new ownership. That’s when David and Bonnie acquired the farm, having heard of the opportunity through word of mouth. With a lot of hard work, and the help of a few hungry goats, David and Bonnie have reclaimed much of the lost ground. They’ve also made several infrastructure improvements and have further plans to improve and refine the land, including the main entrance to the farm, where the battle with the blackberry bushes continues.
A prominent and welcoming entrance is important as David and Bonnie work to realize their ultimate goal of establishing a farm kitchen, which would allow them to host farm dinners and operate a catering business using products grown on their 12 acres. And in fact, they have already begun to expand their offering of value added products. At some point it’s possible they will be able to offer meal kits, with ready to cook ingredients, especially since they have started working with the value-added mavens at 21 Acres.
For now though, they mostly concentrate on fruit and vegetable production, pastured chickens, and grass-fed lamb. The farm includes a variety of fruit trees, nut trees, and numerous vegetable plots. They practice rotational grazing, moving the goats, sheep, and chickens through various fields in order to maximize fertility and reduce the costs associated with mowing and removing invasive species. Although not certified, Skinny Kitty employs sustainable practices that allow them to forego synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They also supplement the diet of their chickens with certified organic feed.
What makes the chickens from Skinny Kitty unique is a focus on genetics, according to David. They also manage to provide the French heritage birds with a diversity of intakes. The chickens are rotated through stands of conifer trees, bamboo trees, blackberry shrubs, alders, and fruit orchards. This produces a deeper flavor profile than birds raised on a single source of nutrition.
Fir Island, where the farm is located, is a triangular land mass with an area of roughly 9,900 acres. It is bounded on two sides by the North and South forks of the Skagit River, and on a third side by the Skagit Bay in Puget Sound. As part of the Skagit River Delta, which is located on the Pacific Flyway, the area is ideal habitat for migratory waterfowl. While David and Bonnie see their fair share of seasonal guests, their most persistent neighbors are bald eagles, which often prey on the chickens that provide David and Bonnie with a portion of their livelihood. While there are numerous methods for dealing with airborne pests, some more costly and labor intensive than others, David is looking into new technology that detects when a bird of prey is passing by and when it is hunting. If the bird is caught hunting, the technology produces physical and auditory deterrents.
Except for when their own animals are in danger, David and Bonnie work hard to ensure that Skinny Kitty Farm is a haven for wildlife and native species. They are one of the only farms on Fir Island to maintain a riparian buffer zone between their fields and the network of canals, sloughs, and drainage ditches that empty into the Puget Sound. In addition to providing habitat, this buffer zone also serves as a sponge and filter, reducing both the frequency and intensity of inevitable flooding.
Unfortunately, Skinny Kitty’s neighbors, most of which are conventional farms, do not maintain their own buffer zone, which means that when it rains, runoff containing chemicals eventually finds its way into the drainage system. Technically, David and Bonnie have access to the irrigation canals that run past their land, however, they prefer to use municipal water to irrigate their crops so as to avoid the tainted runoff. Fortunately, the water table on their farm is so high that plants can often find water underground, but still, in the future they hope to drill a well in order to have cheap, clean, and reliable water.
With a background in engineering and carpentry—both he and Bonnie worked in theater production as stagehands and lighting designers—David is well equipped to increase and improve the infrastructure of the farm. For example, their hoop house was built using salvaged materials, which allowed them to keep construction costs down, while also reducing the environmental impact of the project.
Efficiency is also one of the goals of their effort to get the USDA to allow co-processing of meat birds at their farm. Right now, when the NW Ag Business Center’s mobile poultry processing unit comes to their farm, they are only allowed to process chickens from their own property, which can be expensive given the cost of renting the unit. If, however, they were allowed to invite other local producers to their farm on the same day, and those producers could process their birds and take them back to their farms, the cost of renting the unit would be shared among several people.
With a few years of farming under their belt, and an amazing canvas to work with, it is clear that Skinny Kitty Farm will continue to grow and flourish. Meanwhile, the farmers markets offer a unique outlet for operations such as theirs. Through direct contact with customers, David and Bonnie are able to share their product and message with the people of Seattle.
Patrick Law, Capitol Hill Market Manager