Eight years ago Dave Stanley woke up one day and decided he had had enough.
Enough ringing phones, enough noisy neighbors, enough 9 to 5.
Stanley had been living in Seattle for 13 years at the time. He worked first as an environmental chemist and then as an apartment manager.
“I don’t know if it was a mid-life crisis or what, but I needed to find something else,” he recalls.
What he found was a small farm just north of Olympia.
It was a drastic change for a man who, until then, had set foot on a farm only during summer trips to visit family in Canada.
Today, Stanley, 46, can wash his hands with soap he makes himself, eat cheese from cows he milked that morning, tear into his homegrown pork chops and drink beer from hops he grows. He also makes a great apple pie.
In November 2007 Stanley bought the 8 acres of gently sloping grassland.
After cram sessions on farming worthy of a college student, Stanley bought four piglets in early 2008. But Stanley’s carport-turned-hog pen quickly proved not to be pig-proof.
“They started ripping the building apart and escaping.”
Stanley wasn’t deterred by the ham on the lam. He quickly bought his next set of animals: 20 chickens. The birds in turn attracted rats. The vermin ate the poultry’s food, their eggs and a few chicks. He now uses a rat-proof mobile chicken coop.
The year of the pig and chicken was also the year of the goat. Stanley wanted to make cheese. But no sooner had he gotten the Nubian goats that they had to go. “They got into everything,” he explains.
Stanley followed up the goats with a small herd of Romney sheep. The sheep were adept at escaping their pen and he sold them after one too many encounters with angry neighbors. But in 2011 he gave the sheep another try. He uses them for meat and wool.
In 2009 Stanley added cattle to his repertoire and in 2010 began selling pork. Regulations allow him to sell no less than half a hog per customer.
THE FARM TODAY
On a recent September afternoon chickens were mingling with geese, ducks, Guinea fowl and turkeys. Nearby, sheds housed rabbits and pigeons. Hunter the kitten was stalking a gaggle of geese. But the geese were having none of it and quickly flanked Hunter who made a run for it.
Hunter was purchased recently after Stanley turned over a grain barrel to find a nest of wild rats. One promptly ran up his pants leg. On the inside.
As Hunter was learning the pecking order that day Stanley was inside his 1924 farmhouse baking apple and blueberry pies for a barbecue he was hosting that weekend.
“It’s kind of overwhelming to keep up with everything,” he says as he sets a pie near a window to cool.
Stanley divides his farm work into two categories: chores and projects. The projects, like building a new hog house, he fits in when he can. “The chores you just do. It doesn’t matter if you have the flu. The cows still gotta eat.”
Those same cows get milked promptly at 6:45 a.m. every day. He currently has three cows with calves that he separates from their mothers each evening after they’ve nursed. That means he doesn’t have to bottle-feed the calves.
“I get half the milk, they get half the milk.”
He gets about one gallon of milk a day – more than he can use. So he makes cheese: fromage blanc, cheddar, Manchego and others.
Stanley feeds his animals in part with 200 gallons of waste food a week from a nearby farmstand. Sometimes there’s so much food even the hogs get picky. Well-fed pigs snub zucchini, it turns out.
A Seattle friend, Steve Mongovin, helps Stanley several days a week. But a revolving cast also chips in, often spending a weekend at the farm. It’s not time leisurely spent.
“My friends come down from Seattle and they’re put to work.”
At the end of a day’s labor the crew cleans up with soap that Stanley makes from lard and lye. Sometimes he adds oatmeal or oils for scent.
“I hate wasting. I started making soap because I had a lot of lard,” Stanley says.
The gang also relaxes with Stanley’s and Mongovin’s homemade beer. Stanley buys the grain but grows the hops in his garden.
Stanley makes pickles, sauerkraut and has several jugs of fermenting vegetables in his kitchen.
The farm is not self-supporting. Stanley still owns and manages apartment buildings but now they’re in Tacoma. “That’s how I make my money,” he says.
Stanley barters and trades. He recently exchanged a piglet for nine pigeons and $50. The pigeons are his latest project. Stanley can now answer that age-old question: Why do you never see baby pigeons? It’s because pigeons, also called squab, grow to 95 percent of their adult size in just four weeks, Stanley says. Which is the age at which he slaughters them for meat.
It’s just not animals Stanley raises. He has a 50-tree fruit orchard and a garden the size of a city lot. Basil, squash, tomatillos, asparagus, chard, garlic, beets and 10-foot high corn are some of the crops he’s growing. A beehive provides pollination.
Wilbur, the farm’s mascot, is a 750-pound hog that has produced several litters of pigs. But the last few breeding attempts haven’t turned out and now Stanley will soon slaughter the hog, despite calling her the farm’s mascot.
One of the many lessons farm life has taught Stanley is that farmers can’t be sentimental about their livestock.
“None of it is fun but I’m not traumatized by it,” he says of slaughtering. But he adds, “Wilbur will be a tough one.”
Stanley and Mongovin routinely slaughter hogs, beef, birds and rabbits. Or, as he puts it, “Kill, bleed, butcher and cook.”
For the barbecue Mongovin was marinating pork shoulder in preparation for a smoking. He was also making goose pate and kielbasa sausage. All of the meat was raised on the farm.
The fresh and plentiful food has spoiled Stanley. “It’s disappointing going out to eat. It’s not as good and it’s expensive.”
Restaurants do offer something Stanley doesn’t have though: convenience. He says he works more now than he ever has in his life. But paradoxically the farm has actually taught him how to relax.
In Seattle he was a slave to two cell phones, a pager and fax machine. Now, he just has a house phone.
“It’s nice to be disconnected. It took me a long time to slow down and accept it,” Stanley says. “I don’t think I could go back to Capitol Hill and have a skate boarder or someone dumpster diving wake me up at 3 a.m.”
Life on the farm keeps him busy but his mind is clearer now than when he lived in stimulus-driven Seattle.
“I don’t have to think about milking the cow when I’m milking the cow.”