Farmer Voices

Petrina Fisher on Farmer Voices

Farmers: Jonathan & Petrina Fisher
Skylight Farms
Snohomish, Washington

I’m Petrina Fisher and I own Skylight Farms in Snohomish with my husband, Jonathan. I also happen to work at the Washington Farmland Trust as the Development Manager. I am what’s called a “First-Generation Farmer”, which means that I didn’t grow up farming. It’s something that I came to a lot later in life. 

We were living in Ballard at the time. My husband, Jonathan, he was getting antsy to get out of the city and looking for space. So we ended up purchasing this farm and then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, I guess we’re doing this. We are farming now.” 

He was a lawyer and I actually worked in the non profit sector before we started our farm in 2013. It was kind of a trial by fire. We were just learning on the fly. When I tell people this story, it often seems really romantic, like, “wow, you just dove right in! You just did it!” But it was really crazy. When we told people what we were doing, especially farmers in the area, a lot of people looked at us sideways. Like, “you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?” And I think that naivete was a little bit on our side because if we had known, we may not have actually gone for it. 

But we did. And we started a little CSA in the first year and then expanded to selling to restaurants; doing some wholesale. At one point we had up to 700 chickens on pasture; at the same time raising a family with two little kids. 

We did some classes. We took the cultivating success class with Washington State University (WSU), read a ton of books, attended workshops, went on farm tours, etc.. But none of that really prepared us for the actual running of a farm and what it meant to start up this business, and do the marketing, and build relationships with customers, and manage employees, and make sure the infrastructure was working, and kind of doing all of the “ands”.  

For me coming into it, that was the biggest thing I wish that I had known more of and is  something that maybe people don’t realize when you’re a very small farm like ours. In our first year, we were doing about five acres of vegetable production and now we’ve actually scaled it way back. So we’re doing about two acres of vegetable production now.

The biggest challenge that we face – there are a lot of little challenges, little things that cause setbacks. Like, a piece of equipment isn’t working properly, so you have to get that fixed before you can do the next step and that creates a bottleneck in your work. Or I can’t get a certain seed that I want for a vegetable that I’m growing and so then it’s a scramble to like, replan and figure out, “well, what can I get to replace that?”.

But you end up just wearing a ton of hats and learning so much from all the aspects of growing:  starting the seeds, the individual needs of all the crops that we grow, animal husbandry, the best ways to keep your pastures healthy, soil biology, and that’s just on the growing end. Then there’s all the other skills that you need to manage a staff, train people, work at the farmer’s market, do bookkeeping and it kind of goes on and on and on. So you kind of just have to have a stomach for being a “jack of all trades,” which is kind of one of the fun and interesting things to me, actually, because I really love learning all the time.

I love that there’s so much more information available now, it’s accessible, especially to someone like me who came in with no knowledge. I also feel really lucky that we have a great local supportive community of farmers here that are willing to share information and work together.

And the other thing too, I think, is I realized that my farm will never be perfect or at least what I think of as perfect. So I try not to hold myself up to the standards that I see on Instagram or other social media. I really try to figure out “what are one or two things that I want to improve this year?” And if I can improve those things, then that will be a success for me. And then I can carry those successes into the next year and improve on one or two more things. And then pretty soon the systems are starting to fall in place. But we definitely ran into the trap of wanting to do too much in our first year because we just had a blank slate of land and we could do anything. You kind of realize really quickly, you just have to pare down and realize “what’s important? What can I do? What’s doable?”. And not let your ambition get in the way. 

When people come to me and ask about how we started our farm and are inspired to potentially start their own farm, what I always tell them is to go get some experience on someone else’s farm for at least a season, if not two. If nothing else, to learn what you like doing and what you don’t like doing. I think everyone is just kind of naturally gifted in certain ways. So, like, my husband and I have very different and complementary skill sets.  But it became clear pretty early on that we kind of just needed to divide and conquer, which is how I ended up overseeing our farm operations. And so I think getting experience on another farm is invaluable, people just do things differently. With farming, there’s definitely no shortage of learning and my husband will always say about farming,”it’s better to be lucky than good.”  And I think in our case that was really true.

Farming is inherently very isolating because you’re working often-times by yourself or with a very small team far away from other people. And so when you have opportunities to reach out to a community like the one that we have here it feels really great. It’s nice to know that you’re not alone. There were a few years before we really got plugged into the community that it was like, “oh, my gosh, what are we doing? This is insane.” But the more we got to know people and felt comfortable reaching out the more it felt like we could keep doing this. 

The local community that we’re in is very supportive; we have some really great neighbors and the community that we’ve built around the farm has been super, super special. Whether it’s longtime customers from the farmer’s market, people who joined us in our CSA in our very first year, some chefs that I’ve been working with now for five, six, seven, eight years…they know our story and we’ve gotten to know them – they’ve seen our kids grow up, we’ve seen their kids grow up. That experience, and being able to connect with people through food has been really, really special for us. And in some ways, we just like, really help each other out. I feel like that’s one of the greatest things about being able to farm where we are is that we have that support network. We want to see each other succeed. And so we help each other.

The thing that gives me hope about the future of farming is that, particularly here in the Pacific Northwest, there are so many people that really care about farming. I love seeing that there’s so much enthusiasm for getting into farming at all scales. 

So this year we have scaled our operations down quite a bit. We are running an onsite farm stand that’s open on Saturdays and Sundays. We have a CSA that people can subscribe to and pick up at the farm. We also sell pretty broadly through a distributor and do some sales to restaurants and other food programs. Our food is available through some local food banks. And then we also work with an organization called Farms for Life. They purchase produce from our farm and distribute it to social service organizations. That’s probably one of my favorite ways that people can access our food.  

One of the reasons why we started farming was so we could grow amazing, delicious food for the community and I never really wanted it to become a barrier from a financial standpoint. And so I always like to look for these avenues where we can connect to the community in different ways so that our food can be accessible to anyone.