Working the family dream

A family sets down roots as new Valley produce farmers.

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From left, Dyan, Amy, Jeff and Katelyn Dietrich on their family-operated Frog Hollow Farm, which has grown from a dream to a supplier of produce for Walla Walla restaurants and consumers wanting fresh, locally grown food.

Like the tomato vines at their family farm, Jeff and Amy Dietrich's vision to have a place where they and their children could raise their own food keeps growing, ripening and bearing fruit.

And now their cornucopia is spilling into many of Walla Walla's restaurants seeking seasonal produce amid a culinary trend to serve fresh, locally grown foods.

Going commercial wasn't the Dietrich's intention when they bought their Frog Hollow Farm at 174 Frog Hollow Road west of College Place. Nor is it their only line of work.

"The love for growing things prompted this," Amy said.

She, her husband and children, Katelyn, 10 and Dylan, 12, decided farming was the way of life they wanted. It's a journey back to basics, back to the beginning.

Amy had run a produce stand for years while she was in high school and says she loved it. Jeff grew up on a dairy farm near Vancouver, Wash., so deciding to go back to farming was logical.

"We've always done a lot of canning and freezing and then one year we just had way more than we could use," she said. "We wanted our kids to have a work ethic and the self confidence that can bring."

The couple also have their day jobs. He is a civil engineer with Columbia REA and she is an on-call registered nurse in the obstetrics department at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

The whole farm is about 22 acres. The produce patch is about two acres, double from where they started in 2004.

They focus on heirloom produce, not hybrids, because they want quality and predictability. Seedlings are started in a greenhouse they built adjacent to the produce patch.

Because the amount of produce they grow - they use organic practices - kept increasing, they approached local restaurants about buying some of it.

"In 2004 I had a bumper crop of pink brandywine tomatoes and french eggplant," Amy said. "I knew these were unique varieties and may be appreciated. I filled a beautiful basket full one afternoon and walked into Whitehouse-Crawford asking to speak to the chef, and its been a wonderful produce relationship ever since. He has since referred me to most of the other restaurants as well."

Since then the Dietrichs have expand the acreage put into herbs, fruits and vegetables.

"We still can't keep up," Amy said. "We serve about nine restaurants. They buy a little from every farm so we are not competitors. We are all in this together."

With demand increasing, the Dietrichs will expand the patch by another half-acre this year.

Amy also is considering getting into community supported agriculture, providing subscribers with fresh produce in varieties and amounts customers choose.

While the family shares their garden's abundance, they appreciate what the farm provides for them. With a garden you can go out and pick a tomato for your salad, or stand right there and pick the whole salad.

The greenhouse Jeff designed and built uses salvaged materials and sits on the concrete pad of an old milking parlour. "It's a bit of history," she said.

"We had gone to the glass shops - no luck," she said. One day she was driving by the National Guard Armory downtown Walla Walla and noticed the windows were being replaced.

"So I pulled over and asked if I could buy the old windows ... I had to buy them all -150 windows," she said. But it saved usable items from being discarded.

They also went to Hamada Brothers nursery buy salvage items, such as a pulley that raises the upper portion of the roof to ventilate the greenhouse.

The whole family is involved in the farm. The children work in the garden and Amy coordinates the operation.

"We know we are moving forward and we keep at it," she said.

How Jeff and Amy met while both were students at Walla Walla College, now Walla Walla University, provided an omen of things to come.

"He was sitting on a tractor when I went in to inquire about a job with the grounds department," she said.

They didn't see each other again for a few months but they hit it off. They married in 1995, graduated in 1996, then moved to Vancouver but decided they loved the Valley and returned.

In an ironic twist, they ended up buying that very tractor after it had been used by several previous owners. Jeff knew it was the same one after he found his initials where he had done a weld on it years before.

To the Dietrichs, the farm is a work in practice, a way to live their values and raise their children. Amy noted that science is now proving what's been known from the beginning, that fresh air, sunshine, fruits, vegetables and working in the soil does wonders for one's health and well being.

"Working in the garden, working close to the earth is an anti-depressant," she said.

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