It was a typical June day in Seattle Washington, partly cloudy, cool and damp. Those of us who have lived here in the great Northwest, have come to expect this weather most of the year, but it’s beauty is never lost on us.
During the wee hours of the morning, my son and I were hurrying through the house gathering supplies for our long trip to an organic farm just northwest of Ellensburg.
With the car packed, we began our trip heading down the interstate. It took only 15 minutes before we were awe-struck by the cloud topped Cascade mountains, but there wasn’t much time to admire the impressive jagged cliffs of Mount Si or the winding rivers along the highway. The speed limit is 70 mph on interstate 90, and the heavy traffic was pushing us along the four lane highway while we briefly voiced our admiration of the view.
Not long into our trip the mountainous terrain shifted from the towering grandeur of the Cascades to rolling grassy hills. Our destination was just around the next bend, but like all things in the country, the path is never direct. We found ourselves weaving around ranches, rivers and small lakes before entering the property of Windy N Ranch.
Within minutes I had managed to take a wrong turn that led us along the outer stretch of the livestock enclosures. It could have been the never-ending questions from my back seat companion, but I can’t let him take all the blame. I had my own desire to peak around every corner, watching the pigs, lambs and alpacas (was that really an alpaca?) play around the tall grass fields. Windmills on the horizon jolted me back to reality as we realized that we had ventured far beyond the entrance of the ranch. Without a signal on my cell phone, I headed to high ground to see if I could get a call out to the property owner and rancher, Greg Newhall.
No answer. After leaving a message, we waited. I watched as my son frolicked over the hilltop. The scene reminded me of my days as a child visiting a family farm. Something about this lifestyle has always made me feel at home, at peace.
In no time, my phone rang with Greg on the line. After a brief description directing us to the main house, I turned the car around and headed back down the dusty dirt road. A weak signal and Greg’s voice cut out. Once again leaving me on my own, I opted to look for the markers Greg had described. Over the cattle guard, one right turn and I came face to face with a huge plow. I quickly navigated around the plow and noticed a vehicle off in the distance as it eclipsed the rolling hill ahead, no doubt Greg has sent someone to find us and point us in the right direction. I would soon realize that he had sent his wife Laurie and their grandson to help us find our way.
Rounding the bend towards the main house, we were greeted by three huge dogs. “Don’t get out of the car mom, okay?!” my nervous son proclaimed, cautious for my…and his safety, but many years around dogs has lent me the ability to know the friendly “I’m just doing my job” bark from the “Get out of the car and I’ll mess you up!” one. This was the former. Later, Greg professed how this friendliness wasn’t ideal for guarding the livestock, but was essential for the safety of his grandchildren that frequented the ranch.
The atmosphere was warm and friendly like visiting a distant relative or an old friend you hadn’t seen in years, but somehow still knew quite well. We arrived at the ranch in flip-flops and a few raised eye brows. I could only imagine what Laurie must have thought as I slid out of the car. My attire was not the best representation of my past experience as a biologist hiking and camping far away from civilization.
We quickly slipped on our work boots before Greg emerged from their partially underground home. I thought it wise for Greg’s description to remain somewhat PG when describing the lifestyle at the ranch, for my son’s sake, for there was no need to send him home with an extremely graphic knowledge of how animals were slaughtered. After a few quick questions about what we wanted to learn, we were off walking around the pens filled with turkeys, peacocks, and Puffer, an incredibly friendly surrogate mother Holstein-Ayrshire cow that came over to bump me on my butt while I took a few photos of the ranch.
The morning tour was filled with stories and revelations about working with the many varieties of animals raised on the ranch. Greg and Laurie spent many years experimenting with a variety of breeds to make sure they produced the best meat and harvest.
Farming isn’t easy or extremely profitable, and organic farming takes great dedication. Along with raising organic livestock, the Newhall Family grows their own barley sprouts and fodder for winter feed. Weekly trips to the Bellevue area while living at an apartment to sell at a few Farmer’s Markets cannot be easy on the family, but Greg claimed this was necessary to introduce their product to the public. Their main goal was to get customers to order direct and in larger quantities offered at better discounts.
The ranch was fairly quiet and serene during our visit, but the ranch still had plenty to keep them busy. During that time of year, they were getting their hay ready to bail and store, but this ranch didn’t stop there. They found other means of income to help supplement any lean times. During the bailing season, the Windy N Ranch was involved with other local ranchers preparing their hay. Their top rate equipment and crew helped out many throughout the area.
Hay is a big deal in Ellensburg, and not just any hay, but “green” hay, green timothy hay, named after Timothy Hanson who promoted the Scandinavian cold tolerant variety in the early 1700s. The better the color, the better the price, to the tune of $35 million to $38 million a year. That’s not a bad supplemental income for ranchers. Nearly all of timothy hay, 90 percent, is shipped overseas to Japan, South Korea, China, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Local horse and dairy-cow farmers can buy the hay at prices ranging from $180 to $320 per ton, but for the most part, they are priced out of the market. So the fact that Windy N Ranch is using this hay to feed their livestock on their certified organic farm, that’s a bonus.
The day we visited, Greg explained how the farmers were a bit stressed. That June had been a bit wetter and cooler than normal, and for timothy hay that’s bad. The hay needs to be green and if it dries too slow it starts to brown or if it gets rained on, it bleaches out the color. The timothy hay market is a strange perplexing market that places value on color not nutrition, and the brokers can’t sell it for the premium price if it’s not green. In fact, the price drops about 40% when the hay turns to a straw color, even though the nutritional value doesn’t change, only the color.
Just as Greg finished his story, a farm hand radioed from the field to give him an update. Still not ready, but within a day or two they expected to go full tilt getting the hay ready for market. The farm appeared deceptively serene and calm as the crew went about their daily routine. I marveled at how simple it all appeared, but after being on many farms and being from a long line of farmers…I knew better.
A quick glance at my watch and I realized we had taken up two precious hours of Greg’s day. He was gracious and entertained my last request to visit the area where they prepped the birds and large livestock for market and individual orders. Well designed and clean, you would never know these areas were ground zero for the slaughter and prep of food. While my son pointed to some areas he felt needed improvement, Greg assured him that all were properly cleaned and prepped before the animals were brought in to the area. There was great care taken to alleviate stress for the animals. Even the cattle that come through the line were gently led through the gates. Greg was no stranger to the Temple Grandin techniques and my mention of her research was no surprise to him.
For some time, the ranch has partnered with a second generation butcher, Mark. Ranch owner and butcher were always present and overseeing operations to make sure all went as planned when they brought the animals into the prep area. It can’t be an easy thing to watch the animals you raise, die. You could see it in his face that he didn’t take this moment lightly as he quickly recounted the events in the most PG, kid friendly fashion. A quick glance at my son, and I could see he got it and all was fine.
Then came the task of corralling my son for our return home. We had already taken too much of Greg’s precious time. A quick hand shake and thank you’s exchanged and we were off. With Greg’s permission, we drove around the ranch roads for a few last-minute photos of lambs bounding about the green grass and pigs laying along the fence line enjoying the cool afternoon breeze. Which brings me to the name, Windy N Ranch. A cool subtle sometimes powerful wind that glides along the ridges and valleys of a peaceful corner of an organic farm in Washington that you could easily call home.
Updated: Latest sales for timothy hay have increased to $50 million.