By Gale Fiege Herald Writer
CAMANO ISLAND — Their hydroponically grown fresh basil is harvested every few days and sold, roots and all, year-round throughout the state.
Stewart Conway likes basil leaves on his sandwiches. Tim Rawls blends finely minced basil with mayonnaise and slathers it on halibut.
The favored use of the crop grown by these farming partners, however, is caprese salad: Lots of basil, sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s summer on a plate.
But caprese salad isn’t the main reason Conway and Rawls started growing basil back in 1999.
They wanted a home-based agricultural business that didn’t require pesticides or herbicides, and a routine that would allow the men time with their families.
Basil grown in nutrient-enriched water was the answer.
Soon, their Utsalady Farm wholesale operation got the attention of Haggen and Top Foods, which placed the fresh basil in grocery stores from Bellingham to Yakima.
Business was good until May, when an early-morning fire destroyed everything, save for some steel greenhouse frames and a concrete floor.
By the time Camano Island Fire and Rescue crews got to the scene, the wood-framed packing and production building was fully involved, the basil crop destroyed and everything deemed a total loss, assistant fire chief Levon Yengoyan said at the time.
Located at the north end of Camano Island, Utsalady Farm is back in full swing this winter, and the partners could not be happier.
“We got a lot of support from the farming community and our buyers to help us get back on our feet,” Conway said.
Lee Reynolds, produce director for Haggen, committed to waiting until Conway and Rawls were back in business.
“We focus on locally grown produce as much as we can. We’re loyal to our local suppliers,” Reynolds said. “We had customers asking about the fresh basil, but waiting for Utsalady Farm was the right thing to do. We need to keep the money in our state.”
Even the economic recession hasn’t hurt as much as the fire did, Conway said.
“During hard times, people are maybe going to eat out less frequently, but they are more likely to splurge on food at the grocery,” Rawls said. “For some people, basil is a staple, a commodity.”
Lucy Norris, spokeswoman for the Northwest Agriculture Business Center and the Puget Sound Food Network, said local food operations come in all sizes.
“The demand for local food has grown beyond the niche market. It’s no longer just about farmers markets or what chefs buy for their restaurants,” Norris said. “There are many opportunities, choices and approaches that can be taken by new farmers.”
Rawls, 40, originally from Massachusetts, and Conway, 41, from Kentucky, met at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. A few years past graduation, the friends reconnected after they had separately moved to Washington state.
“We completely fell in love with this area and wanted to stay. We figured we would work for ourselves,” Conway said. “We started on a shoestring with a used greenhouse and a template we had seen used in Europe.”
Basil already was in high demand among regional foodies. But Western Washington’s limited five-week outdoor growing season (in a good summer) prompted Rawls and Conway to make basil a greenhouse crop.
Less labor-intensive than some greenhouse crops, the basil was a part-time concern for the men, who worked construction and kept other jobs until Utsalady Farm really took off.
Here’s how the hydroponic system works:
Rawls and Conway start their basil from seeds and then transfer thousands of seedlings to flats laid out on slightly tilted greenhouse tables. The roots are fed by constantly recirculated well water that is enhanced with a few minerals and checked daily for pH levels. In the winter, the lights come on. In the summer, the fans start automatically.
“There’s no soil, so there are no bugs and no weeds,” Rawls said. “It’s way past the organic thing. We want to provide good food. Because we are local, we answer to our neighbors, the parents of our kids’ friends and our community.”
Conway and Rawls now have 9,000 square feet of greenhouses, an office and a large room for germination, packing and storage, the water tanks and the electrical works.
Reynolds, the Haggen produce director, calls Utsalady Farm basil “a living, breathing entity.”
“We get it to our stores within the day. Very little produce that we sell is fresher,” Reynolds said.
From seed germination to product shipping, the basil grows in the greenhouse about six weeks in the winter and about four weeks in the summer. The work is constant.
“It’s our life now, and there is always something to do,” Conway said. “But living on the farm gives us time with our families. That’s what we wanted.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.