Lake Stevens farmers recognized as Centennial Farm Family

LAKE STEVENS ­— The verdant green fields along the Pilchuck River, crowned by a big red barn, have been farmed by the Schwarzmiller family since 1903.

It’s challenging to keep a family farm going, but the Schwarzmillers have pulled together to bring their piece of Snohomish County history into a new generation.

They were recognized as the 2014 Snohomish County Centennial Farm Family at the Evergreen State Fair. Each year, the county honors a farm that has been family-owned and continuously operated for a century or more.

Renee Schwarzmiller and husband Jeff Fjeld hope to set the 82-acre farm up for another 100 years of operation.

Farming means constantly adapting to changing demands, Renee said.

Past generations of her family have tried raising dairy cows, growing oats, and wheat, and apples. Lately, they switched from raising dairy cows to beef cattle, and began growing hay to feed their herd.

Renee and Jeff hope to find a way to make the farm pay for itself so future generations won’t struggle to keep it going. “I feel like it’s our turn,” Renee said. “They’ve handed it to us, so we need to get it ready for the next generation.”

Renee, 47, is the fifth generation of Schwarzmillers on the farm.

“And generation six is around,” she said. “They come help out.”

The youngest member of the sixth generation is a 20-month-old niece.

“We make sure she experiences the farm whenever she’s out,” Renee said.

Judd Schwarzmiller, Renee’s father, handles day-to-day upkeep on the farm. He’s the glue that holds it all together, Renee said. He tackles whatever problems need solving and takes care of basic chores, from feeding and checking on the animals to repairing fences and maintaining equipment.

The Schwarzmillers produce more than 2,000 bales of hay a year and have 29 cows on the farm. They’re also starting to raise sheep.

A longtime family friend nominated the Schwarzmillers as the centennial farm, Judd said.

After learning about the award, Renee spent nearly two months researching her family’s genealogy and digging into the history of the farm.

“It’s interesting and fun to see the evolution,” Renee said.

The family started out producing lumber as they cleared the land in the early 1900s. After the trees were cut down, they grew grain in the low, flat areas near the river. The Schwarzmillers have tried their hand at raising pigs, growing potatoes, milking dairy cows and gathering chicken eggs.

Renee’s grandfather was also an accomplished blacksmith. The family still has the equipment he used.

Evelyn Schwarzmiller, Renee’s grandmother, married onto the family farm and has been there for about 70 years. She’ll be 90 next week.

“It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, but it’s busy,” Evelyn said. “We did a lot of work on it, that’s for sure. We had to all work together.”

She remembers the toil, cleaning out the milk tank and gathering eggs. She also remembers the joy. The family held barn dances, some to benefit the American Legion and others just for fun.

Now, Evelyn can sit with family in front of her house overlooking the fields and enjoy a sunny afternoon swapping stories with four generations of Schwarzmillers.

Zach, 27, is part of the youngest generation. He recently got married on the farm, a family tradition. He works in real estate but tries to help with the hay and animals when he can. The best part is the fresh food, particularly the steaks, he said.

Renee and Jeff enjoy the sense of accomplishment they feel after finishing a project, whether it’s putting up a new fence or making it through calving season to see all the clumsy young cows rambling across the fields.

“They all band together,” Jeff said. “It’s just this band of hooligans.”

Their accomplishments are tempered by challenges. Despite constant hard work, it’s nearly impossible to get a family farm to be self-supporting, Judd said.

It’s difficult to spend enough time on the farm.

“You’re not going to make enough money to make a living, so you have to have a day job,” Jeff said. “You have to have at least one person off the farm to pay for the farm.”

Jeff and Renee work as denturists in Snohomish.

But Renee said she’d like to focus more on the farm. She and Jeff aim to set things up so it pays for itself.

They plan to create a largely in-house operation by growing all of the hay for their animals, butchering the beef cattle and selling directly to private buyers. They already sell most of their beef directly to people who hear about the farm through word of mouth.

“We want to create a business that can keep on going,” Renee said. “But you have to change, just like all the changes that have happened since 1903, so that in 100 years, we’ll still be here.”

“Yeah,” Jeff agreed. “It’ll be generation 12 by then.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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