As a child on Green Bluff, Byron Siemers remembers watching his dad sell potatoes in 100-pound bags, hauling the load down the steep steps into his customers’ root cellars.
Later, buyers wanted a bag half that heavy. Now, the customers of Siemers Farm are more likely to grab some fries alongside a burger from vendors at the farm, dash through the maze and climb into the castle for a view across the fields.
A small bag of Siemers’ spuds, some apples, sugar carrots and pumpkins might go home with a family.
Siemers grew up on the bluff. His parents moved his family from Spokane when he was 3 years old, when they took over the farm from his grandmother.
“We knew every car coming up and down these roads,” he said.
Green Bluff farmers once struggled to sell enough produce to keep their land. Now, traffic can back up for miles with cars full of visitors waiting to reach the farms.
While truckloads of surplus apples were once dumped over the edge of the bluff, now the crop is often sold out by the end of each season.
The long, slow shift from farming haven to family-fun destination has been cause for heartache and delight. It has drawn newcomers to the bluff but also pushed longtime farmers away.
Many farmers say it has accomplished the one thing everyone hoped: It preserved the land for farming. So far.
“Maybe we’ve created a monster,” Siemers said. “On a nice day in October, you can’t hardly get up here, the roads are so plugged.”
Green Bluff’s homesteaders cleared the land to make way for farming, cutting trees and blasting the stumps out with dynamite. They replaced the pines with fruit trees, strawberries and vegetables.
The first growers association formed in 1902, with most shipping their berries to Spokane markets. U-pick crops started as early as the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that it proved successful.
But each year, customers wanted less and less. Families were getting smaller and fewer people had to rely on canning. Women were more likely to be working outside the home and couldn’t spend days putting up preserves. Supermarkets could compete on price, variety and convenience.
Marketing the farms directly to customers became essential, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped the farmers put out the first map of area growers. Byron Siemers remembers organizers at those meetings who promised their efforts would deliver customers. Farmers were skeptical.
“They said, ‘Maybe someday crowd control would be your problem,’ and I couldn’t even imagine that,” Siemers recalled.
Festivals and fun
The Green Bluff Direct Marketing Association launched some of the first festivals in the early 1980s, including the Cherry Pickers’ Trot and Apple Derby days, using a centralized site.
Anne Wellens helped organize some of those events, adding more entertainment, arts and crafts booths, pie sales and food concessions.
“It worked out beautifully,” she said. “The more you have, the more people want to come.”
It was so successful that the festival stretched out over two weekends, then three and then more. The crowds quickly grew and traffic became hard to handle.
“People would be mad as wet hens by the time they crept at an inch an hour to get there,” Wellens said.
Growers decided to spread the festivities out among the farms. Many of them added a host of entertainment options among the orchards. Face painting, mazes and giant talking pumpkins were the least of it; there were helicopter rides, double-decker bus tours and tiny train tours through farm fields.
Others didn’t have the heart for the “dog-and-pony show,” as one grower called it in a 1993 Spokesman-Review story. They feared everyone would spend money on the fun and games, but nothing on fruit.
Todd Beck, who runs his family’s farm, Beck’s Harvest House, said it was as clear to his parents then as it is to him now: “You can’t make a living with just what you grow on the trees.”
On Siemers’ farm, a castle stands in the field next to the original farmhouse. At first, it was a simple wooden structure with open floor slats to let the mud fall through.
“I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Siemers said.
But his wife, Donna, kept pressing him to improve it – adding better floors, decorative paint, more rooms and rounded turrets – until they’d spent more money on it than anyone cares to say aloud.
Siemers now has a different view.
“It’s the best investment we’ve ever made,” he said.
Fruit for the future
The festivities have tempered somewhat in the past few years at some farms, while others have added more fun.
Newcomers are not just drawn to the bluff for the view and the country air. New farmers are growing fruits and vegetables the older generation wouldn’t have dared try – tomatoes, Japanese eggplant and blueberries, to name a few.
There’s candy infused with Green Bluff fruit and wine made from Green Bluff grapes. Stephanie and Davide Trezzi, of Trezzi Farm Food and Wine, chose Green Bluff because they wanted to plant grapevines. “The people who truly love Green Bluff will always farm and fight to keep it this way,” they wrote in an e-mail message.
Although there is fear that pendulum could swing too far – until all Green Bluff has to offer is the carnival – others are hopeful that preserving the farmland and agricultural history has become a community ambition.
“Sure things have changed,” said Byron Siemers. “But the things that are sold at Green Bluff – for the most part – are still raised up here.”