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Tolstoy Farms recovering after winter washout

Laura Harris stands next to a bridge May 7 which washed out during a winter flood at Tolstoy Farms in Davenport, Wash. The washout left part of the creek dry and much of the farm’s infrastructure compromised. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Laura Harris stands next to a bridge May 7 which washed out during a winter flood at Tolstoy Farms in Davenport, Wash. The washout left part of the creek dry and much of the farm’s infrastructure compromised. (Tyler Tjomsland)

When the first flood hit Tolstoy Farms on Feb. 13, it was so unusually violent neighbors called it a 50-year flood. Water came rushing down the canyon side carrying silt, rocks and small boulders, filling up Saben Creek –Tolstoy’s main water supply. Water spilled over creek banks and flooded the main driveway, fields and two homes, as it rushed into the larger Mill Creek. Four days later the flooding stopped – and so did the creek.

“Then it happened again,” said Laura Harris, who’s lived and worked on the farm near Davenport, Washington for 20 years.

On March 5, the water once again came roaring in, fed by a quick snow melt and lots of rain falling on top of frozen ground. Harris said she barely slept that night, listening to the rain on the roof, wondering what kind of devastation she’d face in the morning.

“That flood took out our footbridges and it filled the creek with rocks and debris,” Harris said, while walking along the rock-strewn creek bed on Monday. “Then the creek stopped again and it has not flowed since.”

Now Tolstoy is asking for help – monetary donations and volunteer hours – to rebuild and recover. Working with Lincoln County Conservation District and Belsby Engineering, Tolstoy has put together a creek restoration plan that Harris said will cost $50,000 or more. Tolstoy has applied for Federal Emergency Watershed Protection funding but needs to raise at least $20,000 to be able to restore the creek and bring a reliable water source back.

“We live out here in our own little world. We are self-reliant,” Harris said. “This is just a lot of devastation at once and that’s why we are reaching out.”

City dwellers mostly know Tolstoy Farms from the Spokane Farmers Market, where it sells organic produce out of its colorful vintage van. Tolstoy also operates a community supported agriculture program with about 100 participants and a long waiting list. Established in 1963, Tolstoy Farms is a somewhat reclusive intentional community – or commune – consisting of the two independent parts: the 80-acre Sunrise Hill Free School and the 160-acre Mill Canyon Benevolent Society. Between 35 and 50 people live at Tolstoy – some year-round, some come for the summer to work and learn about organic farming. Decisions are made by consensus and earnings are shared based on how many hours a person has worked.

Ernie Barrett’s house at the Mill Canyon location was flooded twice.

He jokes that the kale in his window boxes loved the water – but he wasn’t as thrilled.

“We got to sump pump twice,” he said. “All we could do was watch the water come at the house. And try to sandbag.”

Saben Creek feeds the larger Mill Creek which also runs through Tolstoy.

The second round of flooding took out footbridges and beaver dams there, ripped up trees and carried massive amounts of silt and rocks down the creek.

When the flooding was over, Harris said Tolstoy farmers were first concerned about the upcoming planting season. Irrigation water is now being piped in from where Saben Creek stops about 1,000 feet up the hillside.

“We had to purchase the pipe and put it in – it was expensive and an enormous amount of work,” Harris said. Most work at the farm is done by hand and wheelbarrow. The new water supply had one unexpected feature: much better water pressure.

“That’s very nice,” Harris said, “but we’d still like to get our creek back.”

She added that Tolstoy does not have flood insurance.

“We are in flood plain because that’s where the good soil is,” she said.

Harris attributes the unusual spring floods to climate change.

“We are farmers. We keep close track of the weather and when we plant things,” Harris said, adding that the last couple of winters haven’t brought much snow and very little late season frost.

“Usually it freezes when the apricot trees are blooming and we lose that crop,” Harris said, while walking through the farm. “This year we will have lots of apricots because nothing froze.”

Corn is being planted right now and tomato plants are straining to get out of the hothouse where they’ve been started. Harris said she expects Tolstoy’s crop to be the same as other years.

“We have gotten a lot of generous donations already from friends and family and customers,” Harris said. “We are grateful that we can continue farming.”