There is a soft beauty about a patch of land in the Snohomish River Valley. Ponds filled with cattails, rows of purple hollyhocks, mountains of berry bushes shot through with magenta-colored fireweed plants, and piles of white plastic-wrapped bundles of hay sit neatly near huge John Deere tractors and fields of leafy plants.
Standing in one of the fields is the Rev. Jim Eichner, 55, rector of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Redmond and the overseer of Food Bank Farm, an outreach of his 200-member parish. Eichner’s ministry rents nine acres from the 132-acre Chinook Farms on Elliott Road in Snohomish.
Eichner is part priest, part farmer, and 100 percent visionary when it comes to feeding the hungry with a lot more than the biblical loaves and fishes. His farm, which he started in 2011 with 12 volunteers, has morphed from harvesting 3,750 pounds of vegetables to 137,276 pounds in 2015 with the help of parishioners, kids, school and church groups, seniors, and corporate volunteers ranging from Microsoft to AT&T and Allstate.
“He has the vision of first-picked food going to those who need it. He is an amazing connector. When he sees a problem, he knows there’s an answer. He is so innovative, and he is making such a difference.” – Lindsay Robinson, harvest coordinator for Hopelink
“This is a place that restoreth my soul,” he says, quoting Psalm 23. “We grow people out here. You can leave your cubicle for a half day, and it’s very life-giving.”
The produce, which goes to 350 food banks in Western Washington, is getting some regional attention. The Alliance of Eastside Agencies gave the church its 2016 Faith Organization Award this past spring, and Eichner’s role figured prominently in its citation.
“He’s unique,” says Lindsay Robinson, harvest coordinator for Hopelink, one of the agencies that distributes the food bank’s produce. “He has the vision of first-picked food going to those who need it. He is an amazing connector. When he sees a problem, he knows there’s an answer. He is so innovative, and he is making such a difference.”
The priest happily shows visitors pine-green zucchinis and summer squash, which the Bellevue College women’s softball team helped seed in April. Other fields have onions, collards, green beans, cucumbers, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, winter cabbage, oil seed pumpkins, and carrots.
During the two days a week he spends on the farm, Eichner is usually in overalls, a royal blue T-shirt, and beat-up athletic shoes. His pride and joy are contraptions like his new eco-weeder, which has a tractor-like seat atop a machine on four wheels that is towed by a tractor. The operator uses two handles to control power-driven tines that slice and dice the offending weeds. Eichner had some friends in Maine who wished to donate it to his church, so he raised $600 on GoFundMe to pay for shipping.
“I love weeding,” he says. “It’s like trolling a boat through the ocean with steel knives slicing and dicing the weeds. It’s like 1,000 fingers weeding at a time. We can do an acre in an hour.”
“I love weeding. It’s like trolling a boat through the ocean with steel knives slicing and dicing the weeds. It’s like 1,000 fingers weeding at a time.
He’s also invented a seeder that can drop beet seeds every 4.5 inches across a 1,200-foot row, and built his own trommel, a rotating sieve to create potting soil. The soil in the fields feels like silt, soft with a hint of moisture.
“This is good stuff, like the Nile River delta,” the priest says. “We have a Mediterranean climate here: rain until July, then pure sunshine until September.”
With the Snohomish River a mere 200 yards away, these fields will flood several times a year under as much as three feet of water. But the floods leave valuable nutrients behind.
“Forty thousand pounds of food will grow out here,” he says. When he computes the cost for land rental, seeds, and gas for the tractors and divides it by the total number of pounds produced that year, it comes out to 5 cents a pound. And, a single F1 Hybrid winter squash seed costing 3½ cents each can produce 10 pounds of acorn squash that can serve 20 people. In other words, the farm gets a 430 percent rate of return for the investment.
None of this came out of a vacuum, for Eichner grew up on a dairy farm in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. He joined the Air Force for four years, ending up at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks. He met his wife, Kim, at the local Episcopal Church. He then attended the University of Alaska across town, where he worked at an experimental farm that looked into the best ways to grow crops in the sub-Arctic. But he felt called to the priesthood, so the couple left Alaska for an Episcopal seminary near Pittsburgh, then parishes in South Carolina, Tacoma, and then Holy Cross in 2002.
Eichner was able to channel his inner farmer into parish work, and he still waxes lyrical on his parish’s Facebook page about the benefits of a stormwater vault to the parish lawn. It was during a 2009 sabbatical when he realized his longing to be closer to the land. Casting about for a farm where he could volunteer, he ended up at Jubilee Biodynamic Farm in Carnation that summer.
“I realized I was really competent at this, and I could do this as a priest,” Eichner remembers. “It was returning to my roots. Once I realized I could do something like this, I pursued it.”
Realizing he was too overweight to do much manual labor, he joined Weight Watchers and began working out at a gym, losing 65 pounds. He had heard of Clean Greens, a small nonprofit, organic market founded and operated by New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Seattle. The feeder farm for Clean Greens is in Duvall and managed by Tommie Willis, a North Bend resident. For three years, Eichner apprenticed himself to Willis, a retired Forest Service employee.
“I was glad to see someone drive up,” Willis says of Eichner’s arrival. “Jim deals with the high-end volunteers, and that’s grocery store-quality produce he’s got there.”
“Tommie taught me how to scale it up,” Eichner says. “I’d had a garden, but he taught me how to farm vegetables.”
Eichner gathered 12 parishioners to work at Willis’ farm in 2012. He noticed that by the time supermarkets donated their extra produce to food banks, it was on the verge of going rotten. What if, he thought, the poor could get fresh produce? He began dreaming of starting his own farm that would send produce straight to the food banks. A chance meeting with Eric Fritch, the owner of Chinook Farms and a fellow Episcopalian, led to Fritch offering to rent Eichner some acreage at a low rate plus the use of his farming equipment.
Eichner started small, using his congregation as a vector for corporate volunteers. The holdouts were the charities.
“The food banks were surprised,” he recalls.
“‘You’re giving this away?’ they asked us. It takes them a few years to realize you’re not a flake. Now we’re on speed dial.”
The idea of grubbing in the dirt for a day on behalf of the hungry caught on, and these days, Eichner is coordinating about 1,000 volunteers who help seed, weed, and harvest the crops. One parishioner, who works with Liberty Mutual, brought out 60 people this spring. Volunteers from Nordstrom helped clear a field of wood chips so cabbage and onions could be planted. Religious groups from the Latter-day Saints to the Lutherans also show up.
“I think of what Jesus said about his disciples giving people food,” Eichner says. “He told them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ ”
And so they have.