Sustainable Stories – Jake Stewart of Sweetwater Farm & Shire

Dec 12, 2021

In this unique series we’ll hear inspiring stories of people devoting their lives to sustainability. The first installment is a scientist turned agri-forester. Listen to hear his journey and perspective on reconnecting with nature, how to work on a farm and learn what it’s like, and evaluating risk in one’s career and life.

Show Notes:

Check out Sweetwater Farm –

And book their Airbnb to stay in the yurt –

Learn about WWOOFing –


Pretty ok transcript:

[00:00:00] Mason: So we’re here with Jake Stewart on Whidbey island. He is a owner of Sweetwater farms and Jake, your journey to Agra farmer is a little bit interesting. You want to give us a quick

[00:00:12] Jake: recap? Yeah. Quick is the operative word. Happy to have you guys here. Thanks for calling. I started as I was just mentioning, I guess the quick version of it is my dissertation project turned into a small business around renewable fuels in Denton, Texas.

And then it was kind of a meandering line around international sustainability, renewable fuels. And I sort of backed into food, uh, working in climate resiliency and climate adaptation and that, that backing into food just. Became my, my main objective at that point. And so about seven years ago, and even did city government at one point, right?

Yeah. I’ve kind of taken a, like you, I’ve had this focus on trying to do well by doing good and make some changes on things that mattered. And I’ve done that from private sector, public sector and non-profit sector. And the last run was running the climate protection program for the city of Austin, which was an idea of, okay, well, If we have the chess board of the city in front of us, what can we do?

And we made some progress, but ultimately I decided I wanted to be at the scale of a farmstead. And that was the most sustainable for me, emotionally and psychologically as well. And so this has been a long journey and I happened to meet this wonderful woman nine years ago. That was also in business. And heading the same direction and we sold everything.

We owned, bought an RV and went looking for our farm, said there’s a lot more in between, but how long

[00:01:41] Mason: did it, how long were you in the RV?

[00:01:43] Jake: Two and a half years. And we, uh, we stopped to have a baby in California. I was working at the organic farm school there in, um, Santa Rosa, but what started our journey as we ran a farm outside of Austin and the Wellwood.

You know, in one of the notorious droughts and you talk about reality on realities terms. Like I was just telling just there’s, there’s no negotiation when your well goes dry, you’re just done. And that feeling is indescribable. And so having worked in climate science and knowing the modeling, uh, you know, we made the decision, growing food is hard enough.

Why are you going to fight water? I’d rather deal with the issue of too much water, you know, That kind of was one of the catalyst in our journey. And then when we stopped in Northern California, I was working at the organic farm school and the well went drive there in 2014. Yeah. Did you think you were

[00:02:35] Mason: going to stay there

[00:02:36] Jake: when you hit California?

No. Yeah. I, I knew that we were kind of feeling that area and it felt good. And it was like this creeping drought was just like, and then given the trauma of growing up in the, you know, it was like, it felt like it was pushing us further north, so. Uh, I grew up in Houston and the move spent most of my adult life in Austin.

Yeah. Yep. So I still got most of my family there and I love it, but I’ve climatized to the Northwest. So, so when did you guys officially move out to would be island? Uh, we moved here in early 2015, so we just made it. Just before the real estate market went crazy. And actually part of that journey was trying to find our farm or we were going to be, and everything just kept falling through and Californians would come in and offer way over market.

And it was exhausting. One property that we were set on fell through, and that was in Washington, right. That was in Washington. And then. Asia. My wife said, well, look, let’s just take a break from this real estate thing and go to one of these islands. So we waited in the first ferry line. It happened to be, would be island.

And she’s reading in the book, you know, south would be home to many artists and farmers. And we were like, oh, this sounds cool. And then we got here and she said, I didn’t want to say anything, but there’s this one property on Zillow. That’s so. It was rundown needed a lot of work made an offer that day and never left.

So that’s how we got here. Wow.

[00:04:01] Mason: Yeah. And so how has the journey been with the land here?

[00:04:06] Jake: Yeah. And what was the state of the land as well? When you guys got, those are really instrumental questions, I would say, well, I’ll start with Mason’s question. Well, and I’ll start with your question though. The state was sort of off the market for like four or five years.

So nature had taken. In a good way. I think, you know, it was just like out here when you leave a structure, it just, everything comes in. So it, it scared enough people off the amount of work that was needed to bring it back up that made it an opportunity for us. Cause we were naive enough to just jump in, you know, at that time and, uh, had enough energy to do it, but that’s sort of a good starting point for the journey itself, which I would describe as like also.

Uh, personal journey, you know, of sorts. And that you come in kind of with that mentality of I’m going to do this to the land I’m going to make. And this doing this for a living has a way of, if you’re paying attention of the land, telling you how it’s going to be, and that’s, that’s powerful, that’s been, that’s been the journey.

So my first year I was like had that entrepreneur drive and the loader, and this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to clear this and that. And I got, I never get sick and I got sick from exhaustion. It was like, almost like the land slapping me down. Like you’re going to slow down, slow down. This is like been here for a long time and there’s like native history here.

And there’s all kinds of things you need to learn before you just come in and. So there’s, there’s been some powerful lessons and some powerful growth through that of learning pacing and paying attention. And, you know, the first rule of permaculture is to observe. Right. And so just stopping and observing good example is like, where does the water want to go?

Right. Let’s watch it through four seasons. Instead of saying, I’m going to build a pond over there in the garden over there. Why don’t you see what the land’s doing and work with? You know, it sounds simple, but that’s the way we’re wired and taught. It’s sort of contradictory to that. Especially in agriculture.

Agriculture is traditional agriculture and this isn’t a shot on it. It’s I’ve got many friends that are doing traditional agriculture is really geared around control, right? It’s this square. And nothing’s going to grow in this square, except the thing that I want to grow nature, abhors a vacuum. It doesn’t like that model.

So you set up a scenario where you’re. And the general premise of regenerative agriculture is to do less fighting. Maybe your numbers, your production, apples to apples is quote unquote less, but over what time, what time are we talking about? That’s why I say, oh, well you can’t, it’s not economical to do this model.

Okay. Over what? Over one season or over a decade, because I’ll show you a farm that my girls can inherit and grow healthy food without much supplementation. That to me is more valuable. So, I don’t know if that answers your question, but yeah, it’s been very much a learning process with the land. And I dare say, you know, I’m not, it’s hard not to sound woo about it, but I’d say even just the spiritual side of sort of process of tapping into that relationship with nature when you’re really immersed in it, and you really rely on it for your water under our feet and the food above the ground.

And. That sort of intimate relationship really wakes something up. I, I think in every human, I call it blood memory, you know, something that’s in us, even if you’re just picking something and eating it, there’s something that happens. And I don’t know what that is, but,

[00:07:38] Mason: and there’s something magical about this island.

Did you, what’d you call it

[00:07:41] Jake: a vortex? I think, I think many do. Yeah, there, I was telling your dad that, you know, there’s a long storied history of the Salish people practicing their medicine ceremonies on the south end. They still do pilgrimages here to do the ceremonies. So it’s a lot of that honoring what was here a long time ago.

And it’s always been about. You know, some people say, oh, hi and Sedona have those same kind of, and you find a lot of healers gravitate to there. So here’s the same way you see a lot of like really respected healers in their craft. And I don’t really need to know why that is. I just know that it is and people who come and stay can kind of feel that.

Yeah. Yeah.

[00:08:17] Mason: You know, my first time here I started having really weird dreams and they just like felt more impactful than normal dream. And then the last couple of times I’ve had crazy experience of discovering a spirit animal that I have a connection to the great horned owls out here. And so I’ve been trying to incorporate that totem and the symbolism with a connection to that animal kind of into my daily life.

At this point,

[00:08:43] Jake: that’s powerful. And that animal in particular has a really strong connection to this land. Um, when we, when we moved here at every kind of decision point we were at it’s happened like three times. That we would be talking about this big decision as it relates to the land and twice. A great horned owl in the day time came and landed near us.

Again, you can’t really believe these stories unless you’re here for awhile. They sound like, oh yeah, sure. Guys sounded like hyperbole and adding no hyperbole at all. Stood there in the middle of the day and just stared at us, uh, while we’re asking this question and then, so there’s this just kind of, uh, yeah.

Call them totems or whatever, but we. We try to help people pay attention coming out of the default world that we did, you know, there’s no judgment on it, but there’s stimulus overload, right. We’re kind of trained to tune out that stuff. And part of this experience is paying attention to the, to what is coming to you, you know, and it’s different for different.

Sometimes the sustain of a stinging nettle. We have a girl from South Africa here and she was like, I keep nobody else is getting stung by this thingy. Not all. And I do. And I was like, have you looked up the medicine and meaning she’s like, it just so happened. The mineral deficiency that she was experiencing was really concentrated in a tea that you can make from the stinging nettle coincidence.

I don’t know, but it she’s now drinking that tea every morning. I can feel that. So, yeah, it’s just those little kind of things. Yeah. So you guys have, um, several people that come out and help you guys or that live here. Can you talk to us about that program? Sure. Yeah. So a, we have residents that live here.

The idea was to share this 24 acres, particularly with people who live and work here on the island housing, like everywhere is very difficult. So we try to provide micro housing with minimal footprint that integrates with the forest. We also participate in this wolfing program and farm intern program that we’ve had a great experience with.

The idea is for usually college kids, college grads that are looking for some experience, common. It’s a straight work trade for room and board, but they get to come and experience farming and learn with zero risk. So I mentioned that for people who might be interested in they’re like, how do I even begin this?

Again, Asian and I come from suburbia. We didn’t have a farming background. So I, I put it akin to learning a language. Right. You can buy the Rosetta stone and go through the disks and try to learn that way. Or you can drop yourself into Mexico city and learn Spanish. And the ladder is the way to. It’s more painful, but that painful, that pain is growth, right?

It’s a learning curve. The more the learning curve bins up, the more you can feel it, but that’s

[00:11:27] Mason: the Wolf program is a pain. You can stop at any place

[00:11:30] Jake: and it doesn’t cost you anything and you get to make mistakes on other people’s dime. So it’s really a wonderful way to do so. There’s other programs like that, but I would highly encourage.

Those experiences even later in life Asia and I left executive positions and companies or whatever, to go volunteer on farms. And we’ve gotten inquiries from PhDs and, you know, people just are drawn. I call it a kind of a back to the land movement. You know, less drugs with college degrees, maybe not. I don’t know, but there is, especially with the pandemic, you can feel this, and that’s why I think you’re what you guys are tapping into with this program.

It’s really important because we see it in the inquiries and we see people just. In a quote, unquote, successful, good paying job. And they’re just having this, this calling this yearning to get some, to connect to something. I think that that’s, if you boil it down, it’s connection, right? Meaning and connection.

So this Wolf program, like I said, we have some international people all over the world and it’s fun to give them space to go on their own journey. Uh, they’re also learning and helping, helping us,

[00:12:40] Mason: and we’ll have links in the episode description so people can check out the farm and

[00:12:46] Jake: that’d be awesome. And you just set up a profile on Wolf, if you want to get involved and you can scan all the farms, even in your area to do like, you know, Very cool.

And so even outside of that program, the year here that we’re in, this is on Airbnb, is that correct? So people can come explore and enjoy the serenity of the island and of the farm. Yeah. So I would break it up into kind of the evolving model would be sort of, um, I use the metaphor of filling upon. If you’re going to fill upon with water, don’t just use two conduits, use a hundred hoses.

Some of those will dry up and some of them won’t. So that was the model here of like, yes, we want a farm and we want to grow food, but let’s take some pressure off of growing food because we see too many of our friends that it’s stressful to make a mortgage selling. I mean, you know, it’s, so it takes the joy out of it.

And so by diversifying the model and helping other aspects, the socioeconomic aspects, these other aspects, you can let the ship float itself a little bit and grow food with a little more joy. I think so part of that is these short-term farm stays. We do glamping. We, the platform is less important of what we’re trying to offer, which is a short-term farm stay, where you can experience.

You know, being in a peaceful conifer forest and then also catching a glimpse of how an agroforestry farm works. I think it’s really

[00:14:08] Mason: important. I think it’s a, it’s a service that you’re providing and obviously people are paying and you’re making revenue from it. But one of my first real connections, I felt like to a farm and farming was when I stayed on Montecito ranch down outside Austin.

And. And they’ve got a farm and a little bungalows right above the rows, and then you can go out and pick food. And, and that, that was the first time I really felt like I was on the farm. I had done lots of farm tours, but staying out there, waking up and looking at the farm and staying here and waking up in this forest, I think as a powerful motivator and I think can, can spur a lot of changes.

[00:14:47] Jake: I think you’re right. I think that it is sleeping and like fully experiencing this, you know, even a couple of

[00:14:55] Mason: what’s that a full circadian cycle.

[00:14:57] Jake: Yes. Yes. And then if you can eating from the land and drinking the water and just immersing, and we don’t have wifi out here for a reason, you know, the idea I was telling her, particularly during the pandemic is people were at their breaking point.

They still are. And just reading through that Gus book and what people leave in art and poetry, it’s deeply moving. To me, the like, yes, we keep our prices as low as we possibly can because we want it to be accessible and we, you know, make it free for some artists or poets and stuff that we’ve had stay here.

Yeah. And because I think that’s equally important just providing that space, that artists retreat writing space and that it feels like that in here, it feels like that’s what it wants to be. And we’ve tried to pay attention to those fields. Again, as woo as it sounds of what these, what this land wants to do.

And if I were to like boil it down, my sense of it is that it wants to. People. And sometimes that healing’s not comfortable. Sometimes it’s, there’s resistance in someone’s pushing, but it’s always emotion towards, towards healing. And we’ve seen enough of that and experienced enough of it to really give it space.

So we view ourselves as stewards of this land and try to really honor that, you know, but we have to make it sustainable on all fronts. Right. So if we can allow. You know, be ethical and all of our, the way we approach all these aspects, but then keep the ship afloat then that’s success.

[00:16:21] Mason: Uh, so we’ve been here two nights and I can’t really think of many times in Austin where I wake up and I’m like, I want kale and Swiss sharp breakfast, but waking up here, I’m like, oh, I can’t wait to saute those veggies.

And put nothing on him and just eat ’em with a little salt and pepper, and they’re absolutely delicious. You know, you speak of healing and such. I had this recurring dream this time while I was here, that I would get eaten by things. And last night it was a bear that ate may. And, but there was something different about it.

Like. Scared and just like, oh, okay. I’m in a situation and there’s no way out of this. So I’m getting eaten by a bear. I don’t know. What is that?

[00:17:04] Jake: Yeah. You know, it’s funny. Cause like Asian, I still, uh, especially when we first moved here, we would still have dreams. That world w the stress of that world we left and it manifests in a bunch of different ways.

You know, you don’t realize those, this nagging of the full inbox and the full, all those things that we just assume are just the way we operate, you know, that it’s this subtle manifestation. Of stress. It’s funny you say that a bit about the bear, because about a week ago we have a bear on the island. No way.

Yeah. And it’s of like, kind of a big local story. Everybody’s excited. Um, it’s just a little black bear that swam over. Wow. Um, so it’s funny. Maybe you’re tapped into, that’s hilarious. It’s not interested in people it’s interested in blackberries, but, um, but yeah, there is this process almost like a. D traumatized.

I don’t want to overstate it, but like a decompression of the world that we’re operating, what I think is not a healthy, not how humans are supposed to be operating their stressors here, but there are different stressors. And you’re in that, like you said, being in that cycle alone of sunrise and sunset, and those like make such a difference to the, to the general health.

So what’s the future. The future. Um, I think that

[00:18:20] Mason: when you moved here, how far did the future look to you now? Far? I said, now

[00:18:25] Jake: you mean future for what we’re doing here or our broader future for here for here and you. Yeah. And they’re interrelated while I was telling Jess, like, it feels like we’ve been here a lot longer than five years working on this.

And part of that’s having a baby in, you know, all the energy that, that takes and all of that, but all I ever see as the next project. But it’s, uh, I’m getting better about slowing down and, you know, he’s just planting flowers, you know, and me metaphorically tapping it. That’s why that balance of relationship is so important.

You know, she’s planting herbs and healing and flowers, and I’m thinking about the next structure or whatever. Those two combined and balance is really it’s that yin yang kind of thing. So all that to say is, I feel like we’re starting to get our F it feels less like dog paddling, less, uh, but you know, allows us to think a little bit bigger, but it’s also the reminder of the pacing, because your mind, our minds can tend to go to scale and all of that stuff that we do, you know, and I have to constantly check.

It’s not about scale. We don’t want we’re okay. Selling out with what we have in the farm. Stan. We don’t have to try to meet that demand, you know, and that’s a different inclination than what we’re wired to do. And it’s a real strong American. Yeah. It creates this like internal struggle. Right. Especially when you’re trying to keep it.

So, so that pacing, so I’ll say growth with, with pacing. I could see another farm stay like this. I think it’s really. What this aspect, I really enjoy that offering to people. I think we’ll continue to invest in climate adaptive plantings. So, you know, climate shifting faster than any of us, not the climate scientists, but now faster than, than the noise, then we want to believe.

And that. Innovation in the form of trying new things out. So we’re planting a lot of perennials that aren’t supposed to grow in this zone, but that are, and, uh, working with other local farms to try different lines of things. So I think that that type of thing is really important. So you asked about the future.

I say, I turn that problem on its head. And I say it’s a huge opportunity for innovation. And that’s the exciting part is like people trying new things about ways to grow mushroom from. From Sada us of culinary or, or utilizing forest sub ecosystems for a new type of perennial crop that might be integrated with the forest.

And then we’ll build out this a little market stand here, out here to provide more space for experience. I think the experiential part of what we’re trying to do is not only important, but it also is a value to people right now. I think at a time where the world feels so chaotic. People want to just feel connected to the things around them.

So, and that’s, you know, on a small scale with this, you know, you grab that mug off the shelf there that was made by the guy up the road and whether you know that or not, I feel like you can feel these things. And so bringing in that connection, and I’ll just mention also that. Art is really important in all of this.

So we have a lot of artists on the property and as much as the practical things of growing food and managing water and all of these innovative sustainable systems, I think that art is the language that communicates that connects to

[00:21:48] Mason: nature. Yeah. Art is the manifestation of.

[00:21:51] Jake: Yes. Yes. So, so making space for that, and really just like the Renaissance came out of the, the, you know, a pandemic, you know, I think that that’s, this is a time for artists, you know, when we’re searching for where we’re going and what’s happening.

And then I’ll just say that I do feel that the model that we know, well, we’ll continue to be challenged and bombarded in a way that creates some fracturing and destabilization, not in a chicken little way, but in a way that people have an opportunity. I have more permission to think big and to think differently.

And it’s a reassessment of risk, right? People say, how could you do that? How could you sell everything you own and just go get it. Like that’s super risky compared to what, to me, you know, it’s depends on. And this is just me. The cubicle job with a 401k feels more risky to me than land with two water, Wells and soil that can grow food.

So it’s really checking your risk assessment against what we call it. We’ve seen it. Doesn’t take many turns of the dial to destabilize what we call normal and the fragility of that. So, yeah. And so we’re in a window where as stressful as all that can sound, it’s also a chance to check in with yourself and realize like you have permission to do these things and you may be making the least risky move, even though people around you will want you to stay in that mode.

I think it’s important what you guys are bridging, which is. That bridge between it can be like green over here and then this over here. And I think that that conversation in between which it seems like you guys are addressing is super important because it helps make it less anxiety provoking for people to make steps.

So, yeah.

[00:23:31] Mason: Yep. Well, thank you so much for your time today and for having

[00:23:34] Jake: us here and our family. Yeah. We love having you. You guys are welcome anytime.