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Draft horses' power drives organic farm

By Maria P. Gonzalez | Seattle PI

WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Andy Asmus sets bunches of recently plucked carrots, fresh from the ground, onto his work station. With a hose, he sprays away the earth that conceals the veggies' true glow. As dirt-stained water drips down, the carrots shine a bright, vibrant orange, complemented by their long, green tops.

"When they're wet they just shine," he said.

It's a typical harvest morning at Welcome Table Farm, an organic draft farm just east of the Walla Walla city limits, near Rooks Park. Across 13 acres, Asmus and his partner, Emily Dietzman, have established a sustainable small-scale farm that stands out in part for its size, and in part for its environmentally-friendly approach to crop production.

Although Asmus and Dietzman own and operate the farm, with just a few employees and helpers, they give credit for the farm's distinction to Dandy and Avi, the male and female American Belgian draft horses who work the fields the way farmers did in past eras, before the introduction of fuel-powered equipment.

Dandy and Avi, both about 6 years old, are towering, graceful animals whose wide bodies and thick legs show they were born to work. With the farm as their home, the pair sleep in their stables but are free to walk throughout the fields, along a path away from the crops, on their down time and on work-free days.

"They really love to work," Dietzman said. "They are happiest when they feel useful."

Welcome Table Farm is an organic farm, and the use of Dandy and Avi complements the driving philosophy of what Asmus and Dietzman set out to achieve three years ago. Their goal was to grow the food they eat, while also establishing a farm that could be simply managed and serve local residents. Through the draft practices, and by using green and organic materials over herbicides or pesticides, the couple is in the third year of producing vegetables, berries, fresh eggs and an assortment of other goods that stand out for taste and quality.

The produce is fresh, aromatic, each with distinct color and in some cases, unusual shapes. Slightly crooked carrots or cucumbers may look funny, but the true test is in the taste.

"They look really different," Dietzman said. "And they taste completely different. They have such a good flavor."

The glistening carrots were among dozens of crops being picked, cleaned, bunched and boxed on a recent day for the weekend Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market downtown, where WelcomeTable Farm runs a busy booth. While Asmus worked cleaning the carrots, farmhand Leora Stein finished gathering basil from the field. The sweet scent of the aromatic green and purple herbs filled the shady porch that serves as the work space, overpowering even a crate of sweet onions on the ground.

Within moments, Stein had bunched the basil into bouquets and placed them in fresh water.

"There," she said.

"Nice, Leora," said worker Kirk Huffy, who was also at work washing and sorting recently unearthed potatoes.

Stein lives on the farm, and said she finds the field work rewarding.

"I get to eat and grow a lot of delicious food," Stein said. "It's just awesome. Besides it being really hard work. But even that is rewarding at the end of the day."

Part of what helps keep the organic and draft farming techniques manageable at Welcome Table Farm is its size. At 13 acres, the farm is small compared to more established commercial farms.

"People call it a garden," Dietzman said.

Dietzman and Asmus met in Olympia, where they worked together on an educational farm, and moved to Walla Walla to establish their own farm about three years ago. Dietzman, who grew up in Walla Walla, knew she one day wanted to come back. Her parents live here still.

The timing proved right when she learned that the acres off Mill Creek Road would be available for development. Dietzman recalls waking up one day and realizing she wanted to move back home and establish a draft farm. Both Asmus and Dietzman have dedicated the last several years to farming, with Asmus also being a certified arborist. Sharing a passion for producing quality, healthy foods in ways that respect the environment helped them make the farm successful.

"I think the real reason we do it is the joy of the work," Dietzman said.

The farm runs a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA. Through it, local families buy shares into the farm early in the year. During harvest time, families that bought shares receive boxes of fresh produce each week for several weeks. There are close to 50 families involved so far.

The farm is just completing its third season, but already has an established clientele and strong following at the farmer's market.

Although the farm hasn't applied to be certified organic, Asmus and Dietzman are both confident in the quality of what they produce.

"Our certification comes through our communication with our customers," Asmus said.

"We're really concerned about taste and quality," Dietzman said.

Along with support from Stein and Huffy, the couple also get help from Dietzman's parents, who help on the farm.

"I think it's very exciting. I admire them," said Carolyn Dietzman, who with her husband, Dale, help the couple by watching their 7-month-old daughter, Hazel.

From a chair, while watching Hazel rouse herself from a nap in her stroller, Carolyn worked at peeling seeds from dried sweet peas. The seeds, she said, will be planted soon to bloom in May.

In the future, the farm will include the fruit of recently planted fruit and nut trees dotted throughout the property. There is a flower garden and free-roaming hens, and the crops that change in variety with the seasons.

"I'm really excited to raise her on the farm," Dietzman said about her daughter. "And that she's eating good food. There's a lot of satisfaction in that."

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Information from: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, http://www.union-bulletin.com

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