Suzanne Johnson didn’t necessarily have the repertoire or experience, but with life changes desired to be made along with some passion, her career went into a different direction.

“I was self-taught,” Johnson said. “I was not raised a farmer.”

Johnson was amid her teaching profession at Central Washington University. She taught English as a second language for nine years, but when her husband Tim Dittmer endured health problems, the family made lifestyle changes — which included eating better.

Soon enough, it was less teaching and more gardening.

And it snowballed from there.

What now exists in the shrub-steppe of Ellensburg four years later is Colockum Hillside Farm. It’s an off-grid farm that raises chickens, turkeys, pigs, veggies, and plant starts.

And while the shrub-steppe isn’t an ideal location for any farm, Johnson makes it work. The farm –– and their home –– is also run off solar panels 3,000 feet up.

“We are completely off-grid,” Johnson said. “I think we’re probably the only off-grid small farm in the Ellensburg area. There are no power lines that come up here. We were off-grid before we knew we wanted the farm.”

What started with a small garden along with 12 chickens for the family quickly evolved. People became interested in Johnson’s eggs, and today, the farm raises 215 layer hens and 200 meat chickens.

Chicken egg sales burgeoned and Johnson no longer treks to customer’s houses to deliver them. Eggs can now be picked up at Jerrol’s on University Way. Rolf Williams, the owner, supports local farms and allows Johnson to use his lobby as a location for customer pickups.

“It was all direct to begin with. So, it was all basically friends of mine who bought them and when I first started out, I would drive around to people’s houses and drop off eggs for them,” Johnson said. “But now we’re up to 50 dozen eggs a week to direct customers, so I can’t go to everyone’s house anymore.”

Colockum Hillside Farm chickens freely roam the shrub-steppe compared to the maligned commercially raised chickens where access is very limited.

Johnson’s chickens are getting a lot of greens out on the farm, and she’s meticulous in what kind of feed they eat.

“It’s just a better, quality product,” Johnson said. “They taste better and it is supporting a kind of farming that is more humane to animals, too.”

Johnson recently added Berkshire pigs last spring and didn’t push to sell them at first, but did put the word out that there were three of them. The family was hoping to keep one full pig for themselves, but at the end of the afternoon, they sold 2 1/2.

“So, I immediately got more pigs,” Johnson chuckled.

Today, 12 Berkshires reside on the farm. And like the chickens, they aren’t in a fixed location. The Berkshires are rotated every two weeks and are fed a non-GMO feed that doesn’t have corn or soy.

The Berkshires stay on the farm for six months before heading to the market.

“It’s better for our land,” Johnson said of moving pigs to different locations every two weeks. “Because pigs make a big mess of things. And it’s better for them because instead of sitting in their own excrement, they just keep moving along.”

During the Holiday Farmers Market in Ellensburg on Dec. 14, Johnson’s pork — that was USDA cut in different types of pieces — nearly sold out. Johnson kept 1/3 of the two pigs left and that was stored and became available for customers to preregister and pick up once a month at Jerrol’s. This will continue up until the Farmers Market this May.

“I’m hoping that with those nine pigs down there that we’ll have plenty to sell through the summer at the farmers market and people will walk up and buy it on the spot,” Johnson said.

Johnson also sells meat chickens and turkeys, too, but those are sold fresh from the farm seasonally.

CHALLENGES FACED

There are plenty of challenges, but Johnson doesn’t grouse.

Living in the shrub-steppe is one of them.

That type of land lacks quality soil, and it forces Johnson to bring in soil from the valley floor for her garden which is grown in hoop houses.

That leads to another predicament. Nearly every year one of her hoop houses is blown away because of the intense winds up on the hill.

“This isn’t really farmland,” she said. “So, we’re trying to do something in an area that wasn’t designed for what we’re trying to do. And we’re trying to do it responsibly without damaging the land too much.”

Johnson and Dittmer — who helps with the mechanical and technical side of the farm, and also finances — are still figuring out the farm's niche. And 10 years down the road, Johnson sees the farm in a different location.

“That’s something we’re working on as we’re developing a sense of what we’re good at and what we’re not good at,” she said. “But I think the whole idea is that we’re trying to make it sustainable. We’re trying to make each part support the other.

“For example, our chicken bedding and chicken manure go into our compost pile which goes in our veggies. … We’re trying to make it as closed of a system as possible that we have each part of the farm here for a reason and supporting some other part of the farm.”

You’ll be able to find Colockum Hillside Farm at the farmers market this May through the summer. Johnson has two employees in Sean Brannan and Willow Fultz, both with different responsibilities.

“Sean is the caretaker of the farm,” Johnson said. “He maintains our vehicles, takes care of our grounds, builds, maintains and repairs farm structures.

“Willow is my assistant. She helps with animal care, harvesting, marketing, and her biggest task during the main season is to be our farmers market representative.”

Colockum Hillside Farm can be found on both Facebook (search Colockum Hillside Farm) and Instagram (@colockumhillsidefarm). Their website: www.colockumhillsidefarm.com.

Johnson can also be reached through email: suzanne@colockumhillsidefarm.com.

Comments

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.