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Dec. 3, 2022

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Clark County’s Bi-Zi Farms to celebrate 150th anniversary

Festivities to give an inside look at how farm works, crops are grown

By , Columbian staff writer
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Shopper Lyubov Igumnov of Vancouver leaves Bi-Zi Farms with a cart full of fresh produce on Monday afternoon. The farm is gearing up to celebrate its 150th anniversary with an event on Sunday.
Shopper Lyubov Igumnov of Vancouver leaves Bi-Zi Farms with a cart full of fresh produce on Monday afternoon. The farm is gearing up to celebrate its 150th anniversary with an event on Sunday. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

One of Clark County’s few remaining centennial farms has reached a major milestone. The Zimmerman family and Bi-Zi Farms will celebrate 150 years of farming on Sunday with a special anniversary party open to the public.

“The Zimmerman family came here in 1872 and settled in Clark County. We’ve been farming here ever since,” Joe Zimmerman said.

The anniversary event runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will have free cake (while it lasts), guided farm tours, question and answer sessions with Joe Zimmerman’s father, Bill Zimmerman, music and activities for the kids. The celebration will give visitors an inside look at how the farm works and how crops are grown.

“It’s going to be an opportunity for us to bring the community out and interact with them and let them meet their farmer. Actually knowing the person that grows their food, that’s a real rarity these days,” Joe Zimmerman said.

According to the Washington Department of Agriculture’s most recent data, there are nine Centennial Farms in Clark County, although just four are owned by a family descendant.

Bi-Zi Farms (pronounced “busy”) remains a family-run operation at 9504 N.E. 119th St. Bill Zimmerman and wife Peggy own and work the farm, as do their three children, Joe, Doug and Amy. Joe Zimmerman manages the farm’s finance and management operations along with driving a tractor during the pumpkin patch days; Amy Zimmerman runs the concession stand at the pumpkin patch and Doug Zimmerman manages much of the equipment. Sadie Zimmerman, Joe’s wife, runs the store.

“We’ve gone through five or six different iterations of what we do as a farm,” Joe Zimmerman said.

When Gabriel Zimmerman first arrived in what was then called Clarke County, 17 years before Washington became the nation’s 42nd state, he purchased 180 acres of land and buildings from Gottlieb Wagonblast, the land’s original homesteader.

Over the years, the farm’s borders have changed as various parcels of land were bought and sold. So too has what the farm raised.

Like most farms in the late 19th century, the Zimmermans raised the food they needed to feed their family. Sometime during the mid-1920s, the farm became a hatchery for chickens. A few of the dozens of chicken houses that once dotted the farm’s landscape still remain on the property.

In 1971, Bill Zimmerman graduated from high school, began farming and again changed the operation. He started with raising hogs and cattle, along with cutting hay for others. He began growing grain, primarily oats and clover seed, starting in 1980. During the U.S. farm crisis of the 1980s, which saw a quarter of a million farms fold, Bi-Zi Farms survived by selling direct to consumers. It’s a model the farm still uses today.

That ability to adapt and remain flexible is why the farm survived when others did not, Joe Zimmerman said.

“You get some folks who are very shortsighted on agriculture. They think, ‘My grandpa farmed this way, my dad farmed this way and I farm that way, too, and I don’t make money,’ … not considering the world is how much different than it was 30 or 40 years ago,” he said. “We’ve been grateful that we have the flexibility to change.”

The area has changed a lot, too. Once considered the “boonies,” hundreds of homes have sprung up around Bi-Zi Farms.

“When I was a little kid, I loved to read. One time I was in one of the upstairs bedrooms and I decided to look out and count how many cars go past here every day. In a 15-minute period, there were six cars. You would get that many now in a few seconds,” Bill Zimmerman said.

Bill Zimmerman remembers he and his best friend hopping on their bikes and riding to Hockinson or Dollars Corner. There was still little traffic to contend with when he was courting Peggy, who lived east of Hockinson.

“If I left her house at midnight, the odds were I could drive all the way home and not meet another car,” Bill Zimmerman said.      

As the county’s population has continued to climb, Bill Zimmerman said customers’ needs and tastes have changed as well.

“When we first started in, it was a lot of quantity cooking. They would come for 300 ears of corn, they would come for boxes and boxes of green beans that they were going to can, they would pick up six, eight or 10 boxes of peaches at a time. Now it’s much more individual grocery shopping,” Bill Zimmerman said. “We have a number of customers now we see on an almost daily basis.”

Switching operations again to its current model started with a cornfield. In 1993, Doug Zimmerman, then 16, saw his neighbors growing sweet corn, and knew he could do it better. He began growing corn on a small parcel, selling it from the front porch to anyone passing by. His sales were so successful the rest of the farm soon followed suit. “It took from about 1996 to 2000 to really pivot our operations. We had to completely alter one operation and make it into something different,” Joe Zimmerman said.   

Now, the farm has 105 acres growing a variety of fruits and vegetables. Unlike other farms that sell their crops to wholesalers or corporations, the Zimmerman family still sells direct to consumers through its roadside store.

Early in the growing season, the Zimmermans start with selling flower baskets, then switch to fruits and vegetables as summer progresses.

“We move into strawberries in June, then cane berries — cane berries are going to cover raspberries, blackberries, silvans — soon after that, we have cole crops. Cole crops are going to be lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, those types of things,” Joe Zimmerman said.

There are also blueberries, zucchini, squash, sweet corn, winter squash. In early fall, one of the farms most popular attractions opens, the pumpkin patch. Last year the farm added a new event, the Sunflower Festival, to its roster which features 14 varieties of the flower.

“Instead of selling to a commodity broker, we are direct to market. Everything we sell is sold through our store,” Joe Zimmerman said. “We don’t sell to a grocery store, we don’t sell to a broker.”

To keep up with changing consumer interests, the farm also brings in produce from other areas. That includes watermelons from Hermiston, Ore., Walla Walla sweet onions and more.

“Tastes have changed. For instance, we’re growing okra. When we started this, we never would have dreamed of doing okra,” Bill Zimmerman said.

Cucumbers have been one of their more popular crops, but not the kind of cucumbers they first thought to raise.

“We thought that slicing cucumbers would be the big thing. We got started in and people kept asking for pickling. Now we do 20 times as much picking cucumbers as we do slicers,” Bill Zimmerman said.

As for what the future holds, Bill Zimmerman said they rely on their customers to tell them what they want. They also belong to farming groups and associations so they can exchange ideas.

“We tour every year, and we get an opportunity to talk to people about what they’re doing. A lot of it has to do with agritainment, like the pumpkin patch. But we do get a lot of feedback from them on what they’re doing that works well,” Bill Zimmerman said.

For more information about Bi-Zi Farms and the anniversary celebration, go to https://www.bi-zifarms.com.

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