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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Dec. 7, 2023

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Farmer Joe & Farmer John: Mentoring helps Washougal’s Get To-Gather Farm grow

‘Do something that somebody else can’t do and do it better than anyone else’

By , Columbian staff writer
13 Photos
John Spencer, left, owner of Get To-Gather Farm in Washougal, receives mentorship from Joe Beaudoin, former owner of Joe's Place Farms in Vancouver.
John Spencer, left, owner of Get To-Gather Farm in Washougal, receives mentorship from Joe Beaudoin, former owner of Joe's Place Farms in Vancouver. Spencer also bought some of Beaudoin's old farm equipment, like this crate sporting a Joe's Place Farms logo. Photo Gallery

Some people work at a job for years before having an “aha!” moment that precedes a significant career change. They shed one life to adopt another but embark on their new path as novices.

John Spencer, owner of Get To-Gather Farm in Washougal, didn’t realize that he wanted to be a farmer until he was 49. Enter Joe Beaudoin, now 83, who’s been farming his entire life and has decades of knowledge to spare. Small farms may face myriad challenges, but with Beaudoin’s farmer-to-farmer mentorship and a small but committed staff, Get To-Gather Farm is poised to succeed. But it started with just the seed of an idea.

“It occurred to me that whenever I wasn’t working, what I was doing was planting trees and taking care of my family’s property,” said Spencer, who’d spent 14 years in city finance and administration plus six years as a consultant. “It was a pretty short step from that to, ‘Maybe I should try farming as a career,’ aside from any knowledge of actual farming and what that meant.”

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Spencer’s consulting contracts dried up. He had just planted a huge garden on his family’s property in the hills north of Washougal, so he transitioned to farming as a full-time job. (That’s in addition to his elected role as a Port of Camas-Washougal commissioner, which he’s held since 2015.) Get To-Gather Farm opened to the public in August 2020.

Around the same time, Beaudoin announced his plans to close Joe’s Place Farms off Northeast 112th Avenue in Vancouver. Spencer jumped at the chance to pick up some farm equipment. He called Beaudoin and arranged the first of many visits to Joe’s Place Farms, where Spencer was happy to talk shop with a seasoned farmer.

“My version is he was internally shaking his head and saying, ‘This poor guy, he needs help,’ ” Spencer said. “So he just started offering advice. In many ways, I don’t think he was ready to retire. He has way too much intelligence and energy and knowledge.”

Beaudoin said he doesn’t consider himself “officially retired.” Even though he has sold most of his land for development or to his grown children, Beaudoin still walks 4 or 5 miles every day through his remaining orchards. He advises his kids about their U-pick fields and recently helped his son plant 180 peach trees. When Spencer bought everything from produce cases and chest freezers to cash registers and label-printing machines, Beaudoin took note.

“I was thinking, ‘Boy, this guy is going to have a real operation going.’ I got curious and I drove down there,” Beaudoin said. “I thought, ‘My gosh, this is where he’s trying to do business?’ ”

Get To-Gather farm is situated high in the hills north of Washougal (a far cry from Joe’s Place Farms, which sat on a busy city road). A large sign at the entrance directs visitors down a narrow gravel driveway. The farm store is a spruced-up garage with tables, shelves and coolers loaded with fruit, vegetables, chicken and duck eggs, plus locally made pies, sauces, jam and honey, as well as meat from Windy River Livestock in Camas. Colorful Ghana baskets fill in the gaps. It’s a small but cheerful space that feels as home-grown as its wares.

Spencer’s vision for Get To-Gather Farm goes beyond the store, however. The farm hosts a pumpkin festival, opens the store for Christmas shoppers and offers seasonal goodies like fresh-pressed apple cider, roasted chestnuts and evergreen wreaths. Spencer plans to host outdoor movies, bonfire nights and farm-to-table dinners and is already offering outdoor education for local students and special-needs kids.

“I didn’t want a farm where all we did was raise crops and harvest them and send them to a wholesaler,” Spencer said. “I believe what we have is some of the prettiest land around. Let’s give people an opportunity to get out there and enjoy it.”

Beaudoin recommended that Spencer create a niche by selling something special, like raw honey. Beaudoin’s honey from his own hives was a big seller, he said. It’s a product that doesn’t spoil, so “if you don’t sell it this year, you can sell it next year,” he said. Joe’s Place Farms had a reputation for exceptional tomatoes, peppers, beans and eggplant, Beaudoin said. People also flocked to Joe’s Place Farms for the wide array of apple varieties, homemade jams and supersized pumpkins (think hundreds of pounds).

“My theory was, ‘Do something that somebody else can’t do and do it better than anyone else,’ ” Beaudoin said.

Spencer isn’t a beekeeper (yet) but he now owns Beaudoin’s honey-bottling equipment, just in case. In the meantime, Get To-Gather Farm purveys buckwheat honey from a regional supplier and sells other varieties of honey from Half Moon Farm in Brush Prairie. Spencer also cultivates unusual crops, such as ground cherries, cucamelons, currants, hardy kiwi and pawpaw, plus his own goose eggs (“off the charts rich and delicious,” Spencer enthused).

In 2021 and 2022, Get To-Gather Farm was part of the Washington State University Clark County Extension Harvest Celebration Farm Tour in September. But the real turnaround, said Spencer, was the farm’s 2022 pumpkin festival. Attendance was robust and Spencer enjoyed watching people select pumpkins and climb on the hay-bale pyramid he built.


What: Get To-Gather Farm

Where: 1913 S.E. 303rd Ave., Washougal

Contact: 360-989-0163, gettogatherfarm.com/, facebook.com/gettogatherfarm/

Summer farm store hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday

“Joe came out and looked around at what I was doing,” Spencer said. “He shook his head and said, ‘You need more pumpkins.’ He went home, called me up and said, ‘Be ready. A truck is showing up with 16,000 pounds of pumpkins.’ And he was absolutely right.”

Spencer plans to dramatically increase his pumpkin patch for the 2023 festival. (You can see his excitement on the farm’s Facebook page, where there’s a video showing Spencer gleefully embracing one of his young pumpkin vines.)

“When he tells me to do something in my store, I pretty much say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and go do it,” Spencer said. “The guy really knows his stuff. It’s amazing to let him talk. … He is such a wealth of information.”

They disagree on a few things. Spencer is committed to using organic and sustainable methods, something that Beaudoin believes might be a challenge to profitability. And while Beaudoin sold a plethora of goods not grown or made on his farm, Spencer is insistent that his store sell mostly his own produce and products.

“I’m working to find a balance of having enough stuff you can get from my place that brings people back again and again, being true to who I am and focusing on what’s grown here,” Spencer said.

Disagreements aside, the two farmers have developed a close rapport and Spencer said he regards Beaudoin as a friend. Shortly after Beaudoin’s wife, Gayle, passed away in May, Beaudoin was at Get To-Gather Farm, spending time with the Spencer family. And Spencer pays homage to Beaudoin in other ways. For example, Spencer constructed his own, smaller version of Joe’s Place Farms’ wooden fort maze.

“I finished it just in time for Easter and put out a notice that we were having an Easter egg hunt in the maze. Within about three days, we had 30 kids running around in the maze and it was awesome,” Spencer said.

Though Spencer relishes seeing the farm transformed into a hive of activity, he said that events are just a way to support his first goal, which is to be a farmer.

“I want to end up like Joe,” Spencer said. “I want to be the 80-year-old farmer that everyone goes to for the farm-related questions.”

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