Walnut Grove woman finds true contentment living off the land on restored farm

Sunny Ruthchild, of Walnut Grove, walks through her orchard every day to make sure the trees are healthy. Photo by Eric Posz

Sunny Ruthchild, of Walnut Grove, walks through her orchard every day to make sure the trees are healthy.
Photo by Eric Posz

There’s little activity on Merryweather Farm during the winter months. The orchard there, 650 or so fruit trees, mainly apple, take a much needed rest, and so does Sunny Ruthchild, 70, who owns the orchard, garlic, hop and vegetable farm.

“We all need a break after the harvest,” Sunny said. “I get a lot of reading in during the winter, three books a week or so.”

But Sunny is being modest about taking it easy in the winter. She heats her classic Sears and Roebuck home with wood that she cuts down, splits and piles herself during the busy summer months. She shovels her own driveway, saying the time spent outside is good for her. And, of course, she does a walk-through of her entire orchard every day.

“You need to keep an eye on the trees, even in the winter,” Sunny said. “Deer, rabbits and other animals can do damage to the trees. Plus wind, cold temperatures and other factors can impact the trees heavily.”

About a decade and a half ago, Sunny moved to her farm just north of Walnut Grove,  from her home in Duvall, Wash., where she owned and operated an art gallery.

“I grew up less than a mile away from where I live here (near Walnut Grove),” Sunny said. “But as soon as I turned 18 years old, I got on the bus and moved away.”

Sunny was drawn back home to take care of her ailing mother, and spent her first three summers in her uncle’s empty farm house just up the road from her mother. Sunny fell in love with the old house, the old red barn and the very land itself.

Spending summers in Minnesota and winters in Washington, Sunny decided after three years to make the move final. She sold her Duvall home and business and moved back home to Walnut Grove.

The farm was overgrown with brush, buckthorn and weeds. A lot of the outbuildings were falling down, and the place was in general disrepair.

“It was a lot of work to get the place cleaned up,” Sunny said. “But bit by bit the place started coming together.”

Now, after years of hard labor, there are vegetable plots, animals roaming around, more than a handful of pigs, alfalfa, clover, hops, flowers, herbs, lots of apple trees, and some of the best garlic money can buy.

“It started off with just trying to feed myself,” Sunny said. “I started selling surplus at the local farmers market. After a while, I realized I couldn’t really make money selling vegetables, but I could selling fruit.”

Sunny has spent the past several years expanding her orchard. She constructed a beautiful harvest house out of materials she salvaged from old buildings and changed the focus of her “farming.”

Garlic dries on Sunny’s farm. Photo by Eric Posz

Garlic dries on Sunny’s farm. Photo by Eric Posz

“It all comes down to the soil,” Sunny said. “Whether it’s the garlic, or the apple trees, or the hops. The more diverse your soil and the epidermis of all things that grow in your soil, the more diverse they are with life, the better things work together. There is more continuity. You don’t have to pour a ton of nitrogen on an orchard. Almost all orchard owners do. I don’t. I’ll throw bedding from animals out there. But I don’t ever put nitrogen on my fruit trees. I treat them like trees. The fruits that come out of a system where you are increasing all the life, rather than specifically feeding the trees, the product you get is richer and fuller and far more complex.”

Sunny likes systems that work together. This way one group of plants can improve another group of plants. And the whole system has a certain synergy to it.

“My trees are individual entities that work together, very much like a beehive would function, where they hook together, bloom together and share nutrients together,” Sunny said. “I suppose that what I’m doing is agriculture, on one level. But then it’s not agriculture at the same time. I mean, agriculture is control over the land. And this approach, which has come to feel so comfortable for me, is not control over anything. It’s just that I’m part of it.”

Being a part of her local environment, her local ecology, Sunny doesn’t believe in wasting anything, throwing anything, or even buying things that are new.

“We live in a throw-away culture,” Sunny said. “But nothing is wasted here. My pigs, of which I have seven, get about 95 percent of their food from right here on the farm. They’re orchard pigs. They get windfall apples, eat on the clover and alfalfa from under the apple trees and lead a good life.

“I, too, get a large portion of my food from right here on the farm. I’m not someone who is completely weened off of the grocery store. There are things that I can’t or won’t do without, such as pepper, coffee and tea. But my freezers are full. My pantry shelves are full. And if the power goes off and I’m snowed in for a month or two or three, I’ll be fine.”

Once again, the waste from Sunny’s food gets composted and put back into the soil, the land she’s come to love over the years – the soil she cares for and tends to daily. And in return, the soil tends to and cares for Sunny.

Sunny cleans some freshly picked apples in the harvest house. Photo by Eric Posz

Sunny cleans some freshly picked apples in the harvest house. Photo by Eric Posz

“This is a theme that has come back to me time after time – I’m not a person who is enamored with human society and human culture,” Sunny said. “I am one of those who is enamored with the earth’s society and culture. There are names for this approach, like agroecology. This is where you actually start to see yourself as a part of the ecology of the place where you live. That is real hopeful for me, that’s instructive for me.

“If we lived in a bee society, I would not be one of those who stayed inside and cared for the hive. I am one of those who would be outside and flying around. That’s who I am. I’m a worker bee. I love using my body and stressing it. I love working with all these things that don’t speak as humans speak.”