It wasn’t until my third day in Port Townsend, Washington that I finally got to meet Crystie Kisler of Finnriver Cidery, and by that time I had already learned that this area is a particularly special place — as inspirational a model of the localist movement as any I have seen. So when I finally got to meet with Crystie, it was not a surprise to learn that she and husband Keith had been trailblazers in the locally focused and cooperative economic model that has shaped the culture of Port Townsend over the past 20 years.
The story of Finnriver Cidery reads like a good children’s fairytale, chock full of disciplined hard work, challenges overcome, and dreams come true. And if you read through their website, you will find inspired dreams weaving together a rich story of people, land, food and economics that is both sustainable and fulfilling:
“At Finnriver Farm we are striving to create deep-rooted & fruitful connections…
to the land we farm,
to our wild and human neighbors,
and to our community as a whole.
We are engaged in the earnest pursuit of wise land stewardship through the following commitments:
- Practicing sustainable agriculture
- Harnessing renewable energies
- Contributing to vibrant local economy
- Restoring riparian wildlife habitat
- Reviving artisan traditions
- Serving as an educational resource
- Keeping a vibrant farm culture alive and well
Finnriver is 100% locally financed through a community network of visionary investors.
We want Finnriver to be a role-model of a financially viable small-scale organic farm and cidery. By doing so, we not only provide a livelihood for our own family, but also provide local jobs and support our neighboring businesses with our commerce. As vendors at regional Farmers Markets, and as an agricultural destination that hosts thousands of visitors a year, we create opportunities for conscientious consumer practices. We happily participate in barter exchanges with neighbors and local businesses. Finnriver is also pleased to be part of the innovative economic initiatives in our region. We are 100% progressively financed and all of our land and business loans are carried by visionary individuals in our community. Through the LION group– Local Investment Opportunity Network– we have connected with investors interested in keeping their money local and in supporting business they believe in. The LION program, of which we were founding participants, has gleaned national attention for its innovative approach to local lending.”
Indeed, those who visit the farm today can find a new paradigm for economic and environmental resiliency and sustainability —an effective and inspirational model from which we can all learn.
The Finnriver story began in the early 1990s when Crystie and Keith, both recent college graduates, met in Yosemite Valley where they were teaching student groups about nature. There, they fell in love and recognized a shared dream that called them to live closely with the land, while drawing others in to share their powerful sense of connection and rootedness to it. But it would take many years and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome until the dream would come to fruition on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
Although they loved being in Yosemite Valley, Crystie and Keith also found their work there somewhat limiting —as bringing students in for mere 5 day stretches was not enough time to secure the deep attachments to the land necessary for the cultural transformation of which they dreamed. Ultimately, it would take family ties and a longing for more meaningful educational initiatives to coax them out of the Valley and north into Washington State —using food as their vehicle.
Having grown up on a large wheat ranch in eastern Washington, Keith felt a deep sense of connection to the land and his family’s agricultural history. But having studied ecology in college, he felt increasingly conflicted about conventional agricultural practices—feelings that became further complicated when his father was diagnosed with, and later died from, leukemia after decades of conventional farming with high pesticide usage. Furthermore, living in the remote and isolated setting of Yosemite Valley, Crystie and Keith had virtually no access to the organic or healthful food that they desired. In this nexus, a spark of recognition was kindled as the two began to look at the ties between healthy food and healthy land as a way to promote and encourage environmental husbandry.
Feeling “very clever,” and surmising that they were pioneers, Crystie and Keith emerged from the Valley with a resolve to focus on food as a strategy for teaching land stewardship. Working from the premise that food is something that connects us all, is something intimately tied to our health and wellbeing, and is something that comes from the land, and that therefore the health of the land is vital to the quality of our food and ultimately our very survival, Crystie and Keith marched out of Yosemite intending to draw out these connections, and quickly realized that there were others already on the same path. In good company, they happily joined a movement —restoring agriculture.
Their first move was back to the Seattle area to be closer to Keith’s mother and siblings after his father passed away, dreaming of the day when they might have their own farm, but believing it to be a purely theoretical concept at that point. Crystie got her master’s degree in education and was teaching in the public schools while Keith was landscaping. But shortly thereafter, they migrated to the Olympic Peninsula, drawn by its beauty and the like-minded, progressive community there. After landing in Port Townsend, Crystie continued to teach. Keith tried to find work on an organic farm, but although there were a few key people who were holding space for the organic movement, the peninsula was not yet a thriving agricultural community.
It was a love for freshly picked blueberries that would lead Keith and Crystie to the property that is now home to the cidery. At the time, there was an old-timer who grew blueberries on the property, and if you could find his number and were willing to travel the 14 miles from Port Townsend to Chimacum (where the farm is located) you could go and pick. Picking blueberries, Crystie and Keith fell in love with this magical piece of property —“Shangri La” according to Crystie— but it would still take them some time to be able to imagine making this place their home, as it felt too far out from the progressive community in Port Townsend. Nevertheless, a few years later, when they discovered that the property was on the market, their initial misgivings about its location began to fall away as they imagined their long held dreams unfolding in this beautiful setting.
Unfortunately, dreams and opportunity were still not quite enough to cinch the deal as Keith and Crystie still needed to find a way to be able to finance the project in order to bring it to fruition —an enormous, and seemingly insurmountable hurdle which, once cleared would become the seeds of a new economic model that has taken strong hold in the Port Townsend area and garnered national recognition. In the end, it would end up taking “a series of miracles” rooted in unconventional, cooperative, and partner based models at a time when there was no roadmap for such things, to start the dream and allow them to purchase the farm in 2004.
After discovering that the farm was for sale, Crystie and Keith realized almost immediately that they would not be able to afford to purchase it independently. But rather than abandoning their vision in the face of monetary obstacles, they allied themselves with friends Kate Dean and Will O’Donnell, collaborating to work towards creative solutions. Partnering with others who shared their passion and ideals turned out to be easy compared to negotiating a real estate system that was not accommodating to partnerships or allowing individuals to co-purchase a piece of property. Strict zoning laws made such partnerships problematic, and the group had to go through countless “shenanigans” in order to figure out a model for shared ownership, eventually leading the partners to form a corporation.
After partnering with Kate and Will and forming the LLC, the group then approached owners Kay and Elijah Christen, eager to purchase the property. But they quickly discovered that they were still not “bankable” — a fatal blow in almost any transaction. Luckily, good fortune continued to reign, and deciding that they wanted Crystie, Keith & Co to purchase their property, Kay and Lige resolved to finance the transaction for them. This breakthrough was an epiphany for Crystie because until that moment, the idea that creative financing was a possibility was completely off of her radar. That a landowner could say “O.K. we want to sell our land to you and you want to buy it, so instead of paying the bank interest for the next 30 years, you can pay us a percentage until you are able to re-finance —we want to make this work for you” was both “shocking” and “beautiful.” And from that moment on, Crystie and Keith realized that they were functioning in a different kind of space in which new ways of doing things were possible. The creative problem solving of Lige and Kay, who are still their neighbors today, opened the door to an entirely new realm of dreaming.
From then on, the magic continued: At the time the farm was purchased, Crystie and Keith and Kate and Will both had young sons —River and Finnegan— so in yet another partner-based inspiration they collectively decided to name the farm “Finnriver.” These days, Crystie notes that the name holds double meaning as it also represents the restored salmon run that was once so choked in canary grass and other invasive species that it was invisible to all but those in the know. Today, nearly 20 years after Lige and the local conservation district put together a restoration project, the grass has been pulled from the once deforested creek that had been channeled for agriculture. Filtering trees now grow alongside, and Coho salmon (fins) can be seen in the waters (river). For Crystie —an environmentalist in a “constant state of agony about the ongoing destruction of everything”— witnessing this transformation of a little piece of nature being restored and brought back to life, has been profound. She notes that there is still work to be done, but today there are herons, hawks, otters, salmon and coyotes gracing the property.
As time marched on at Finnriver Farm, inspiring things continued to happen. In 2007, when Crystie and Keith’s partners decided to leave the farm (amicably), they needed to figure out a way to buy them out —but once again could not come up with the money. Thinking that they might be forced to sell the farm, Crystie reached out to a local ally, who found a private investor willing to buy the partners out.
The Kislers then got connected with Sarah Spaeth, director of the Jefferson Land Trust, who told them about their “Working Lands Initiative” —which puts conservation easements on farmlands so they cannot be developed. The Jefferson Land Trust wrote grant proposals to the local County Conservation Futures Fund and the State of Washington Wildlife Recreation Program and were thereby able to secure enough grant funding to purchase the conservation easements on the land. These easements safeguard the land from future development and ensure that all of the parcels are held together and cannot be separated —a double victory for Finnriver’s conservationist heart. Furthermore, although placing easements on the property decreased its (monetary) value, the land trust paid them the difference for this decrease in the assessed value and they were able to use that money to help knock down their debt.
After Kate and Will left, the Kislers knew that they would need more help to run the farm, and happily were quickly connected to a locally born and raised young farmer Janet Aubin. Janet was returning home from college in the midwest, bringing her partner Jeff Horwath with her, and hoping to find some land to farm. The Kislers initially invited Jeff and Janet to work on the land as apprentices, but they very quickly demonstrated a penchant for the work and assumed leadership of all of the food production. Growing certified organic fruits and vegetables at Finnriver, as well as raising pastured pork and their popular “Laid in Chimacum” free-range eggs, Jeff and Janet have now been farm managers for 7 years and are currently operating with their own lease on the land which allows them to function independently but still remain intimately integrated into the larger vision.
Because they had used state funding to preserve the future of the property— Crystie and Keith were clear that the farm needed to survive with a viable economic model, and that it was their responsibility to come up with a workable plan to ensure that the public investment was repaid both economically and educationally. Whatever they did would need to be open to the public so that others could see and learn about learn this remarkable model —demonstrating the connections between public investment and its returns in both economic vitality (jobs created) and lands restored to health.
Jeff and Janet contributed to this effort by inviting young farm interns each season to join them and learn the foundations of farming through the Jefferson County FIELD program, while the Kislers began to think about a value-added product that would support their family while also allowing Jeff and Janet to make their living out of the fields.
Neighbor, and former owner Lige, knew that Crystie and Keith were looking for a product, and brought down a bottle of hard cider that he had made from the apple trees that he and Kay had planted on the farm years before. At the time, Keith, a home beer brewer, had little interest in cider, but after tasting what Lige presented he quickly changed his mind. Keith was surprised at the complexity found in this little bottle —that it was dry, crisp and delicate—and it awakened him to a long-standing tradition of cider-making and apple diversity.
These were the seeds of the new economic model for the farm, and how the cidery was begun, but with a new vision in mind, Crystie and Keith were once again faced with the economic realities that come with small scale, organic farming and business start-up. Expensive tanks, bottles and equipment were needed to bring a cider business to market, and they did not have the money to finance it. Once again, Crystie and Keith turned to their community with a dream and a vision for how to accomplish it, making the case that “investing in the cidery would help sustain the farm.”
While today there are regulations and procedures in place for this type of investment, in 2007, the idea of crowd funding and community investment was uncharted territory for businesses like Finnriver —an unfolding process without many established models. The process involved a strong intuitive and spiritual orientation, and a great deal of trust in all of the participants, as the Port Townsend investor community tapped into their values and aspirations and created an effective model for local investment. Investors responded to Finnriver’s call for funding by recognizing “You are going to do something wonderful for our community. I will get my money back with interest and enjoy the rewards of living in an enriched environment.”
Crystie wells up, calling this symbiosis an “ongoing miracle,” and seven years ago, after Crystie, Keith, and new partner Eric Jorgensen, along with a community of investors united vision and capital, Finnriver Cidery started with 1000 gallons of cider and Keith and Eric working without salary. Today, working and caring for the land at Finnriver is a cooperative effort of the families and farmers that live on the property, and offers a model of the ways in which collaborative land leasing can allow young farmers onto the land and create opportunity for next generation agriculture, despite the rising cost of land. The farm now has over 30 people on payroll, 1.5 million in sales, and is in the process of purchasing a second farm to further expand their mission.
Several years ago, when Jefferson Land Trust began working on placing conservation easements on a 50 acre historic dairy up the road from Finnriver, Crystie, Keith and Eric viewed it as yet another opportunity to demonstrate collaborative economic models through sustainable agriculture and land ethics. Early this year, Finnriver began leasing the land in order to expand their heirloom apple production for the cidery, and have fallen in love with the property for its agriculturally friendly soil. But they also recognize its potential as a learning center, as it is more accessible to visitors than the cidery as well as less disruptive to their neighbors. Yet again, local investors and the land trust have stepped forward to preserve, restore, and utilize the property as they work towards a purchase.
Moving forward, the 50 acre farm will be used as collaborative space with eco-tourism as a fundamental piece of their model. Multiple partners —growers, food producers, educators and advocacy groups will share the space and use it as a conduit for keeping the community grounded in its agricultural heritage while simultaneously illustrating new ideas for environmental and economic resilience.
Currently the partners involved include Washington State University, who will be conducting grain-variety trials, The Organic Seed Alliance, who will be doing organic seed research, The North Olympic Salmon Coalition, who will be working on stream restoration and will have their plant nursery out there, and Finnriver’s organic heirloom apple orchard.
As the old farmhouse on the property required a restoration that was so extensive and expensive it seemed too cost prohibitive to rent it to a single family, the investing partners identified an ongoing need of many rural organizations for meeting and office space and have decided to turn the 5 bedroom farmhouse into a rural co-working space, inspired by the Co-Lab in Port Townsend. Focused on agricultural and land resource organizations, the bedrooms are being converted into offices, and the common spaces will be developed into meeting spaces in partnership with the PT Co-Lab. Creating a “hub of synergy” between the house and the land, and sharing resources like high speed internet, printers and other office necessities, WSU, The American Farmland Trust, a horticulturist and Finnriver will all have offices in the old home. A commercial kitchen and food processing plant to be shared by Finnriver, the Chimacum Corner Store, caterers, etc. is also in the plan as the partners are working on USDA grants to help finance its construction. Eventually, Crystie, Keith and Eric imagine visitors being able to sit at the old feeding trough —converted to a table— while sipping their cider and eating pizzas made by a local baker using locally sourced ingredients, looking out to see all the things that are happening on the land, and taking home inspiration for unconventional approaches to doing business.
The culminating piece of this project will be when the partners receive their B-Corp certification. B-Corps are to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. They are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
Today, there is a growing community of more than 1,000 Certified B Corps from 33 countries and over 60 industries working together toward 1 unifying goal: to redefine success in business. And yet again, Crystie, Keith, Eric and their community partners are on the cutting edge of redefining business and demonstrating the ways in which sustainable practices can promote healthy land and communities.
Wrapping up my time with Crystie, we circle back and connect on one last point regarding the importance of small communities and the gifts they have to offer. Much like myself, when Crystie first graduated from college, she thought that she needed to be working on a large scale in a large city in order to enact meaningful change. But inspired by philosopher and agricultural hero Wendell Berry, she ended up feeling like choosing a small community and really trying to “go deep,” committing to A PLACE rather than working on policy in the abstract, and doing work that felt needed and attuned to her values had as much or more potential for radical change as anything that could be dreamed up from a purely intellectual pursuit. In a small town, you can find challenge on a daily basis in whatever you feel is right and good. You are engaged in a conversation, must be accountable to those who live around you, and, as Crystie, Keith and many others in Port Townsend have demonstrated, can build synchronistic networks of trust and support to redefine community.
To learn more about Finnriver Farm: