Carolyn Young never really envisioned herself or her husband Ray being farmers of any sort. The long-time owners of Ridgefield’s Allen Creek Farm have taken their knowledge of computer science and integrated it with their 20 years of growing chestnuts and have become one of the premier growers in the country.
The farm will again welcome guests for an open house, Sat. Oct. 13, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., with demonstrations, samples of their chestnut bisque and free roasted nuts.
The Youngs, both 75, decided after careers spent working in aerospace and as teachers in southern California they were ready to enjoy their retirements. Buying a piece of land in Ridgefield in 1991, they moved to the farm in 1993, and began planting in 1999. Caroline said the decision to go with chestnuts was not so much out of practicality, but more out of the desire to be their own people.
“We’re pretty independent folks, and when we were in the early stages, we decided we didn’t want a commodity crop that meant we’d have other people telling us how or what to grow,” Carolyn said. “Chestnuts aren’t like corn, rice or other crops in that farmers are kind of left to their own devices on how to produce them.”
Much of what the Youngs do in running Allen Creek Farms may seem unorthodox to more traditional farmers. With multiple degrees, both Carolyn and Ray understood the value of using technology to enhance their business.
“We were still teachers when the computer was becoming what it is today during the 1980s, and we decided to get in on learning how it worked, so Ray and I went back and got our computer science degrees,” Caroline said. “Because of that, we may have the most vertically integrated operation you’ll find and 98 percent of our retail sales are online all over the world.”
As teachers, Carolyn taught junior high math, while Ray was an industrial arts instructor, something which helped them in immeasurable ways in keeping the farm going.
“If Ray didn’t have that background and know-how, we’d be dead, because since it’s just him and I running things, he’s the one who keeps the equipment going,” Carolyn said.
Ray also used his expertise to create equipment to help streamline their operation.
“He made machinery, which allows us to dry, crack and shell nuts, so we don’t have to have a big staff,” Carolyn said. “Chestnuts are pretty labor intensive and we do all of our own harvesting, and at our age, anything to make it an easier process is a good thing.”
In her travels across the country to meet with other growers, Young finds the fraternity to be full of highly-educated people who most would expect to find in hospitals or on college campuses as professors.
“I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet there are more Ph.D’s in this country who grow chestnuts than any other crop,” Carolyn said.
As part of the open house, guests will also have a chance to explore the farm’s maze, something Carolyn has a passion for.
“I’ve always loved mazes from when I was a child and was always fascinated by how they’re constructed and how to solve them,” Carolyn said. “Having been able to travel all over the world, I’ve seen plenty of real life examples, especially in England and Europe.”
Returning home and after buying over 1,000 arborvitae, the Youngs started working out how their maze was going to look, but realized it wasn’t a simple task.
“Laying them all out was a real chore,” Carolyn said. “We decided to make a replica of the Hampton Court in England, but had to use an overhead shot to make sure we had it designed right and went in the right ways. It’s been a great addition to the farm though.”
Carolyn says the appeal of it for kids is the exploration aspect of searching everywhere, not just finding the way out. She adds that women enjoy it, but she finds some resistance with men.
“It’s really interesting that when they don’t figure it out, they feel like they failed somehow, so they’re not so quick to go in it,” Carolyn said. “We also have a room in the middle of it which we use to host parties and events, and some of the fun is when it’s time for everyone to go and they have to find their way back out again.”
After so many years spent working on the farm, Carolyn said both she and Ray are still enjoying themselves, but are beginning to contemplate their future and how much longer they’ll oversee it.
“We’ve been asking ourselves that a lot as we didn’t exactly think this is what our retirement would be,” Young said.
The Allen Creek Farm is located at 29112 NW 41st Ave., in Ridgefield. More information can be found at their website, www.ChestnutsOnline.com or by calling (360) 887-3669.