One Incredible, Adorable and Oh-So-Orcas Orchard
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
Less than a mile north of Orcas Hotel sits one of the island’s many small family farms.
Warm Valley Orchard is as picturesque as any Orcas farm, the whole island over.
On a summer visit, a range of heirloom chicken breeds went about hunting-and-pecking under a huge walnut tree.
Rows of heirloom apple trees wore small metal tags identifying their 30 rare varieties, Rome Beauty and Jonagold and Ashmead's Kernal among them.
Mature trees that produce all sorts of other fruit and nuts—think plums, Asian and European pears and some hybrids cross-pollinated on the island (Orcas pear!), strawberry figs and frost peaches, walnuts and filbert chestnuts—further dot the grassy expanse beneath a mild summer sun.
The sheep operation runs year round, bringing the family lamb to eat and sell and wool to weave.
So does the hen egg vending, and the organic eggs are so popular I bid you good luck reserving some for two weeks from now.
The seeds go in the ground Memorial Day, and by summer the farm garden is bursting with grains, kale, chard, pumpkins, winter squash, flowers, broccoli, greens, cilantro, sweet peas, beans, carrots, lettuce, beets, Swiss chard, tomato and more.
The old yellow lab Sandy used to stand on her hind legs to eat the grapes that never ripen in time to make wine, but is now content to relax under the delivery truck that reads TEXTILES, WOOL AND YARNS, FRUIT AND VEGETABLES, SHEEPSKINS AND LAMB.
(In the window between this account and its publishing, Sandy passed peacefully in the happiest place on earth. RIP Sandy.)
Bonnie the cat is far more spry, shadowing our farm tour and flopping down in the clover for belly rubs any chance she can get.
But yes, storybook farms like this are common across Orcas. The big difference here is its outgoing magic—not born from what it cultivates, but from the couple who does the cultivating.
Bob and Maria Nutt came her to teach in local public schools, and ended up doing that while volunteering as emergency medical technicians at the same time.
They taught for 35 years on island, cumulatively, after time conducting class in California and elsewhere, mostly science there and here, with a touch of golf and textiles, while emphasizing a message they also transmitted to their kids.
“Choices, actions, consequences: That was our mantra,” Bob says. “That was on the board when we started. And as any student or adult or anybody, our message was this: You can make a good choice or a bad choice, and something’s going to happen. You basically rule your destiny with your choices.”
They’ve worked as EMTs for nearly as long.
When I ask what they’ve learned about Orcas that they might not’ve without duties as EMTs, Bob pauses.
“There’s a diverse population here, elderly, retirement and vacation forever [types],” he says. “A lot of people are tucked away. People don’t want to be found.”
That presents certain challenges, and some reflection too, at least when I ask him why they do it.
“Why am I in the department?” he reflects. “I’m asking ‘How am I here to help my neighbors? How can I help?’ I did book sales, library fundraisers, and if you keep going on Orcas you can volunteer your life away. You have to be careful you don’t get overextended. We decided: 'The one thing we’ll volunteer for is this [rescue response].'”
They’ve since retired from education, at least formally. (That's me saying they taught me much in my brief visit, no classroom required.)
And the Nutts continue to respond to emergency calls in the EMT truck that parks in their driveway by the big farmhouse.
On my visit they arrived a minute late after attending to a visitor who had a fainting episode, and at a later moment Bob has to peel away early to respond to a call at Crescent Beach.
As a longtime volunteer with Orcas Fire Department, Bob also serves as assistant chief.
Not everybody is out there running a farm, teaching in public ways, formally or not, while frequently staying on call to be whisked away in aid of a neighbor or stranger.
I marvel out loud at how they contribute to the island’s lymphatic system.
“Where does that come from?” I ask.
“We feel so lucky to live here,” Maria says. “I guess that inspires us. It’s how we give back to community.”
There are other ways they share their efforts.
Come September, as they have for three decades, the Nutts will be setting out baskets of apples and other fruit for around $2/pound.
They also sell sausage from lamb and pork meat raised on property.
When I talk to him he’s arranging plans to butcher two ewes for hot sausage links to be ready in 3 weeks. Come October and November, there will be more sausage and pork available.
Meanwhile, Maria takes the wool from sheep and spins it into yarn that is then knitted into hand-woven yarns, shawls, afghans, towels, scarves, felt balls, hats, ponchos and more.
All the fibers are naturally colored or hand-dyed or curated carefully from off-island alpaca farms.
Her working textile studio is the latest wonder of many on their 45-acre plot (farming covers 10 of them, including the orchard), presenting an arresting arrangement of colors, textures, old-world looms and foot-pedal spinning wheels.
Maria is so fluid with her wheel it gains a soothing hum quickly and she works it without looking at her rhythmic hand movements.
She concedes it’s so meditative every once in a while she falls asleep.
In pre-pandemic times, they’re a fixture at the Eastsound Farmers Market on seasonal Saturdays. Now that’s not happening—their role as island rescue team members raise the stakes of COVID exposure—but the studio is open, with physical distancing boundaries, by appointment.
Maria gently requests only serious shoppers sign up to limit unnecessary contact. Hopefully some of these photos help guide people to know if they’re genuinely interested.
“I have an innate need to create,” she says. “I can use mathematics along with [my creativity]. Weaving is all about numbers and color-combination ratios. It’s a balance between both sides of my brain.
“And I just enjoy it.”
For more about the farm and a short video of Maria’s workshop operation, visit the Warm Valley Orchard website.