Eastern Washington farmer Sarah McClure has spent the better part of her 60 years in agriculture. But it wasn’t until 2011, when she and her husband, Dan, started growing organic produce full-time, that she discovered her true calling.
“The more we learned about organic foods, the more we realized the benefits,” said McClure, who owns Walla Walla Organics in Touchet, Wash. — the sole producer of certified organic Genuine Walla Walla Sweet Onions in the world.
“We also grow organic kale, zucchini, butternut squash and spinach for processing, but the organic sweet onions are what set us apart,” she added. “It’s truly a delicious and special product.”
The McClures moved to Walla Walla in the mid-1980s to run the local John Deere dealership with Dan’s father, Bill. They became involved in Walla Walla sweet onions in 2001 as part of a transplanting operation before transitioning to full-time farming in 2011. The couple sold the dealership the next year and currently oversee 600 acres near Touchet — about 17 miles west of Walla Walla — including some land dedicated to conventional crops.
Their signature organic Walla Walla sweet onions are packed locally and can be found in grocery stores around the Northwest, such as Kroger Foods, Walmart, Whole Foods and Natural Grocers. The McClures also grow organic red and yellow onions for the fresh market, while their kale, spinach, squash and zucchini are used by processing companies to make soup, juice, pies, baby food and other products.
“We are committed to farming practices that enhance the health of our soil, which increases the health of the plants we grow,” Sarah McClure said. “This ultimately impacts the food people eat — food that not only tastes better but also contains the nutrients and vitamins that help us live the best lives we can.”
McClure is an accountant by trade, and she admittedly spends less time in the fields than her husband and their employees. She contributes most of her expertise behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean she’s crunching numbers all day. She enjoys the ag life as much today as she did while growing up on a ranch near Kalispell, Mont.
“It’s really fun for me to be out here and see all of the crops growing,” said McClure, a third-generation farmer. “Farming in this area is very dynamic, and we’re always talking about the new crops we can try to grow.”
McClure said she has always been awed by the agricultural diversity of southeastern Washington, which receives only 8 inches of rainfall per year, on average. Walla Walla County is known mostly for its wine grapes and onions, but the region also produces high volumes of dryland wheat, alfalfa seed and fruit. Paulownia trees also grow quite well in the arid climate — an added bonus for the family business.
“We are planting trees on the acres that we don’t need for other crops,” McClure said of the sturdy, lightweight trees, which are used to make plywood, veneer, furniture, caskets, musical instruments and other specialty items. “It’s a renewable product that we plan to harvest every 10 years, and we’re hoping the trees can help take the farm into the next generation.”
McClure said she has seen evidence that the local agricultural community will remain vibrant long after she and her husband retire. One reason for her optimism is the growing number of female farmers who are gravitating to the region in recent years. According to the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, 630 of Walla Walla County’s 1,567 farmers — 40% — are women.
“There are a lot of younger women who are coming here to farm,” she said. “That says a lot for an area’s agriculture when you not only see young people moving there, but also lots of young women. We feel very blessed to be able to farm here, and we look forward to a bright future in agriculture for us and our neighbors.”