Retirees put skills to work raising chestnuts

Christy Lochrie/For the Capital Press Ray and Carolyn Young in the packing room of Allen Creek Farm in Ridgefield, Wash.

Young: 'We were sitting here on 20 acres and we felt guilty'


For the Capital Press

RIDGEFIELD, Wash. -- It's a bit like the 7-foot-tall maze that beckons outside Carolyn and Ray Young's Ridgefield home.

And just as puzzling: How does a pair of Los Angeles-area natives wind up with a chestnut farm?

For the Youngs, it started with basset hounds, doglegged into a 10-acre chestnut orchard and then coiled its way into a website and full-on mom-and-pop operation that only a pair of educators, tinkerers and system designers could come up with.

Carolyn Young, 75, explains the genesis of Allen Creek Farm Chestnuts: It was a supposed to be a locale to breed and raise basset hounds in retirement, a place to stretch out after city life in La Habra, Calif., where the couple was permitted just three dogs.

But before heading out in search of retirement property, the Youngs set up a few parameters: They wanted to retire in a state that didn't have income tax, where they could breed the dogs they loved and a place fairly close to the Canadian border, near where they showed their dogs.

Those conditions zeroed them in to the greater Portland, Ore., region, where they bought a Ridgefield hay field in 1991, near the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

By 1993, Carolyn was laid off from her job as a systems engineer for Hughes Aircraft and Ray took an early retirement from his job as an industrial arts teacher.

At 56, the couple fast-tracked their retirement and moved north to start their kennel.

"We were sitting here on 20 acres and we felt guilty" with all of the unused space, Carolyn said.

The couple researched crop types, finally settling on chestnut trees. They visited Europe, where they toured chestnut orchards and mills.

In 1999, seven years into their "retirement" they hand-planted 10 acres of chestnut trees. The first crop arrived in 2002.

Most years, their orchard produces about 10,000 pounds of chestnuts. Instead of simply selling their entire crop at harvest time, the couple harvests, stores, dries, mills and mixes their chestnuts for sale online. They also sell some at harvest, when they open the farm for a festival.

The couple's background in industrial arts and system planning is evident throughout the farm -- and makes it possible to run it with just the two of them and about 40 hours of harvest-time labor.

Ray planned and built a nut sorter and refashioned components from an air conditioning unit to dry nuts. Hulls are scattered as mulch in a maze. Even dead wood from the orchard is put to use. Carolyn uses a lathe to turn wood into bowls, pepper mills and duck calls that have a warm, near burl wood quality.

"We don't waste anything," Carolyn said.

That includes a patch of unproductive land. The couple visited several mazes during their travels to Europe and Carolyn wanted a full-scale maze to go along with the orchard. They drew up plans for both the maze and the center square, where they ran power and water. Ray hand-planted the 1,000 arborvitae bushes that now tower some 7 feet. And they ran wires between the bushes -- both to keep maze-goers honest and to protect bushes from being trampled by potential maze cheats.

The maze is a popular attraction when the farm is open for the harvest festival. And during summer months, they host dinner parties with friends at its center.

A grin warms Carolyn's face when she recounts those dinner parties.

"It's fun to give them a couple of glasses of wine and challenge them to find their way out," she said.

So far, only a basset hound has needed rescue from the maze.


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