PENINSULA WOMAN: She finds her niche down on the farm

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
For Peninsula Woman

Visitors welcome

FINNRIVER FARM & Cidery is at 62 Barn Swallow Road in Chimacum. For directions, visit www.FinnRiver.com or phone 360-732-6822 or 360-73-CIDER.

The Kisler family welcomes visitors to the farm and cider tasting room today, the last day of the Harvest Wine Tour, from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m.

Special activities include cork bottle bowling for those who are game, building a cork mosaic on the production room doors and an appearance by Pomona, Roman goddess of the apple orchard.

Hot spirited apple wine toddies as well as non-alcoholic spiced cider will be served.

For details about other wineries on the tour, visit www.OlympicPeninsulaWineries.org.

After this weekend, Finnriver’s tasting room stays open through fall and winter from noon to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.

Peninsula Woman
CHIMACUM — Crystie Kisler’s life is all about possibility.

Here on Finnriver Farm and Cidery, Kisler has found her place, a place where a shared dream came true — except she didn’t dream of exactly this, not when she was a girl growing up in the cities of San Francisco and New York.

“I don’t think I could have envisioned farm life,” Kisler said while sitting inside the cider-tasting room last Sunday night.

And since she spent much of her youth in California, the state of Washington was, in her mind, a green swath thickly forested and scarcely inhabited.

But “then I met and fell in love with my Washington farm-boy husband” and started learning about a whole other life.

Crystie and Keith Kisler found each other in the early 1990s at the Yosemite Institute, where both were environmental educators, taking children on hikes through Yosemite National Park.

The institute, now part of the NatureBridge company that also runs the Olympic Park Institute at Lake Crescent, is all about giving young people a personal connection to the natural environment.

After the Kislers married in 1999, they moved to Port Townsend, where Crystie taught in the Quilcene and Port Townsend school districts. She went on to teach writing at Peninsula College and co-founded the Jefferson Community School. Keith, meanwhile, worked in landscaping. Yet both Kislers looked out toward the fertile Center Valley, where their hopes for the future might be realized.

Back when they were environmental educators, Keith and Crystie saw kids come and go, week after week. And so they wondered: Is there a deeper way to connect children to the cycles of nature?

Then it dawned on them: food is that connection.

The Kislers, along with partners Will O’Donnell and Kate Dean, bought a 33-acre farm from Elijah and Kay Christian. This was 2004, and the farm was primarily blueberries; the Christians continued to live nearby and became mentors for the two new farm families.

Finnriver’s name comes from the Kislers’ son River and Dean and O’Donnell’s boy Finnegan. And much of the know-how, Crystie Kisler says, comes from her man’s family history. Keith is a fourth-generation Eastern Washington farmer, and the first in his family to go out of state to a four-year college, the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Crystie, for her part, had earned a master’s in education from Carleton College in Minnesota. That degree is put to use in many ways on the farm; just one is the “Farmwife Diaries,” the blog she keeps on www.FinnRiver.com.

Read the diaries, and you learn all about life on the land. You also feel a sense of the deep love she has for this place and the people who have dug their roots into it. Crystie’s latest entries are titled “dirty dancing,” about the day her younger son Coulter, 3, was suddenly inspired to strip off his clothes to feel the farm’s soil on his skin, and “anticipation,” about her hankering for summer.

On these fall weekends, Crystie is in the tasting room, pouring ciders and spirited wines, showing guests the production room and riddling rack and talking food and farming. And Finnriver is one of eight wineries and cideries on the Harvest Wine Tour, whose third and final day is today, so she’ll be welcoming participants on the self-guided tour from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m.

After this weekend, the Kislers keep Finnriver open, Fridays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., so visitors can “taste life on the farm,” as the website invites. That means experiencing not only the fruit wines, but also the Soil & Salmon Trail, a walk about Finnriver’s past, present and future.

The farm is fed by Chimacum Creek — and by the Kislers and their employees and investors. Crystie proudly notes that the operation, now with livestock and many more crops besides blueberries, is 100 percent locally financed. She worked with Realtor and Port Townsend Mayor Michelle Sandoval to gather a group of Jefferson County residents who “put their money where their mouth is,” as Crystie puts it. These individual lenders, she said, have financed what they believe in and allowed Finnriver to grow.

Crystie, as the public face of the farm, loves to show people the land. She also shows visitors — from Seattle, Sequim, Japan — what’s possible.

In 2009, the Kislers faced a financial and logistical challenge when O’Donnell and Dean left to pursue other interests. That departure, Crystie said, led to a door — a farm gate, actually — opening. She and Keith worked with the Jefferson Land Trust, which purchased a conservation easement on their land. With the easement, Finnriver Farm is forever protected from development. The farm is also certified salmon-safe, as its organic practices help keep Chimacum Creek a healthy habitat for the fish and the whole web of wildlife.

Finnriver’s fruits — from eggs to cider to berries — come from another web: the Kislers’ fellow farmers. Janet Aubin and her partner Jeff Horwath operate the Finnriver market garden and berry fields; 10 to 15 employees work alongside them.

Crystie’s days are rich as they are long. They are not without worry, though. A farmwife’s day starts with predawn chores and ends, she says, when she falls asleep at midnight with a calculator in her hand.

Yet Crystie, at 40, finds joy in many things: watching her children River, 9, and Coulter, 3, growing up on a farm; seeing her husband in his element, building, fixing and planting and raising everything. And as a thoroughly modern farmwife, Crystie looks after her family plus chickens, goats, pigs and ducks, and runs the cider- and wine-tasting room.

In addition to the “Farmwife Diaries,” she writes recipes. They’re tantalizing: hard cider gravy, apple toddies, hard cider cupcakes with cinnamon cream frosting. Then there’s the “Kir Royale cocktail, Chimacum-style,” with black currant wine and artisan cider, and the “tongue stroke,” ginger ale with an ounce of spirited apple wine and two ounces of cider — plus a cherry, “if you like.”

The cidery is a flourishing part of Finnriver’s business: the Kislers went from producing 800 gallons in 2009 to 5,000 this year. And their 14 ciders and fruit wines attract tasters from near and far. They’ve heard about Finnriver from newspaper and magazine articles, and from blogs such as the one Graham Kerr, television’s “Galloping Gourmet,” wrote after visiting the farm in October.

In his Finnriver entry, Kerr touts the black currant wine and the artisan sparkling cider, which won a double gold medal in the Seattle Wine Awards this past April. The famed chef and author found Finnriver on the Olympic Peninsula Culinary Adventure Route, a circuit of farms, restaurants and seafood shops described at www.OlympicCulinaryLoop.com.

“People ask me about my ‘marketing degree,’” Crystie said with a smile; her response is that she has none, but she loves to talk to all kinds of people. In the tasting room, she meets them all and relishes the chance to discuss the challenges this region and nation are facing. And she has strong opinions — but knows how to engage people in conversation and listen.

Crystie can also be heard telling tasters about Eaglemount, another cidery just up the road from Finnriver, and about nearby wineries.

When she opened her tasting room in summer 2010, some asked whether she was worried about the proximity of the others; “not at all” was her answer.

The Kislers want Chimacum to be known as the place to discover that there’s diversity among ciders as there is among wines made from grapes.

The names of Finnriver’s beverages are themselves intoxicating: appleblueberry sparkling cider, pear and blueberry wines with apple brandy. And Crystie is proud of that gold-medal sparkling cider, made with the methode champenoise.

She’s coined a tongue-in-cheek term for all of this: apple power.

“We want to continue refining our craft, and making good ciders,” Crystie said. She also hopes to add a gathering space for classes and activities at the farm. That’s on the master plan, she said, but it’s going to be a while.

On this farm, Crystie and her family make not just a living, but a life.

“I’m just excited to be an advocate,” Crystie said, “for a vibrant food economy, and for keeping rural culture alive and well.”

These feelings are further crystallized in the words of two men from two other eras, quoted on Finnriver’s website.

There’s Rumi, the Sufi poet of the 13th century, who wrote, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

And there is 19th-century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who said simply, “You must get your living by loving.”

Last modified: November 13. 2011 12:17AM
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