A lot of the time, Bil Thorn is in pain. 

Thorn, 37, and his family own and operate Sky Island Farm in Humptulips, Grays Harbor. He is Black — a rarity in his field, as Black people make up less than 2% of American farm producers.

The physical labor that comes with working on the land and building the farm, the kind of labor Thorn’s done his whole life as a landscaper before he became a farmer, has left him with a lot of back pain — nothing worth surgery, he said, but serious enough to be a concern. 

He’s gotten by with over-the-counter medication and painkillers, even trading vegetables for sessions with a produce-loving massage therapist last season, but his lower back isn’t in great shape at this point. 

However, over the last few weeks, Thorn’s farm has received more than $45,000 donations from people across the world who want to contribute to a Black-owned business. The sudden support is a result of a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice and the donation-embracing digital activism it has inspired.

Thorn recently spent $12,000 of the donations on a used Kubota tractor, which will help improve efficiency and reduce some of the heavy lifting that’s starting to wear him down.

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Kate Harwell, left, and Ashlee Mitchell, right, help Bil Thorn, center, unload compost near the fresh winter squash transplants at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Kate Harwell, left, and Ashlee Mitchell, right, help Bil Thorn, center, unload compost near the fresh winter squash transplants at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“It’s really unbelievable for me,” he said. “It’s amazing to feel that sort of support and we never imagined that it was even possible.”

The $45,000 figure was the farm’s initial fundraising goal, established informally via Venmo and PayPal links. Thorn and his family have since established a GoFundMe to improve the farm’s infrastructure with any additional money raised.

It’s a surreal change for the family, which transitioned from subsistence homesteading to labor-intensive farming at a small scale. 

A family labor of love

Thorn met his wife Kate Harwell a couple of years after high school in Sebastopol, California, and they bonded over a love of the outdoors. Now they have two teenagers, Adrianna, 13, and Alijah, 15. 

The family tends to the vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers on the farm’s 15 acres together. They plant and prep in the fields and in the farm’s four greenhouses, where colorfully named tomato varieties like “Blue Beauty” and “Brad’s Atomic” recently began to flower.

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Bil Thorn and his wife Kate Harwell are photographed at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County, Wednesday, June 25, 2020. Thorn hopes to one day host a commercial kitchen on the property and host educational events for kids. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Bil Thorn and his wife Kate Harwell are photographed at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County, Wednesday, June 25, 2020. Thorn hopes to one day host a commercial kitchen on the property and host educational events for kids. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

The kids are home-schooled and help out more on the weekends when they’re not doing their schoolwork, with Adrianna doing a lot of greenhouse and seeding tasks and Alijah working alongside his dad out in the field or helping with maintenance duties.

Thorn said one of the best parts about farming is all the people the family has met, from customers to business partners.

Thorn likes to work with Black chefs and business owners, including Seattle-area chefs Kristi Brown of culinary brand That Brown Girl Cooks!, Tarik Abdullah and Chef Ariella of plant-based private chef company Healthy Creations. Métier Brewing, the first Black-owned brewery in Washington state under co-owner Rodney Hines, brewed a beer with Sky Island’s blueberries last year.  

Sky Island is named after the family’s previous homestead in Northern California, which peeked out from an elevation of 1,000 feet, atop a cloud-covered valley when the fog rolled in. 

The family first started homesteading to get out from under landlords and live on their own land. They grew their own food, drawing on Thorn’s passion for plants as a lifelong gardener and experienced landscaper, plus Harwell’s years of working with livestock. 

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Thorn said they spent about six years at the Northern California homestead, living in a wall tent before the spring they were pumping out of ran dry. They wanted to move north, stay west of the Cascades, and live in a dwelling on a property of at least 10 acres. 

The 15-acre parcel of land in Humptulips fit their needs, and they moved seven years ago. They became more serious about farming as a business after they moved to Washington. It came from a desire to share the produce they were already growing so others could eat as healthily as they did.

An outpouring of support

Being a farmer running a small operation without generational wealth and easily accessible capital made the business a financial struggle for years, Thorn said. Financially, things only started coming together recently, right before thousands of strangers began sending money.

Bil Thorn works at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County on the Olympic Peninsula. The 15-acre organic farm has fruit, veggies, flowers and has livestock near Humptulips, Washington.   (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Bil Thorn works at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County on the Olympic Peninsula. The 15-acre organic farm has fruit, veggies, flowers and has livestock near Humptulips, Washington. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

The flood of recent donations came after nationwide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police prompted a wave of activism. Seemingly overnight, lists of Black-owned businesses multiplied online, and recommendations of who to donate to (and how) spread over social media as people tried to find different ways to support the Black community.

The sudden rush of cash was immense. For instance, the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a small organization that pays cash bail for Minnesotans who can’t afford it, initially received an outpouring of support as protests began in Minneapolis — and over $30 million in contributions poured in. 

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Much of this online support has been directed toward Black-owned small businesses such as Sky Island Farm. The family documents life on the farm through its Instagram page, capturing small moments like a ladybug next to the curling tendril of a pea plant, or the first swallowtail butterfly of the season landing on Thorn’s arm.

Harwell mostly runs the farm’s Instagram account. She recently read “Farming While Black” by Leah Penniman, part commentary on the history of Black farmers and part guide to agricultural techniques from African diasporic farmers. 

Harwell, who is white, realized the farm’s Instagram could be doing more to help its cause.

“There’s an opportunity to really uplift Bil and have his voice be heard as a Black farmer,” she said. 

Thorn owns the land Sky Island is on; just 0.4% of American farmland is Black-owned, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Harwell has made him a regular sight in their feed, usually smiling next to greens.

Commenters started asking how they could donate, and Thorn started including links to the farm’s Venmo and PayPal accounts on their posts. People started sharing their posts, and the family knew the attention was significant when their followers and likes began increasing by the thousands. 

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An old picture posted in January of Thorn standing in a field peppered with white and yellow daisies has 40 likes. One from June 7 of him showing off produce to the camera has 2,649, including D’Arcy Carden, star of NBC’s hit sitcom “The Good Place.” It’s just a chunk of their following, which has surpassed 8,200 accounts and is growing daily. 

The attention came at a time when the farm was already seeing an uptick in business. While the coronavirus pandemic ended orders from restaurants and halted discussions about supplying produce to Seattle schools, the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was the perfect setup for socially distanced clients. 

Bil Thorn weeds at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Bil Thorn weeds at Sky Island Farm in Grays Harbor County. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

At last season’s peak, the farm was delivering just under 70 baskets of produce to members who signed up online. This year, they had to cap registration at 150 members. 

The rise in orders means Thorn had to shorten the delivery season from last year’s 24 weeks to 16 weeks to meet demand. With all the new customers, the farm’s four greenhouses and cleared land can’t generate enough produce to go 24 weeks. 

The original fundraising goal was geared toward funding the tractor, a certified wash station to prewash greens for consumption by customers, and a commercial kitchen for school field trips and cooking demonstrations. Money raised through the GoFundMe will go toward improving the commercial kitchen and building additional structures on the farm, like lodging and outdoor seating. 

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While Thorn is grateful for the support the farm has received, his feelings are mixed.

He said the current moment seems like a promising move away from the politics and rhetoric of President Donald Trump’s administration, which he described as “basically fascism.” But while the protests have been a glimmer of hope, he’s scared of pushback, like the kind he’s seen among some Grays Harbor residents.

Ignorance abounds in local Facebook groups and social media posts. Thorn, a native of Sonoma County, California, who saw two Black valedictorians in high school, said the adjustment to being a Black business owner in rural white America has been challenging. 

Change is complicated, Thorn said. Donations like the ones the farm is receiving are good, but it can be disheartening that the support comes after Floyd’s killing.

Bil Thorn, left, and his wife Kate Harwell run Sky Island Farm, a 15-acre organic farm the grows fruit, vegetables, flowers and has livestock in Grays Harbor County. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Bil Thorn, left, and his wife Kate Harwell run Sky Island Farm, a 15-acre organic farm the grows fruit, vegetables, flowers and has livestock in Grays Harbor County. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“Our produce is still the same as it was last year,” he said. “I find it disappointing that it takes catastrophe to get people to appreciate local food. I don’t want to be overly critical of my fellow man, but at the same time, I don’t know.”

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Harwell said she hopes people continue their support beyond the current moment. 

“It took a Black man dying for people to be like, ‘Oh, you should help the Black community, ’ ” she said. “I hope people don’t forget. Maybe they’ll support a Black-owned business now, but what will they be doing next year?”

Next year, another season will come to Sky Island. Thorn wants to work with plants until the day he dies. 

He’s always gardened, coming from a plant-loving family with a mother and grandfather who grew their own food. His dad grew flower gardens — big ones that Thorn helped to tend during the summers spent at his dad’s house after his parents split up. 

It’s the peace of working with plants that he loves, the quiet that comes with watching something bloom and assisting it along the way. 

Thorn plans to be working on the farm for years to come, surrounded by the huge trees of his patch of rainforest stretching into the sky, helping things grow.

Bil Thorn talks about his yellow snap peas, sugar snap peas and Beauregard purple snow peas at Sky Island Farm near Humptulips, on the Olympic Peninsula. Thorn hopes to one day host a commercial kitchen on the property and host educational events for kids. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Bil Thorn talks about his yellow snap peas, sugar snap peas and Beauregard purple snow peas at Sky Island Farm near Humptulips, on the Olympic Peninsula. Thorn hopes to one day host a commercial kitchen on the property and host educational events for kids. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)