Arnie and Phyllis Omlin’s grain-growing gamble has ‘been a game-changer,’ says Arnie, with new crops, new friendships and award-winning liquor.
ARNIE OMLIN, a third-generation Washington farmer, didn’t know much about whiskey until a craft distillery came into his life and saved his family farm.
Omlin’s office sits in what used to be the summer kitchen of a 1905 farmhouse in the arid Quincy Valley, an area bordered by the Columbia River to the west and the city of George to the south.
His wife, Phyllis, designed a pond that shines in their backyard among rockery, sunflowers, corn fields and an old Chevy truck.
When irrigation came to the valley in the 1950s, so too did Omlin’s dad and uncle.
Omlin’s parents, Helen and George Omlin, raised corn, beans, wheat and barley — along with nine children. “Farming is in my blood,” Omlin says. After school, he would hand-top beets.
Like many small family farms, the Omlins’ operation has faced challenges. Omlin used to grow vegetables for seed — carrots, radishes, turnips — until the consolidation of seed companies made it financially untenable. “I was getting paid less and less each year,” he says.
He turned to crops for processing, like lima beans and sugar snap peas. Until bigger farms took over.
“I’m a very small farmer,” says Omlin, who currently farms about 800 acres. And a small farm is almost not viable any longer, he says.
As the nature of agriculture shifted in the Quincy Valley — and across the country — Arnie and Phyllis Omlin worried about their future. They wanted to remain self-employed, have some security and send their two children to college.
Their son, Joel, couldn’t count on a future in farming, so he pursued a nursing career. “I felt bad when I had to discourage Joel from coming back,” Omlin recalls. “I thought the only way I’d be able to retire would be to sell the farm.”
Then one day in 2011, Omlin received a call from his corn broker in Pasco. A new craft distillery outside of Seattle was looking for a grain supplier. Omlin had grown corn his whole life, and his father had grown corn. But it was to feed livestock. He’d never considered growing it to make bourbon. After all, 95 percent of the world’s bourbon comes from a small region of Kentucky.
“Farming for 30 years had been a gamble,” Omlin says. “The distillery was a gamble, too.”
It paid off.
When he sold 2 tons of non-GMO corn to Orlin Sorensen of Woodinville Whiskey Co., a partnership was born. That year, Omlin also reluctantly planted 20 acres of rye (he’d always considered it a nasty volunteer problem) for the distillery’s upcoming all-rye whiskey.
That straight rye whiskey won double gold and best rye awards last year. Woodinville’s straight bourbon whiskey also has earned awards.
The accolades drew the attention of Moët Hennessy USA, which bought the distillery last year. Operations will remain the same, although production and distribution will increase.
“Omlin Family Farm” is proudly printed on each label, and now the Omlins consider Sorensen and co-founder Brett Carlile friends. This year, Omlin planted about 300 acres of rye and 225 acres of whiskey corn.
In addition to waves of grain and ponds of water, massive barrelhouses and shiny new grain silos also are found on the farm. The warehouses are stacked high with American oak barrels as the whiskeys age and take on flavor. He and Phyllis do the ricking — barrel loading and organizing — every week.
Joel moved back to work on the farm.
“I don’t have to sell the farm, and we can leave a legacy for our two kids,” Omlin says. His daughter, Whitney, a schoolteacher, lives with her family in the house where he grew up, a mile away.
“I never thought generationally like I do now, and that has everything to do with Woodinville Whiskey,” Omlin says. “It’s been a game-changer for this little farm.”