Don Tapio has dirt in his veins.
Though much of the year he’s the only person tending the 25 acres of Christmas trees on his family’s farm just east of Oakville, it’s clear he’s never really alone. Walking through the commercial plants and his own garden on the farm, he often pauses to worry over a plant or exclaim over a new blossom.
“I can look at this and say, ‘Wow, this wasn’t here yesterday,’ ” Tapio said. “And these little caterpillars that get into the conifers are the polar bears of the insect world, they’ll do just fine in the cold tonight. They’ll just hunker down.”
It’s on this 100-acre farm Tapio first began his career as a jack-of-all plants, cultivating raspberries, strawberries, cereal grains, peas and blueberries as well as dairy, beef and poultry. It’s on this farm he’ll wind down that career when he retires Jan. 3 after 20 years as an area agriculture and community agent for the Grays Harbor Washington State University Extension.
Tapio has shepherded the Master Gardener program, started the popular annual Farm Fresh guide spotlighting local farms, led the development of the annual home and garden showcases and garden tours and has served as a tireless advocate for agriculture throughout the region.
“Don is one that not only works within his agricultural and community development role, but works for the good of everyone in Grays Harbor County,” interim Director Dan Teuteberg said. “It’s going to be a tremendous loss to both the extension and Grays Harbor County.”
A distinguished career
Tapio’s career as an extension agent began in 1969 as a summer intern from WSU. More than 40 years later, his praise for the program is as glowing as his career there.
“My loyalty is at an all-time high. I always had the university resources to draw on. They’ve been so kind. There’s never been a day I didn’t want to go to work,” Tapio said. “I don’t have unhappy, antagonistic clientele, everyone has been very appreciative. And that has been a wonderful career.”
He took a short hiatus, earning his master’s degree from the University of Idaho in agriculture, working abroad in London and in Longwood Gardens, a more than 1,000-acre garden in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a big part of me, I’ll always be an ambassador for them,” Tapio said.
He worked for four years, coordinating the noxious weed control program for the state Department of Agriculture.
“I travelled to all 39 counties. I left Olympia each Monday and came back Friday night,” he recalled. “I was driving around by myself visiting weed programs. … I was just in awe of the diversity we have.”
He went back to the WSU Extension, working in Pierce, Snohomish and King counties. When the opportunity came to come home to Grays Harbor in 1983, he jumped at it.
“Not everybody has that, living on the ground in which they were reared,” Tapio said. “My roots in this area are very, very deep. Even when I worked away from here I frequently commuted on the weekend to come back to the farm. I never really left the farm.”
While working in King County, Tapio recalls getting an average of 105 calls every day from hobby gardeners. It wasn’t until his successor created the Master Gardeners that there was an avenue for local gardeners to help and educate one another.
“I keep telling people nobody appreciates that program more than I do,” Tapio said.
Since then, the program has spread nationwide. The Grays Harbor County program has grown under Tapio’s guidance from five or six gardeners when he arrived to more than 100 trained volunteers.
Nowadays, the training is done through online lectures coupled with hands-on trainings held on Saturdays. Ever the advocate, Tapio notes the training would make “a great Christmas gift.”
“It’s a wonderful program for anyone who wants to learn more about plants they’re growing in their own garden,” Tapio said. “You’ll surround yourself with people who have the same interest in growing plants that you do.”
Mary-Jean Grimes serves as a volunteer coordinator based in Tokeland, and has been trained by Tapio to take over some of his work when he retires.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “He’s so easygoing, he always has people’s best interests at heart. He always goes the extra mile.”
The next class starts in February, but registration should be started by Dec. 10. The online classes open the program to people who may not have had time before, Tapio said.
“If you want to get up at 2 a.m. to do your Master Gardener class, you can do it,” he said.
Tapio said the goal of the program is to give gardeners researched-based information from WSU on how to grow plants in their particular climate and soil in a sustainable way.
“That’s what you’re really getting with the Master Gardener training, you’re getting a college course. You don’t have to have a green thumb to be a Master Gardener — you don’t. People tell us all the time, ‘Oh I can’t grow anything, I couldn’t do it.’ We say, ‘Yes, you can.’ All you have to have is the interest.”
Master Gardener Jude Armstrong has helped Tapio write his book, “More Than Just A Green Thumb” — the proceeds of which are donated to the Master Gardeners — as well as his regular column on gardening.
“He built the program here in this county. He’s the originator and has kept it alive and improving through all those years,” she said.
Armstrong said she and the other members are “in awe” of Tapio and the depth and breadth of his knowledge of horticulture.
“He’s very calm, he’s very sure,” she said. “Persuasive but open to ideas from other people. Very, very accepting of new things, where some people are not. I think everyone who knows him realizes that there’s just some aura around him that says, ‘This is a good human being.’ You can trust him right away.”
“He’s a great resource. And he knows so much off the top of his head,” Grimes said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do when he retires.”
“We’re going to miss him just terribly. Some of us are wondering how we’re going to adjust without him, but he’s taught us well,” Armstrong said.
The other half of Tapio’s time is spent helping commercial farms of all sizes. He handles pest control issues and a variety of horticultural questions along with economic development.
“I would hope that at one time or another I’ve been on every farm in the county,” he said.
That’s roughly 600 farms he’s visited, along with about 75 emails a day communicating with the people who work the land.
“I think that a true extension educator, their work is their life, and he truly embodies that,” Teuteberg said. “He’s invested in agriculture within the county. I love seeing the passion that Don has. Everyone knows his little yellow truck, too, when he drives around.”
“I take pride in some of the people I’ve had the privilege to work with,” Tapio said. “That was always very rewarding to me, to be on what I call the economic development end of the agriculture industry. And not every farm has to be a large corporate farm. We have many people that are growing on very small acreage, specialized crops, and are doing OK.”
The 2013 Farm Fresh guide identifies 31 local farms. Tapio pioneered the now-popular guide, providing exposure for farms that had previously relied on roadside signs and word-of-mouth for business.
He recalls some fish farms and a commercial turf grass farm that enjoyed success until their owners moved on to other projects, but perhaps his best-known success is his work with Blain and Kim Roberts, owners of the Westport Winery.
“When we purchased the land, we didn’t have any plans or knowledge of what to do. So we went and met with Don as our county extension agent,” Kim Roberts recalled.
“I said, ‘Well, have you ever thought about doing a winery?’ And they just took that idea and ran with it,” Tapio recalled.
The Roberts had no experience in the industry, but Tapio saw the potential in the land for a successful business.
“For me, it was like in ‘Jerry Maguire’ when she said, ‘You had me at hello.’ It was that moment,” Roberts said with a laugh. “For my husband, it was, ‘I don’t think so.’ We had to work for it, and get our kids on board. Don Tapio, since that day, has been probably the most influential person in our business because he had that brilliant idea.”
It didn’t stop there: Roberts said Tapio has been in regular communication and credits him with some of the winery’s most popular features, including the sculpture garden and the upcoming arboretum.
“He’s been a really consistent advocate and cheerleader for us,” she said. “Being in business is hard, and it’s really refreshing and valuable to have a cheerleader. … He’s been both an inspiration and a resource, and certainly a really good friend.”
Barbara Bennett Parsons, director of the Hoquiam Public Market, also sings Tapio’s praises.
“He’s all, ‘You know, it’s just my job.’ Well not really,” she said. “He could have gotten by and been considered really good at his job doing one-one hundredth of what he does, but instead he’s just given and given and given.”
For now, the only commitment Tapio has made for the future is to devote more time to his farm, Christmas Valley Christmas Tree Farm.
“If it’s a nice day on Christmas, I’m out here working, and it’s a dead run until next Christmas,” he said. “There’s never a time I say, ‘Everything’s done on the farm.’ “
His most popular tree is the Nordman Fir, a hearty evergreen that won’t dry out for months. The tree is one sign of his devotion to the farm: It takes about 14 years to reach maturity, compared to a Douglas Fir’s seven.
The tree also provides another reminder to the 66-year-old on why the time is right to retire.
“If I’m fortunate to plant one more crop of Nordman Fir, I’ll be 80 when it’s time to harvest them,” he noted.
He speaks of the trees like a proud father.
“They have their individual characteristics I love about each one,” he said. “In Finnish mythology, Tapio is god of the forest. I say we’ve always been involved with trees.”
“Someone coming into his position has very big shoes to fill,” Teuteberg said. “I don’t think you can ever really fill a position like that, it’s going to look different.”
“I think it will be important for our whole community not to think we can replace Don,” Roberts said. “We’ll have someone with new qualities. … It’s not the same shoes, he’ll be wearing an entirely different outfit that will be positive also. I don’t think it’s valuable for someone to come in and say, ‘I’m going to be Don Tapio,’ because it can’t be done.”
Before his retirement has even begun, Tapio is being tugged from his farm: He’s received many offers for consulting positions on various farms. He said he’ll just need time to adjust to retirement and see where he goes from here.
As the sun starts to set on his acres of fragrant trees, his abiding love for the place is written all over his face.
“I have no plans to leave,” he said. “I hope I’m carried off the farm one day. I hope to stay here until my very last day.”
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or email@example.com and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.
Training cost: $145
Next class: Starts February, register by Dec. 10
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day until Christmas
Address: 11540 183rd Ave SW, Rochester