ELMA — Don Tapio has helped folks become successful farmers and gardeners for more than four decades. Now, he’s taking a new step.
The 65-year-old knowledgeable, popular — and kindly — Washington State University Extension agriculture and community horticulture agent for Grays Harbor, Thurston and Pacific counties will retire Jan. 3. Currently on annual leave, though, Tapio won’t be returning to the Extension’s office at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds.
WSU Extension programs provide information and education including Master Gardeners, noxious weed control, 4-H Youth Development, food and nutrition, family living and more.
It will be “a challenge” to replace such a longtime employee who’s been “so integrated in the county system,” says Dan Teuteberg, Extension’s interim director for Grays Harbor. The position, which Extension is looking to fill in 2014, will also change to include that of director, Teuteberg notes.
Drafting proposed criteria for the position, which is “all based on county and state budgets and is a complex system,” is almost complete, Teuteberg said. More information should be available soon, as budgets are in the process of being finalized, he added.
Tapio is known around the area for his newspaper column in The Vidette and radio segments giving advice to gardeners. He even had a TV show and wrote a book. Tapio says he may write again as a freelancer, but wants to take a break for a few months.
Tapio began as a WSU Extension program assistant in King and Pierce counties in 1970, moving to other local and regional positions in Snohomish, Island, Lewis and Mason counties, as well. He was also a greenhouse manager for the Weyerhaeuser Corp. in his hometown of Rochester from 1973 to 74.
Some things won’t change much for the retiree, raised on a farm between Oakville and Rochester, established about 1902 by his Finnish immigrant grandparents, Mikko and Fiina Tapio. The middle of the three sons of John Tapio (also raised on the farm) and his wife, Naomi Tapio, received much of his career preparation even before graduating from Rochester High School in 1966.
Moreover, much of the family’s farming occurred before modern conveniences, instilling in him as a boy a strong work ethic, says Tapio, that carried through to his profession.
Tapio earned a bachelor of science degree in floriculture (“flower farming”), specializing in greenhouse production of commercial crops, from Washington State University in 1970. In 1973, he received a master of agriculture degree in plant sciences from the University of Idaho.
But his early education included accompanying his parents on their never-ending farm work. Later, he was expected to take on his share of the chores on what his grandparents had begun as a dairy farm.
Tapio’s forbears evidently also gave it their best. He says people have recalled the milk inspector asking Mikko Tapio how he kept his barn so clean.
“And my grandfather replied, ‘We milk the cows in the orchard.’”
During nice weather, apparently, “that’s what he did,” Tapio says.
As a youngster, Tapio also learned about farming diversity, as well as hard times.
In the early 1950s, the farm in southwestern Thurston County produced strawberries and was part of the “strawberry capital of the state,” Tapio says. He said most everybody was growing the Marshall variety, which had “unequaled flavor quality.” Then, a virus came along, “and most of the growers went out of business,” he says. Farmers turned to poultry. His family became “big producers” of eggs and had “thousands of laying hens,” Tapio says.
His father also worked for about 15 years for Georgia Pacific Plywood in Olympia. When he received his first paycheck, Tapio says, “they looked at all that money … and they said … there’s not even a feed bill.”
“I don’t think anybody was making money in poultry,” he says. “You were just, at best, trading dollars.”
The family later raised beef and grew cereal grain. In the 1970s, they even offered U-pick raspberries.
‘REAL TEAM EFFORT’
Tapio’s memories include his hard-working parents “milking the cows by hand” and “Dad taking milk cans on this little cart from the barn out to the driveway. And the milk truck would come along and pick up those milk cans.” He also remembers going to the chicken house with his dad.
Naomi Tapio, now a widow in her late 80s, still lives on the farm. She and her husband were “a real team effort,” recalls her son, a lifelong bachelor who returned to the farm about 20 years ago. “Mom and Dad worked hand in glove.”
To clean the myriad eggs their farm produced, his mother “had this little sandpaper thing, and she cleaned each egg by hand,” Tapio says. He also remembers her hoeing strawberries and sewing grain-filled burlap sacks closed by hand with a “huge needle and a really strong string.” She also grew huge vegetable gardens, he says.
There was plenty of work to go around. “And there was no questioning that,” Tapio says. “That’s just what you did.” Additionally, everything his parents did “involved parenting,” he says.
The Tapios were “home people,” he notes, leaving the farm only for weekly trips to Centralia for supplies. “My parents never had to wonder where their (sons) were,” he says. “We ate meals together. We worked together. We did everything together.”
Being “reared on a very diversified farm” was invaluable for someone to whom folks would someday turn for assistance in growing things.
FROM COWS TO TREES
In 1981, about a fourth of the farm became the Christmas Valley Tree Farm, with firs, spruce and other evergreens.
Tapio isn’t retiring from the farm, including its trees. In fact, he’ll now have “more time to grow plants that I’ve always wanted to grow,” he said. Christmas Valley trees are always available from Thanksgiving to Christmas, just west of Rochester on Highway 12.
“As the generations came and went,” some of the acreage was sold, Tapio says. But he’s “worked hard to put the farm back together,” buying parcels that again became available, besides purchasing the land his parents owned. It’s again about 100 acres.
But meeting trouble head on is still part of the chores. Working with his trees in early 2007, Tapio became the victim of a vicious attack from behind when a hammer-wielding man hit him in the head, tied him up, covered up his head and dragged him into some bushes.
Those who know and love Tapio were incensed that anyone would do such a thing to the gentle, soft-spoken man who’d been devoting his life for years to helping others. He still deals with multiple physical “souvenirs” of the attack, Tapio says.
December of the same year brought hurricane-force winds to the area and a 10-foot “wall of water” that covered most of Tapio’s trees with a thick, nearly impervious layer of mud he likens to chocolate pudding. Mud and debris were everywhere, he says, “including inside my house.”
But Tapio carried on, both on the farm and on the job. His last day in the office, Nov. 22, he noted “how privileged I always felt to be working for WSU.”
He also reflected on the fact he’s never been unemployed, even during bad economic times. And he’s grateful. Those who’ve worked closely with Tapio are also thankful.
Nancy Ness, Grays Harbor Noxious Weed Board coordinator, says during the 20 years they’ve worked together, Tapio’s been “the epitome of the county agent. … He has always promoted his coworkers and the university and has served the agricultural community beyond what mere mortals are supposed to do.”
Others agree. “He’s done a tremendous amount of good for Grays Harbor County,” says Alice Knight, former owner of Heather Acres, a specialty nursery in Elma, who’s known Tapio since he was a teen.
He’s not only helped others in person, via, his media aspects, he “lets them know he’s there for them,” Knight says. He “finds time to be a friend and a mentor.”
Knight’s daughter, Cindy, known for her heirloom tomatoes at Cindy’s Plant Stand, concurs that Tapio’s been a mentor and says she’s valued his “encouragement and advice” for over 40-plus years.
Recognized through numerous honors, Tapio was named Grays Harbor Citizen of the Year for 2010 and received the Montesano Chamber of Commerce Lifetime Service Award in 2012.
Extension’s local office manager, Sue Sparkman, suggests why Tapio is so highly esteemed: “I have learned so much from him, from plants and agriculture to community and humanity.”
Tommi Halvorsen Gatlin is a retired reporter, who still contributes to The Vidette. Contact her by emailing the editor at email@example.com