Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands (56.9 square miles or 36,432 acres), is a horseshoe-shaped island with several fertile valleys held within higher mountains and terrain. Orcas has over 4000 acres of public lands, including Moran State Park, with Mt Constitution as the highest point in the islands, and Cascade Lake, the largest lake in the islands. Turtleback Mountain on the southwest side of Orcas, was conserved by local conservation organizations in 2007 and is home to over 1500 acres of high rocky bald, Garry oak habitat and diverse native forest. The Town of Eastsound is the largest and most central commercial area on Orcas, but Deer Harbor, West Sound, Orcas Landing and Olga also have smaller but important commercial hubs.
The mountainous geography of Orcas resulted in small pockets of isolated farmland throughout the large island. Transportation from one part of the island to another was difficult due to the varied and steep terrain. Historically, this geography led, in part, to the development of a rich fruit growing tradition on the island. The fruit industry in San Juan County took off during the 1890s. Italian prune-plums were first planted on Orcas in the mid-1870s, followed by apples and pears, as well as apricots, cherries, peaches, and plums. The island’s primary market was Seattle, although fruit producers also shipped to Bellingham, Port Townsend, Tacoma, and Victoria. James Tulloch on Orcas estimated that he shipped a total of 75,000 boxes of apples, or 3-4,000 boxes annually at the height over his thirty-five year career. Overall annual shipments from Eastsound are estimated at 25-30,000 boxes per year each of apples and pears, with additional thousands going out from Olga, Orcas Village, and West Sound (Kimple 1986). From the late 1920’s to 1940’s, strawberries were a major crop on Orcas, especially in Olga and Doe Bay. In 1937, 114 tons of strawberries were produced and shipped from Orcas. In the late 19th century, dairying became an important element in the agricultural landscape of Orcas Island. Increased dairy production in turn led to the establishment of a creamery in East Sound in 1901.
Today, farming on Orcas Island is still characterized by small pockets of farms scattered throughout the island in Deer Harbor, West Sound, East Sound, Warm Valley/Orcas Landing; Olga; Buck Bay; and Doe Bay, with the larger farms located in the fertile Crow Valley. Very few of the old island family farms are still in existence. Several historic barns and remnants of the historic orchards serve as a reminder of the productive agricultural history. Livestock, including cattle and sheep, still play a dominant role in the Orcas agriculture industry profile. Over the last several decades, there has been a dramatic increase in small diverse farms dedicated to growing crops for sale at the thriving farmers market as well as to high-end restaurants that source local food. The Orcas Island Farmers Market operates from May through October, and is filled with the delicious produce and products grown by the island farmers. Orcas is also home to several thriving oyster farms located at Judd Cove and Crescent Beach. These high quality oysters are sought after by discerning chefs in Seattle and beyond. In the last decade, several large historic farms in Crow Valley have been permanently protected, including Coffelt Farm, conserved by the San Juan County Land Bank, and Clark Farm, conserved by the San Juan Preservation Trust. Both of these will serve as an anchor to support future farming efforts on Orcas, and especially in Crow Valley.