Nestled into a picturesque, heavily forested valley, Paradise Organics lives up to its name.
This fertile enclave is a piece of paradise. At the end of a meandering drive sits a small cabin, two greenhouses and a large garden bed, bursting with the first leafy green signs of summer. In the valley below, a large chicken enclosure nestles against three greenhouses and a smattering of earth toned fields. Sunlight glances through the trees and the smell of herbs float in the air, fragrant and delicious.
Susan Runnels — a dynamic ball of energy with curly dark hair, a big smile and a friendly sparkle in her eyes — greets guests at the cabin’s front door.
“This was nothing but forest and brush before Robert came,” Runnels said, speaking of her business partner and Paradise Organics founder Robert Foster who passed away last October. “He came from Arkansas with all his worldly property, just his car and a dog. This was all raw land when he bought it, overgrown and too wet. He’s the one who cleaned it up. He was a very smart man. He studied it all, every inch. Every part of this property is as different as the weather.”
She gestured toward the fields below. “That area is colder than up here. There’s a demarcation line. You can feel it. And it’s a few degrees hotter over there than it is here. Robert studied this and planted accordingly.”
Foster put the information he learned to good use.
“Robert would research what seeds produce best in this climate,” Runnels said. “He would pay attention to how the weather was changing and what that meant for the crops. People could bring him a damaged leaf and he would tell them which disease or insect was causing it. He taught people how to start a garden, what to do with their soil, when to put in the plants and what companion plants to use.”
Margaret Nixon is also a partner at the farm.
“He set a standard for organic farming and then shared everything he knew with others,” said Nixon, who knew Foster for more than 25 years. “We learned so much from him, but the thing I remember most is that he had a dream and he went for it. He didn’t give up even though it was hard. That was inspiring to me.”
Runnels said working with Foster was a pleasure because of his passion and where his motivation originated.
“We sat down and figured out how much he made once,” Runnels said. “It came to $1.39 an hour. You have to love what you’re doing to work for that. He loved this work and he loved this community. I didn’t find this out until much later, but he donated produce to community members in need. He was very generous. The part he loved most, though, was producing very high-nutrient food. Everyone who tries it says, ‘This is the real flavor. This is how cauliflower should taste or this is the best tomato we’ve ever eaten.’”
This high-quality food is the result of high-quality cultivation.
“We produce very, very good food here,” Runnels said. “We grow all different kinds of heirloom seeds, we compost and we mineralize our soil. We don’t ever use pesticides. Robert was very health conscious in that way. We don’t even want people smoking near our food, if possible. We are very sensitive about the health of our vegetables. It’s a tradition.”
It’s a tradition that Runnels is now continuing.
“In the beginning I was still reeling from Bob’s loss,” Runnels said. “I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much work. Then, one of our customers, Sara Londono, said, ‘We can do it. We women can do it!’”
According to Londono, carrying on Foster’s work was important because, “This was his dream, to make a place where people can get help for their growing problems and get healthy, organic food. He built a community of people from Yelm to Puyallup to Federal Way. We love this work. We love connecting with people as he did.”
Still, Runnels at first was not confident she could keep the quality of the produce at the high level.
“I didn’t have the confidence at first,” Runnels said, “but here we are. It is hard work. I think I do it for his memory and maybe my own satisfaction. I miss him.”
Since Foster died, Runnels has been grateful for the volunteers who stepped in — volunteers such as Renata Fell and Jennifer Landon, who can be found working in the Paradise Organics store.
“We help because we want this farm to thrive,” Fell said, her arms full of fresh produce. “Robert knew about everything, from the 10 million types of squash to the best way to cook certain things.”
Behind the counter, Landon nods in agreement.
“He always greeted us with a smile,” she said.
The sense of camaraderie and community is palpable, the talk comfortable and the laughter often.
“Did you get some squash?” Runnels calls back to them as she heads outside.
In the garden bed, Runnels points out the various plants blooming in a rainbow of colors from the fertile soil.
“Customers stop by and say, ‘I’ll have a bunch of that and a bunch of this.’ We cut it for them and off they go. You can’t get fresher than that,” she said.
She surveys the plot.
“This is pretty much how it looked before Robert passed. Although, I’m a little late this year. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was going to proceed after losing him,” she said.
Running Paradise Organics is not Runnels’ first challenge, nor her first adventure.
“I’m not a business woman,” she said. “I was born and raised in the Philippines. Just like everybody else, I wanted to go out and see the world, to earn and send money back home, to have adventures. I became a midwife and volunteered in a clinic in Nepal for two years. I met my husband there and we moved to Australia where our first baby was born. Then we came to the United States where we had two more. We have three very pretty girls.”
Runnels calls out to the chickens and ducks as she walks by their pens.
“Hello, Mr. Robert’s ladies,” Runnels said. “We usually have about 80 chickens here. They lay the best, richest eggs. Better than anything you can get in the store. They have these deep yellow yolks.”
She walks to a pallet of herbs and gently rubs the leaves between her fingers. The aroma is sweet, crisp and clean. Mint.
“OK, now this one,” she said, lightly crushing some oregano, followed by basil, each variety distinctly different from the next. The red lettuce basil is sweet and spicy Sweet Thai — exotic, lemon basil — bizarrely lemony cinnamon basil — sweet and light. Purple ruffles, which looks just like its name, massive mammoth basil and finally the delightfully pungent Napolitano. After six years working alongside Foster, Runnels knows them all by sight.
When asked what she most wants the community to know about Paradise Organics, Runnels said, “I’m striving to continue the legacy of Robert Foster, but I need their help. I need their support here at the farm and at the farmers market too. I can’t do it on my own. It’s too big. This produce is the best, but it doesn’t last forever. Come while it’s here.”