Small family farms are critical to local food security in the South Puget Sound region
Photo by Hannah Letinich

Matlock Farm part 2

From Punjab to Puyallup

Because of a conservation easement orchestrated by Forterra, the Sidhu family is the new owner of a portion of the Matlock Farm property in the Puyallup River Valley. This is the story of how they came to be known in the local food community for sweet, flavorful berries, and how they are finally able to secure a farming legacy for their children and grandchildren.

From India to Los Angeles
The Sidhu family had been farming for innumerable generations in Punjab, India. There they grew corn, peanuts, cotton, wheat and rice. In the early 1970s, Chet Sidhu set out on a quest that took him to Bulgaria, Lebanon, Jordan and ten other countries before he finally arrived in the U.S.

The 80s were momentous years for Chet: He started a restaurant in L.A. and returned to India to marry Shinder, a young woman from a nearby village and their first child, Kamal, was born in India in 1987. The next year Shinder and Kamal moved to L.A. to join Chet.

A Lush and Beautiful Region
Over the years Chet would leave sunny southern California to visit friends and relatives up in Washington. Like so many others, he felt the pull of the region’s natural beauty. “It was on these trips,” said Kamal, “that he fell in love with the scenery and greenery of Washington state.”

Eventually, a stroke of luck came his way: in the early 90s, Chet found a business opportunity operating a gas station in Tacoma; he, his brother Ajmer and their families moved to Puyallup. At the time a relatively undeveloped area, Puyallup reminded Chet of where he had grown up in Punjab. In this beautiful, fertile region of the state, Chet and Ajmer sought a better quality of life for their families.

Blueberries Pay the Bills
In 1997, the Sidhus bought a 17-acre piece of land that had been a blueberry farm many years before. Then overgrown and choked by weeds, the family saw in the land a retirement nest egg; Chet recognized the development potential and looked to one day sell it to be developed into a subdivision. However, the small piece of land would yield an entirely different harvest than what Chet first expected.

The Sidhu Family on the Matlock Farm, part of which they now own and will continue to farm
Photo by Hannah Letinich

One year while Chet was in India, Shinder and the kids picked surviving blueberries from the untended patch and took them to the local farmers market to sell. Kamal said, upon Chet’s return from India, Kamal said, “retirement became an afterthought for my dad.”

Chet bought a tractor and other farm equipment. The entire family, including Ajmer’s family, started in on the long process of transforming the land into a productive berry farm. Since it had been out of production and pesticides had not been used in a long time, the farm was organic from the start. The Sidhus had their farm certified as soon as they established their business.

It Takes a Community to Raise a Farm
In Puyallup, the Sidhus found a loyal clientele that saw – and tasted – something special in their produce. “The support of our community in Pierce and King County are what has made us what we are today,” said Kamal, now 27. Some customers who began buying their berries in the very first years are still coming back.

Although Kamal graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in computer science, the land and his family’s customers had a stronger pull than the prospective 9 to 5 job. “I don’t think there’s anything that makes farming more worthwhile than to see the smile on people’s faces over and over again.”

Searching for a Place to Grow
For two years, the Sidhus farmed the 17-acre plot but as the berry business grew, they looked for more land to expand onto. They obtained a multi-year lease nearby and began growing raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. However, in the middle of their lease, the landowner sold the plot to a large development company and the Sidhus were forced to leave. Perfectly good berries were paved over—financial and sweat equity lost to the bulldozer.

Finding other land to replace this plot was difficult. Land in Pierce County was becoming highly desirable to developers and carried a steep price tag. “Puyallup has some of the best soil in the country,” said Kamal, “but farmers cannot afford to pay the same price as developers.”

The Sidhus did not want to lease again for fear that they would face the same situation.

Kamal and his wife, Lakhvir, in front of the family farm stand
Photo by Hannah Letinich
My favorite part of being a farmer is to see the smile on people's faces when they taste our fruit and produce. To see the difference old-world practices make on the quality of the fruits and produce is a beautiful thing because the hard work that goes into producing the products becomes all the more worthwhile.
Kamal Sidhu

The Fulfillment of a Dream
After several years of searching, Chet and Shinder encountered the Matlock brothers in 2007, who had over 100 acres for sale. They were able to buy 28 acres of land to replant raspberries, strawberries and other produce. The farm grew into its new size but demand still exceeded supply.

Finally, in 2014, a true breakthrough came.

The Matlock brothers were moving forward with a conservation easement deal with Forterra and Pierce County to permanently conserve the land for farming. The land would be much more affordable to farmers under an easement and the Matlocks were in need of buyers.

The timing was perfect. The Sidhu family was finally able to purchase a large plot of land and ensure the future of the family farm.

Under the conservation easement, the Sidhus will never face pressure from developers or the tenuous limitations of leasing land… And the Puyallup community is ensured to always have agricultural land and local produce in an era of vanishing farm stands… And after a decades-long journey, several ocean crossings, two states, and several small businesses, Chet and Shinder are ensured of a legacy they can pass onto their children and grandchildren.

Read more of the Matlock Farm series:

Part 1: A Tale of Two Brothers
Part 3: Making History