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The Appel Family Celebrates Their Own Extension Anniversary

It’s lambing time again at Appel Valley Farm.

The first sunny day in weeks warms the back pasture of Dick and Helen Appel’s land, and the low-pitched bleats of Suffolk ewes, punctuated by the high tones of their offspring, fill the late afternoon air. A pack of lambs—giddy with the hint of early spring and collective newborn spirit—bolts on gangly legs across the uneven ground.

Dick and Helen Appel watch the new lambs gambol about.

Dick and Helen Appel with a dog and lamb.
Dick and Helen Appel with a couple of farm friends.
(All photos by Nella Letizia.)

“It’s good-to-be-alive time,” said Helen, Dick’s wife of 54 years. She smiles at the unabashed antics.

The Appels have seen many generations of lambs being born, Dick in particular. He started rearing sheep for Washington State 4-H in 1949 as a child. Then 20 years later, after he had taken over family farming from his father and mother, Don and Edna, he began raising sheep for wool. The lambing business has continued through to the present, with the help of Helen and their 10 children.

At its height, Appel Valley Farm had 180 head of sheep—producing possibly 300 or more lambs in any given spring. These days, Dick, Helen, and their son Eric (’90, Ag. Mech.) tend about 60 ewes and 100 babies during lambing season. Another son, Neil, has taken over the wheat, barley, and hay production, as well as helping with the sheep.

Technically, Dick is retired from farming, but as any true farmer knows, there’s no such thing as retirement. Dick wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I enjoy the raising of crops, I enjoy seeing them grow, I enjoy harvesting them,” he said. “Mostly, it’s an independent life. A farm is a great place to raise kids.”

A longstanding tradition

The Appel Valley Farm welcome sign.

Three generations of Appels, including 20 WSU alums, have been farming the land outside Colfax for more than 80 years. During half of that time, starting with Dick’s parents, 4-H leadership has been part of that tradition.

Don began farming in 1932 after leaving Washington State University with only one semester left to complete his mechanical engineering degree. A doctor had warned him that he could lose his failing eyesight if he continued at school.

It was a decision Don later came to be grateful for. He and Edna raised wheat, barley, and a few cattle—as well as their own nine children. Dick was the eldest. They instilled a love of the land and a strong work ethic in each of their kids. Don and Edna were 4-H leaders in livestock and home economics from the 1970s on. Edna also served for 10 years on the Whitman County Fair Board.

Dick and Helen followed in his parents’ footsteps in Extension and 4-H, with almost 60 years of combined service between them. He became a longtime superintendent of the fair’s sheep division and took over his father’s 4-H livestock leadership role. Though retired from many of his 4-H duties (it’s Eric’s turn now), Dick is still president of the Whitman County Wool Growers.

Helen has assumed many of Edna’s responsibilities, and more. She has served as a member of the Extension Advisory Board for 25 years, secretary for the 4-H Leaders Council for 19 years, and a member of the state fair board for four years. She also completed Master Gardener training and continues to practice as a Master Food Preserver.

Dick and Helen raised their children to honor this longstanding tradition. Their oldest daughter, Barb (’84, Landscape Arch.), was a 4-H leader for 15 years. She also worked in the Thurston County Extension office as a 4-H program assistant and helped Helen with the State Fashion Revue during her state 4-H fair board tenure. A 4-H leader for 17 years, Eric has been sheep barn superintendent for 18 years and is now serving on the fair board.

The fourth generation of Appels is stepping forward too: Thirteen of Dick and Helen’s grandchildren are active 4-H members; five are former members.

Extension then and now

Dick Appel with some of his Suffolk sheep.

When Dick and Helen began farming in the 1960s, the Extension office was there to answer questions and to give advice, whether in agriculture or in the home.

But over the years, support for homemakers has changed with fewer Extension agents and fewer stay-at-home moms, Helen said. She’s found it disappointing to witness the declining participation in home economics activities through 4-H.

“Young people still need to be taught how to manage a family, budget their time, budget their money, and cook nutritionally for their family,” she said.

On the other hand, Dick points out, Extension and 4-H have extended into more urban areas throughout the state. “As you get into the larger cities, some have come up with projects that benefit their region, like bicycle projects or camera projects or robotics,” he said. “Basically, you can make a project out of anything as long as you’re willing to put a little bit of time into it and keep some records.”

Extension is also reaching people in new ways as technology continues to evolve, Dick added. He refers to the web-based eXtension Ask an Expert system that provides answers to any question a farmer might have.

Still a one-on-one relationship

But Dick is convinced nothing will ever replace the importance of one farmer helping another. He described a couple from Seattle who bought property east of the Appels and really wanted to learn how to raise sheep. Dick and other local farmers answered the couple’s questions, and the wife took copious notes. Dick said these were people he wanted to help not only because of their genuine desire to learn, but also because their two high school-aged children wanted to learn too.

“Those two kids may turn out to be farmers, or they may go back to Seattle when they visit and tell people about farm life,” he said. Regardless, Dick has provided them with a reminder about services many see as increasingly important. “I think Extension has a role to play in making all the citizens of the United States and the world aware of where food comes from.”

By Nella Letizia