It’s easy these days to be amazed by the background and accomplishments of the growing number of folks who move to the Rock to begin a “second act of life.” Downsized corporate executives from across the country, retired military officers from around the world, educators, government officials, religious leaders. They come with a wealth of experience and knowledge — though you’d never know it at first glance, once they don our typical Whidbey “uniform” of denim and flannel.
But even among all these new Rock stars, it would be hard to top Bruce Eckholm’s resume. Math degree from the University of Chicago, tech entrepreneur at age 26 with his own database development company in Seattle, master’s degree and doctorate in entomology (the study of insects), popular urban “swarm chaser” and published expert on the habits of honeybees.
In 2013, Bruce and his wife Linda began their second act when they bought an eight-acre historic farm on Zylstra Road near Coupeville — although in Bruce’s case it’s more like his third or fourth act.
Today, as Linda “virtually commutes” from her home office to her work as a consulting actuary, Bruce tends his more than 20 beehives, a few pigs and chickens, a berry patch and a mature orchard of apple, pear, plum and cherry trees. He’s also started a hay harvesting business “as a sideline.” And he’s finishing the restoration of a pioneer 1910 cabin on the farm that the Eckholms plan to use as a guesthouse and vacation rental.
His restless nature led him through his various studies and careers to eventually fulfill what he calls his life-long dream to “live rural.”
“My family had a dairy farm in the Midwest when I grew up,” he said. “I went up there in the summer and worked. It got in my craw so deep that I have always wanted to do something with agriculture.
“But I moved to a farm in my 40s, and it’s a lot harder when you’re not handed the keys to a farm by your family or their knowledge base to go with it.”
Bruce Eckholm grew up in Minnesota but says he always wanted to live in the West. As soon as he graduated college in 1991, he took a red-eye flight to Seattle, rented a $100-a-month attic apartment in the Wallingford District and eventually found a job at an actuarial and employee benefits company in downtown Seattle. After a few years, he started his own database application company with seven or eight employees in Ballard; after building it up, he eventually merged it and left the business in 2001.
He and Linda, who had met years before at the first job he had in Seattle, were married in 2002.
“After I finished with IT stuff, one of the things that kept rolling around in my head was beekeeping,” he said. He joined a Seattle beekeeper club, and he and Linda started keeping hives at their home in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood. He taught himself how to clear bee swarms out of walls and attics, and that developed into a business he had for several years.
Not content just to have bees, he determined to know them better. He entered a distance learning program offered by the University of Nebraska and in 2007 earned a master’s degree in entomology. Still in pursuit of more knowledge, Bruce entered the University of Arizona’s doctoral program in entomology. He and Linda moved to Tucson for six years, where he also worked at the honeybee laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That was about the time that scientists became alarmed by the collapse of beehives around the world.
“They wanted me to stay in at the Tucson lab after I got my degree,” Bruce said. “But it’s too hot! I needed to get out of there.”
Thus began the Eckholms’ search for a suitably “rural” place to live where Linda could also practice her actuarial consulting.
“I knew if we were going to pull off this rural living thing it would be someplace in the I-5 corridor as far up as the Skagit Valley or even Whatcom,” he said. “I thought I’d hang out a shingle and do some consulting. I did have a honeybee colleague here on Whidbey and Linda’s brother had recently moved to Coupeville, so we added Whidbey to the shortlist.”
While Linda remained in Tucson, Bruce scouted real estate listings. One rainy afternoon, he looked at an eight-acre hobby farm for sale on Zylstra Road. “I called Linda and said this is it,” he said. They made an offer that day and moved in June 2013.
“It was perfect. It was historic, it was in the Olympic rain shadow and the Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, and it was off the beaten track.”
Their farm has a history that goes back more than 150 years. Originally part of Isaac Power’s land donation claim in 1850, it was used mostly as a farm field until the early 20th Century. The pioneer cabin was built in 1910 by Dan Earlywine, who appears to have been the first farmer to live on the land. After that, the farm passed to the pioneer Nienhuis family and then through a number of others; over time, its original size gradually shrank to its current eight acres.
Since the Eckholms moved in, they have worked to restore the cabin, the 100-year-old hay barn and 1930s-era long barn, which was originally a pheasant hatchery. The Friends of Ebey’s nonprofit group has given them grants to help with their historic barn restoration.
Today, Bruce is creating a kitchen in the long barn to help process his honey for sale. In 2016, he harvested 1,800 pounds of honey that he sells to local businesses including the Oystercatcher restaurant as well as the Three Sisters and bayleaf markets.
His extensive knowledge of honey and bees is on display on his labels, telling the purchaser where the bees had foraged for the pollen and the types of flowers from which it was gathered. Already, he is tending hives at other locations on Central Whidbey as he perfects his product. And he’s learning more.
“Whidbey Island is hard on bees,” he said. “It’s too windy and the weather is unpredictable.”
That’s why he’s expanding his farm business to hay as well fruit and maybe eventually some “pastured pork.” That lesson is drawn from his new “knowledge base.”
“Small farms need to have several things going in order to make it work,” he said.