A farmer. A grocer. Man of God. Family man. Bodybuilder. Yo-yo champion.
Roger Schmidt was many things and for many people in Sequim he may have been their first boss, an ear to listen and/or a go-to person for produce and groceries.
The Sunny Farms Country Store founder died at age 81 on April 5 of Parkinson’s Disease. He was buried in Dungeness Cemetery with plans for a celebration of life at a later date.
The Sequim store was part of his DNA, said Schmidt’s youngest daughter, Sarah Thomas.
His grandparents had a neighborhood grocery store in north Seattle and so did his parents, the open air market Quality Fruit Market in Seattle.
“He’s always been a worker starting with his newspaper route,” his wife Ellie Schmidt said.
Originally from Seiku, Roger Schmidt was born in Port Angeles to Ken Schmidt and Alice (Sands), and later their family moved to Bremerton where Ken supervised painting naval ships. Roger learned how to make signs from his dad, and made thousands of his own, Ellie said.
His interests varied in life from fast cars to preserving water for agriculture to tilling gardens to his faith in God and love for his family, including seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
“He was a man of God,” Ellie said. “Rather than preach his faith, he lived it.”
Thomas said she’s been told by family friends he was never happier than on a tractor with “his hands in the soil, tilling the earth,” too.
At age 12, Ellie said, Roger was quite proud of being crowned King County’s yo-yo champion and winning a Schwinn bicycle. In high school, he played basketball and football and found a liking to weightlifting where he won many trophies.
“Anything dad did, he did it extraordinarily and to the highest degree,” Thomas said.
He graduated from Shoreline High School in 1959, intending to become a history teacher.
In 1962, he went on a blind date with Ellie to the World’s Fair in Seattle.
It was her first time out of Illinois and she met Roger through her roommate at the time, whose sister married Roger’s best friend.
“It had to be a God thing because there’s no other explanation of how I got here,” she said.
Roger initially didn’t want to go out because of a prior bad blind date and he had also just received a new weightlifting bar.
“He was much more interested in using his lifting equipment than going out with a girl he didn’t know,” Ellie said.
But they laughed a lot at a dog show during the World’s Fair and their connection grew fast with many new experiences for Ellie. Roger bought Ellie her first prawns and Bing cherries and showed her the ocean for the first time.
On a visit to the Northgate Mall, where they saw Roy Rogers and Dale Evans by chance, Ellie remembers walking by a jewelry store and gasping at a ring.
“I got embarrassed,” she said. “I saw the ring I wanted, but it was very expensive. I wish I hadn’t said anything in the first few days of dating. I could not play poker.”
When she went back home for work, they continued dating long distance by writing each other a letter each day, sealed with a kiss, Ellie said.
That routine went from June to October until Roger came to Weldon, Illinois, Ellie’s hometown, to propose with the ring from the mall.
They married on Oct. 14, 1962, spent six weeks in Illinois and returned to Washington state. Roger intended to continue college but he stopped to work in Produce Row in Seattle while Ellie worked at Virginia Mason Medical Center.
Roger worked in landscaping while continuing to help his father at the Quality Fruit Market; he later leased space for his Yakima Fruit Market in Bothell.
Ellie said starting his own market and nursery was second nature to him; “He knew just what to do,” she said.
Jeff, their oldest son was born in 1964, followed by daughters Susan and Sarah.
Both Roger and Ellie felt led to raise their family in the country, so they looked around Washington and Oregon and were alerted to their current property on Heath Road.
Roger moved first to Sequim in 1972 to establish their Sequim farm Olympic Mountain View Nursery planting peas, beans, potatoes and more, while continuing to work in Seattle.
The family moved full-time to Sequim in 1974.
With plenty of surplus produce, Ellie said they started selling produce from their garage and word-of-mouth spread.
She said it was difficult to separate home from work so they parked a truck where the store is now before setting up a seasonal shack for a few years.
Ellie said she remembers at one point they ran an extension cord from Flipper’s Restaurant for their cash register’s electricity but had to close for business when it rained due to concerns over being shocked when using it.
They also slept in the van some nights to prevent the produce from being stolen, Ellie said.
Sunny Farms opened June 5, 1979, with a permanent storefront.
Susan said it was named partly after Sunny Girl, their golden retriever, and for Sequim’s weather.
The store featured some grocery items, a deli, bulk items and animal feed, and it’s offerings grew with customers’ requests.
“It was kind of like having a tiger by the tail,” Ellie said. “We got here at a time when Sequim was starting to evolve … and what we have always done is to listen to our customers.”
Thomas said her dad was “always in perpetual movement” yet he always took time to help customers pick out the perfect melon or corn.
Jeff said his dad helped him invest in establishing the JR Ranch (Jeff and Roger Ranch) in Othello in the fall of 1991.
“It was a blessing,” Jeff said. “He set me up for success at a young age.”
It supplies some of the meat to Sunny Farms from more than 1,800 cattle in Othello.
The farm’s main focus is selling 100-150 black Angus bulls a year, predominantly in the Pacific Northwest, Jeff said.
In recent years they’ve begun more marketing for grass-fed beef and seen more interest in market-ready beef, family members said. Othello’s farm grows Sunny Farm’s sweet corn, tomatoes, various pumpkins, peppers, zucchini and more, while the Sequim farm does all of the nursery’s hanging baskets, herbs, veggie starts, basil, flowers and more.
Sunny Farms expanded to purchase Health Peddlers in Sequim Village Shopping Center 15 years ago to become Sunny Farms Supplements. The Country Store expanded about 20 years ago, too.
Ellie said Roger helped fill a need in the community.
“Customers who knew dad well said, ‘Your dad every time I came in, he mentored me.’ He gave advice freely without expectation,” Thomas said.
“He would never ask anybody else to do something he wouldn’t do himself,” Ellie said.
Susan said her dad employed thousands of people in his life, including people who met and married through Sunny Farms and their children came back to work there too.
Mark Adams started working at Sunny Farms around 1986 and currently works as produce manager. He worked at a restaurant and kept asking about openings despite none but Roger opted to bring him on. Adams said he thinks of Roger like a father.
“Any question I had, he could pretty much answer it,” he said.
When Sunny Farms was out of something specific and Adams recommended another store, it’s common to hear them say, “I prefer coming to you,” he said.
“Sunny Farms has very loyal customers,” Adams said.
In 1982, Roger was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes and was on insulin for a long time, Ellie said, but he got it controlled. About 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“He pushed through it,” his daughters said. “He was still coming up here as much as a few days [before his passing].”
Jeff said his dad was humble and a mentor to many people.
“Sunny Farms always looked great when you went in there,” he said. “There’s nothing plastic or fake about it.
“Dad persevered so many times as he thought failure was imminent [with other stores opening]. But dad was always successful.”
Throughout his time starting and operating Sunny Farms, Thomas said, her dad felt so supported by the community and his customers.