Four North Sounders Left Established Careers to Follow Their Hearts

This is not a midlife crisis, or the result of a few bad days—or months—at work. A second act is one deliberately made, one that requires a plan to realize a long-held dream of a different career or a different life. It usually means financial risk, a giant leap from the safety and security of a job that you’ve trained for and worked toward for years, one in which you are probably an expert.

Bellingham’s Russ Kendall and Doug Robertson, along with Orcas Island’s Audra Lawlor and Susan Soltes of Bow, are each on their second acts. A second act takes chutzpah, because it’s a leap into the uncertain. It takes passion and confidence and stubbornness, people who support you, and sometimes ignoring others who say you are crazy. We thought it would be a good idea for them to tell what led to the leap, and how it’s playing out now. Here, in their own words, are their stories. –Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Lights, Camera, Blueberries

Second acts are scary. You spend your whole life pursuing and conquering your dream and then at a certain point, you stand on your front porch, about to go in the door, and think to yourself: “Is this it? Is this the rest of my life?”

I was 50 and my answer was clear: “I’ve got one more in me!” I just didn’t know what it was going to be.

For almost 30 years, I was in film production. I started as a production assistant, became a production manager, a producer, an editor and finally, I became a director. It was fast and fantastic. I always thought creating television commercials on a big scale would be fun. And it was. I worked with amazingly talented people, traveled the world and did everything from creating World War II scenes to New York Fashion Week to struggling with 6-year-olds to get just the perfect Kraft “cheese pull.” I never knew where I would be or what I product I would be pushing next. I truly loved the adrenaline rush of the unknown and the race to the finish when we could say it was “in the can.”

But there’s always a “but.” It was 18-hour days for weeks at time, away from my family and sometimes completely soulless because people didn’t always need what I was pouring my guts into creating.

Organic blueberry farming seemed like something with soul. Who could argue that blueberries weren’t good for you? The truth is that Harley, my photojournalist husband, had always wanted to be a farmer. He’s a voracious researcher and we had dabbled at farming over the years. Then he landed a job to shoot a book called “Chefs on the Farm” at the Quillisascut farm school in eastern Washington. Chefs come there from all over to learn how to cook regionally and seasonally. We were both completely turned on by this. Me so much so that I jumped in and took their Beginning Farmer class. By the end, I was profoundly changed. I learned what “enough” meant and I thought to myself, I think I can do this.

Soon after, we drove past a for-sale sign on the old Anderson Blueberry Farm on Bow Hill Road and the “one more” locked in. We saw the farm as a project. It was the oldest blueberry farm in Skagit Valley so it came with history, mature heirloom varieties and a story to tell. We thought to ourselves “Let’s revive this place, take it organic and see if we can make this the community center it once was.” Harley’s job was to grow the berries. He researched like crazy, consulted everyone he could find in the blueberry business and became friends with every organic farmer in the valley. Our son picked the name, Bow Hill Blueberries, and luckily our daughter is a graphic designer. My job was to spiffy the place up, create the brand, get the word out and take care of finances. I took Washington State University’s Cultivating Success course and worked with the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, Sustainable Connections and Western Washington University’s MBA program to learn how to make the farm sustainable though the creation of a line of organic blueberry products.

I did a few more commercials after we bought the farm, but I knew that without full focus I wasn’t going to be able to pull this off. I was scared to give up filmmaking, and I still get a little anxious about using my married name rather than Susan Buster Thomas, but I can honestly say this is more fulfilling and every bit as creative as anything I’ve done for work before. I get to look out my window every day and watch a live documentary unfold in the most gorgeous place in the world and know it’s “enough.” Most people actually hate commercials anyway.

Susan Soltes co-owns organic blueberry farm Bow Hill Blueberries with husband Harley Soltes in hte Skagit Valley town of Bow. As Susan Buster Thomas, her Act One was working in film production as a producer and director of television commercials.

Continue reading our feature on Second Acts here.

"Organic blueberry farming seemed like something with soul."