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Growing Demand for Organic Produce E-mail
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Sunday, 19 February 2006

Growing Demand for Organic Produce


The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, WA)

By Michelle Theriault

Growing Demand for Organic Produce Helps Young Farmers

At Sunseed Farm, Nick Guilford's co-workers are earthworms and voices from NPR, which plays on a radio in a corner of the greenhouse.

His cubicle is a few acres of loamy earth along the Nooksack River, just south of Acme. There's no timesheet and no overtime. Instead, he follows the farmer's schedule: Do what needs to be done, even if it takes all the daylight hours and a few in the dark. For this organic farmer, the rewards sprout from the dark soil: tomatoes, raspberries, garlic, and a sense of purpose the 33-year-old doubts he would have found in an office. "The greatest reward is the sense of meaning in my life," says Guilford, who has been a farmer since he was in his early 20s, and is the sole proprietor of Sunseed Farm. "I feel like the work I do day to day isn't pointless, I have customers who've been feeding their kids with my produce for eight or nine years."

The customers feeding their kids with blueberries and chard are the same ones making locally grown, organic produce a booming business in Whatcom County: from restaurants like Nimbus to the Community Food Co-op and the upcoming Depot Market Square, small local farmers have more and more customers and venues to sell their wares. For a new generation of environmentally-minded youths in their 20s and early 30s, organic farming is a way back to the land, and away from a desk job. The growing market for what they grow - organics are the fastest-growing segment in groceries - is giving young, upstart farmers with little traditional experience or land a chance to enter the profession.

"Organic agriculture has been one little breath of hope that has entered the picture and allowed a lot of people with very limited means to enter into agriculture," says Mike Finger, who has been growing market produce near Bellingham for 18 years, and has helped several young farmers learn the trade. Henry Bierlink of Whatcom Farm Friends, an organization devoted to promoting agriculture in the county, says that there seems to be two distinct groups of young farmers emerging in the county. "There are young farmers who are either children of existing farmers transitioning into taking over, and a few have just started out on their own," says Bierlink.


In Whatcom County, organic market produce is still a tiny fragment of the county's $290 million agriculture industry - large dairy and raspberry farms account for much of the business. But it's popular and growing, both nationwide and in Whatcom County, says Jean Rodgers of the Community Co-op, which purchases produce from small, local farming operations. It's unknown how many other Nick Guilfords are out there in Whatcom County, and many small upstart organics businesses flare out after a bad crop year or two. But just walk through the farmers market and you'll see faces much younger than the statewide average of 55.4 years old for principal farm operators. Guilford was raised in Kansas and Idaho by parents who were both teachers. Life as a farmer wasn't part of the plan. "Not a whole lot of thought was given to doing manual labor for a living," says the onetime psychology major. When Guilford was a student at Fairhaven College in the early 1990s, his dabbling in the garden began to seem like it could become a viable livelihood. The subjects he studied in college were fascinating, says Guilford. "But none of them were really things I wanted to do every day." He spent the summer of 1996 working for Brent Harrison's Growing Garden, a farm established on Metcalfe Road more than 20 years ago. That was eight years ago, and he's been growing cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, plant starts, shallots and berries on three acres ever since.


For solo operators like Guilford, fortunes are as variable as the weather.

There are catastrophes, like last year's raspberry disaster, the high cost of infrastructure and endless chores. But while many of his peers have spent the past decade in towns and cities working jobs with mobility, and time for recreation, Guilford has devoted himself almost exclusively to the care of his land. There's no other way - there's always a potting shed to clean, a barn-full of equipment to inventory, and in the harvest season, the delicate balancing act of harvesting and selling the product of a year's toil at market.

It hasn't been easy. "The level of chronic overwhelm I've had in my life has definitely taken its toll," he says. It's a life that leaves scant time for other passions, like river kayaking. Last year, Guilford took three days off, total. "I didn't really grasp that," he says. "I love what I'm doing, I'd like a little more diversity in my life." But things do keep getting better. He's graduated from walk-behind Rototiller to a new tractor. And he's expanded his business significantly.


Mike Finger, who started his Cedarville Farm 18 years ago, has been both a young apprentice and a teacher. Over the years, Finger has hosted six apprentices, mostly young and earnest college-aged would-be farmers.

It's not like the back-to-the-land movement of the '70s, when "everybody seemed to be going up into the hills and building a yurt," says Finger.

But there's a definite appeal for young people. "Virtually everybody who has ever approached me was interested in organic farming," says Finger. "They're definitely interested in healthy food, land stewardship, sustainability." The idealism of his apprentices is quickly replaced by experience. "If they are a little naE[macron]ve, after a couple of months of working out here they have the knowledge and maturity to realize farming is working."


"There's a lot of best things about it," says Crystine Goldberg, a 32-year-old who recently started Uprising Organics on a few acres of land near Guilford's with her partner, Brian Campbell, 30. She was attracted to "watching things grow," business ownership, being outdoors much of the time, and spending time with her family, which includes 9-month-old son Rowan. Goldberg, who worked on farms in Vermont and Oregon and was an environmental studies student at the University of Oregon, says that her path to the land was natural.

"Just loving what we do is probably just about the best thing," she says. "I can't even imagine being in an office." It's not all blossoms and sunshine. Sometimes it's harvesting leeks in a December downpour, or scraping by financially. "It's not really enough, but it works. I don't think it would be enough for most people," says Goldberg. But there are reminders, every harvest season, of the reasons she continues coaxing edible and beautiful things from the earth. And if everything goes right - and the weather and earth cooperate - she hopes they'll end up heaped on a dinner plate.

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