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Life on an organic farm

A sign warning others not to spray weeds, posted outside a certified organic farm  

In this story:

Making ends meet

Community-supported agriculture

From the field to the grocer


Lynden, Washington (CNN) -- Jesse Williams' career as an organic farmer almost ended before it began. Rising with the sun, Jesse carefully collected his first harvest of organic lettuce and headed for the local farmer's market in Bellingham, Washington. His little produce stand had no umbrella, and as the hours dragged by, his precious greens shriveled in the summer sun. After a long, hot day, Jesse trudged home with only seven dollars in his pocket -- and crates of unsold wilted lettuce in his truck.

That was four years ago, when Jesse Williams was just 16. These days, he makes enough money growing organic vegetables to pay most of the bills on his small farm a few miles south of the Canadian border. The question for Jesse -- and for hundreds of young farmers all around the country -- is whether organic farming has enough of a future to support a family and a lifetime of living lightly off the land.

Advocates of organic production and processing say organic applies not only to food, but how it is produced. Organic food is grown or raised based on a system of farming that mimics natural ecosystems or at least respects the natural ecosystems, according to John Foster, certification director with Oregon Tilth.


Jesse's grandfather was a lawyer, but Jesse's father, Dusty, turned tail at the thought of working in an office. "I was a child of the '60s," says Dusty Williams, "and tilling the soil was more consistent with my values."

As he and his wife raised young Jesse, they tried conventional farming, using chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow peas for a cannery. But like most small farmers, Dusty Williams watched the cost of chemicals rise as the price paid for produce plummeted. Eventually, the pea cannery left town.

Making ends meet

In 1996, the elder Williams and his neighbor Pete Dykstra noticed how much the market for organic carrots in the Northwest was expanding. Washington had been a leader in encouraging organic farming; the number of certified organic farms ballooned from 63 in 1988, to 446 in 1999, with overall sales jumping from $2.5 million to $70 million.

Dusty and Dykstra forked over $400 to have a state inspector certify that 3 acres of their pasture was free of synthetic chemicals. Using manure, compost and other natural fertilizers, and spending countless backbreaking hours pulling weeds, the two men turned a modest profit. In the years that followed, they made enough money to eventually add an acre of organic peas and 25 acres of organic sweet corn.

In the meantime, Jesse was building an organic greenhouse for tomatoes. He planted row upon row of organic squash, zucchini, parsley, basil, berries, lettuce, broccoli and onions on a plot near the Nooksack River. The day of our visit, his fields were sprinkled with the never-ending bane of organic farmers in the Northwest: weeds. But Jesse, who has never used herbicides, feels no longing for a quick chemical fix.

"If there are too many weeds it isn't because I didn't use pesticides. It's because I didn't do something right, didn't work hard enough," he told us.

"Maybe not the easiest way to get rich, but I think it can be done."
-- Jesse Williams

Jesse works plenty hard. On weekdays, he's in the fields, and on weekends he sells most of his produce at local farmers' markets. Jesse is building a loyal clientele among people who appreciate the flavor and freshness of his produce. Each year, he makes enough money to encourage him to keep expanding.

Organic farming in the Northwest grows at an average of 20 percent a year, according to state agriculture officials. And while Jesse and Dusty hope to ride that sunny forecast, our visit to another organic farm reveals plenty of dark clouds on the horizon.

Community-supported agriculture

North Plain Farm sits 8 miles west of the Williams' farm. Jeff Canaan, 36, and his wife Kenna work 5 acres of a 45-acre property owned by Kenna's father. Kenna is a graphic artist, and without her modest paycheck, the Canaans and their new baby girl could not survive on organic farming alone.

Jeff Canaan once worked as a software analyst for aerospace giant Boeing. Looking for a life less centered on making money, he quit Boeing to study theology at Wheaton College in Illinois. Degree in hand, he initially chose teaching over farming, figuring teaching was easier. By 1995 however, he realized that the lure of the land was too great.

Jeff's father-in-law is Ken Johnson, whom everyone calls "Farmer Ken." For 14 years, Farmer Ken tended a herd of 50 dairy cows. In 1986, he realized small dairymen could no longer compete with huge corporate operators, and reluctantly accepted a buyout offer from the federal government. "It was get big or get out," remembers Ken, "and I got out."

Freed of the chore of milking cows every day and night, Farmer Ken figured raising free-range chickens and growing organic vegetables would be easy by comparison. His 200 hens (Barred Rocks and Golden Sexlinks) could only be certified organic if they eat organic feed and have access to the outdoors. Ken explains that free-range chickens are not necessarily organic; free-range birds can actually be kept indoors all their lives as long as they have a certain minimum space to run around. His hens, by comparison, spend much of the day catching bugs in the grass, trying to avoid the occasional raccoon, coyote or hungry eagle.

Sweet corn from Dusty Williams and Pete Dykstra has earned a label telling consumers their food is organic  

Each hen produces several eggs a week, all with a distinctive deep orange yolk. Organic eggs wholesale for around $2 per dozen (compared to around 80 per dozen for commercial eggs). After three years, Ken can sell his hens for their meat, also at an organic premium. Yet, a friend of Ken's figures organic eggs would have to fetch at least $2.60 per dozen to allow a Washington state farmer to earn the equivalent of $7 per hour for his labor. Farmer Ken says he doesn't break even over the life of each chicken.

Jeff and Ken face a similar dilemma growing vegetables. When they sell their produce to wholesalers, they are often at the mercy of a wildly fluctuating market. When they tried traveling to farmer's markets, they found they were working 12-hour days, 7 days a week. "The amount of return for the amount of work was not spectacular," Jeff recalls.

Farmer Ken is finally giving up. He is 59, and he is tired of weeding from dawn to dusk, working long hours for low pay. "Not that my work is monotonous," smiles Ken. "After all, if I get tired of pulling weeds, I can go shovel chicken manure."

Jeff and Kenna, however, will plow ahead. They are converts to something called "Community-Supported Agriculture" or CSA.

CSA began 30 years ago in Japan, where a group of women farmers became concerned about an increase in food imports and a decrease in small family farms. They created a program called "teikei," which translates to "putting the farmer's face on food." Basically, a CSA farmer sells fixed-price subscriptions, entitling buyers to a share of the farmer's produce throughout the growing season. Subscribers visit the farm once a week for about 22 weeks to pick up their share of that week's harvest.

Before Farmer Ken retired, Jeff and Kenna had built their shareholder list to 75 members. CSA is particularly suited to organic farming, says Jeff, because subscribers are willing to pay a slight premium for peace of mind: they can see for themselves that their produce is free of synthetic chemicals. Members often tour the farm during their weekly visits, marveling at the 80 year old barn, and learning about heirloom plants, beekeeping and organic dairying (the farm keeps two cows and their calves for their own home milk supply.) Each week, the Canaans mail out a newsletter with tidbits about recent trials and tribulations, plus recipes and background on organic issues.

From the field to the grocer

In 2000, it will cost North Plain Farm subscribers $350 each for 22 weeks of tomatoes, potatoes, root crops, veggies and fruit. Jeff figures he can handle about 33 members this year, so he'll only gross $11,550, and net perhaps $5,000. By selling directly to consumers, Jeff avoids wild swings in wholesale prices, and feels as if his work is more fulfilling. "I could make more money if I specialized," Jeff explains, "but it would mean that I'd have to ship more of my produce to other counties or other states. It would defeat much of the advantage of community-based agriculture."

Jeff Canaan milks a cow  

In fact, organic farmers talk a lot about the need to sell locally. According to the agricultural extension office of the University of Massachusetts, food in the United States travels an average of 1,300 miles from the farm to the market shelf. Not only does freshness suffer, but refrigerated trucks add the monetary and environmental costs of fossil fuels.

The new standards outlined in the National Organic Program will affect each of our organic farmers differently. Jesse Williams is skeptical, because he expects that Washington state will be flooded with organic products from other regions. "It's definitely an industry with a huge future," Jesse says with a sigh. "But as it gets better, big companies are going to jump in." He expects those companies will lower production costs by specializing in high-profit crops like tomatoes, and will be pressured to pay farmworkers extremely low wages.

Jesse's father Dusty expects mixed results from the new standards. On the one hand, he figures organic carrots from California will pour in, making it tough to sell his own carrots at a profit. On the other hand, his organic sweet corn is popular in San Francisco, and is free of the corn pests and diseases that affect organic corn farmers in other parts of the country.

The jury is still out at North Plain Farm. On the one hand, Jeff will be pleased if the new rules make it possible for more farms to use fewer chemicals. But he, too, thinks local produce is best. He believes U.S. consumers pay too little for fresh foods, and spend too much of their food budget on processed foods and empty calories. Just as relatively cheap gasoline prices reduce incentives to develop alternative fuels or to conserve, so too do cheap produce prices - driven by giant corporate farms - make it difficult to market organic alternatives. Reluctantly, Jeff realizes there will be continual pressure to become more efficient, including specializing in just a few crops and relying more on mechanization.

Jesse, still only 20 years old, hopes he'll be an organic farmer for many years to come. The long hours don't concern him yet, and the chance to reduce costs by innovating excites him. In an era where smart young adults like Jesse see some of their peers making piles of money in new technology, we just had to know whether Jesse figured anyone could get rich by being an organic farmer.

"Yeah," he answers, "I think you can. Maybe not the easiest way to get rich, but I think it can be done." And if he doesn't become a millionaire, at least he'll eat well.