Sustainable Farms Grow Vibrant Produce and Local Economy
Local farms succeed with the help of collaboration and community, despite large-scale competition
Story by NATALIE BREYMEYER
On a cold Saturday morning in February, sun bathes the Happy Valley neighborhood. It’s 9 a.m. and the apartment complexes that line the streets are quiet. Tucked among these residential roads sits eight acres of greenery, with a cluster of greenhouses at the far end.
They don’t look like much, but inside are rows of flats filled with plant starts. Morning light pouring through the wall of windows drenches the annual flowers, herbs and produce.
On average, Joe’s Gardens will produce 300,000 plant starts per year. As the weather grows warmer, the sprawling field out front will be filled with verdant crops.
Nathan Weston, co-owner of Joe’s Gardens, balances on a metal cart inside one of the main greenhouses as he hangs baskets of flowers to a line that runs the length of the ceiling.
The air is warm and humid, kept around 65 degrees in order to help the seeds germinate at higher rates. There’s a foreign smell from one of the potting machines that was recently repainted, which is a chore done before things gear up for the annual opening in March. Water drips from a few of the hanging baskets.
“Watch your head,” Weston said. “You might get a little wet, but don’t worry, it’s nothing toxic.”
A staple in Bellingham since the early 1930s, Joe’s Gardens prides itself in being free of pesticides for all of their vegetable plants. The sustainable farm burgeoning among a densely populated neighborhood is just one of many in Bellingham and the surrounding area.
Further east, following a winding road lined with trees dripping in moss off Highway 20 in Skagit County, you’ll arrive at Sauk Farm. Only 10 years old, this first-generation operation shares the same sentiments. With an emphasis on growing organic, it is balancing the act of sustainable farming while adapting to a society that demands convenience.
Local farmers continue to forge their own stake in the marketplace despite the rampant presence of big box stores sourcing imported produce from large-scale productions. These small farms have cultivated a thriving alcove for themselves in part due to collaboration, innovative practices and community support.
Sauk Farm has found somewhat of a niche, operations manager Griffin Berger said. A white dog with a black circle around its eye, aptly named Spot, sits eagerly at his feet. Berger tosses a tennis ball down a barren vineyard row that come fall, will be flush with wine grapes.
“We recently started making juices and dried fruit,” he said. “It takes the pressure off needing perfect produce, we reduce our food waste and we’re not competing with 10,000-acre farms that can send all their fresh produce to a packing facility.”
A snow-peaked Sauk Mountain towers over the farm’s scenic 100 acres of property. Though there are only 10 acres currently in production, that amount grows every year, Berger said. Aside from the apples, grapes and peaches, many other plant species were deliberately grown to sustain the farm.
“We plant clover and mustard so we can use less fertilizer and repel pests,” he said. “We really try to harness the natural system and it saves us money.”
All of the 2018 crop will be organic, Berger said. The farm recently made the transition to become certified, which unlike the terms “sustainable” and “natural,” is a federally-mandated label.
The amount of extra work escalates compared to conventional farming but results are more than just a stamp of certification.
“In the end, you get better food that’s better for the environment, better for the planet and supports better businesses,” Berger said.
A contrast to the agrarian culture that surrounds farming, another equally important aspect is research.
Joe’s Gardens refers to years of soil analyses stored on spreadsheets, detailing which plot of land will be ideal for growing certain crops. Weston can then create a concoction of fertilizer to give the plant exactly what it needs, so when the season ends, the soil is back at base level, allowing a clean slate for next year.
“We’re not better farmers than most, but we give the plants what they need,” he said. “A lot of people think sustainable farming is being able to plant year after year, and that’s true, but if you’re not making any money, you can’t sustain your life. It’s a little bit of both.”
Berger also tests soil samples to avoid over-fertilizing. This protects the Sauk River flowing behind the property from runoff and ensures product and money aren’t wasted.
In the near future, Berger also hopes their packaging will be completely compostable, rather than just recyclable.
“It’s a constant fight, you know, how can we make ourselves more sustainable?” he said. “We’re actively out here trying to get more ecological practices more commonplace.”
AN EVOLVING BUSINESS MODEL
The Bellingham Community Food Co-op is a marketplace for local products. In 2017, over 7 percent of money it spent on products came from Whatcom County, and over 13 percent from Washington state.
The Co-op’s partnerships with local farmers is a natural fit, outreach manager Adrienne Renz said. Because the grocer does not have corporate offices in another state, it’s not uncommon for people to walk in and simply talk to the produce manager about what they want to sell.
The stronger conversations usually occur between the vendors who perform organic and sustainable growing practices but can also supply the volume and quantity necessary.
“It’s all about customer demand. They shape what’s on the shelves,” Renz said. “We understand people have to balance these local products with a budget, though.”
She said local products are the result of a smaller-scale operation, with different values added compared to the products of larger corporations.
Berger said despite aspirations to expand to a larger market, Sauk Farm wants to be rooted locally. A majority of their products are sold in co-ops and other community-oriented spaces.
“When you’re just starting out, your price point is higher and your volume is a little lower,” he said. “A lot of learning has to happen, and there’s a little more forgiveness on that local level.”
A driving force behind the integration of juice and dried fruit at Sauk Farm is the added value to their products. Not only are there sustainability benefits, it’s another avenue for profit.
“We’re a luxury stop,” Weston said. “If people shop here, they’re still going to need to go to the grocery store. We started selling milk and eggs and delivering our produce out to homes. We have to find ways to stand out.”
Certain limitations arise from sustainable farming on a small scale, but Weston’s passion overshadows the temptation of an easy way out.
“We’re sitting on a goldmine,” he said. “We could cash out, but you’d never have another farm like this here. I could take out these fields and fill them with greenhouses and make a lot more money. But how sad is that?”
RELYING ON COMMUNITY
Sustainable Connections is an organization dedicated to uniting local businesses, helping them implement sustainable practices and cultivating a community.
“The more collaboration and support there is among all these businesses, the stronger they are together,” communications assistant Diana Meeks said. “Especially in the farming community, these people can all learn from each other.”
Weston said because his family has been farming for so long, they can pass their knowledge onto newer farms.
“The problem nowadays is most things designed for farms– equipment, technology– they’re made for mass farms,” he said. “I wish a lot of small farmers luck. We’re so into helping them.”
Meeks said Bellingham still falls victim to the convenience of competitors like Amazon, but overall, supporting local is a priority.
In 2012, the Co-op’s board of directors developed a strategic plan for the next 10 years, detailing a set of goals that would best benefit the community. After receiving customer input, a precedence in local food system development was second on the list.
“At the very root of it, the Co-op is a local business and we’re owned by the community, so it is in our best interest as a business model to support local,” Renz said.
When a customer purchases a product from a local business, she said, the money multiplies as it circulates among the community, rather than being sent to a business out of state, or even the country.
The money that goes to local farmers is eventually invested back into the land, Meeks said. Higher employment rates, ethical practices and better wages are a few other benefits.
“Local business makes our community vibrant. We have a strong sense of place,” she said. “It’s one of those things you don’t think would pull at your heartstrings, but it’s connected to everything.”
Despite threats facing local businesses, as promises of spring and summer loom in the longer days, local farmers have one thing on their mind: the harvest. At Sauk Farm, Berger continues to get up every morning, feed Spot, check on the chickens, complete financial work and tend to the fields.
“You try and do everything right and there are a million things that can go wrong the whole year,” he said. “You get one chance to harvest. These plants take the sun and turn into beautiful, amazing things. I love it. Money does grow on trees here.”