November 29, 2015
Farmer – Greentree Naturals
There really isn’t a simple answer. My background is horticulture, so I’ve cultivated gardens, worked outside or in greenhouses most of my adult life. My husband Thom has a biology background and grew up working on the family farm. We didn’t start growing our gardens with the idea of pursuing making a living at it or to become small acreage farmers. The first garden we developed on our land just ended up more bountiful than we imagined. After we had canned, froze and stored as much food as we wanted, gave some away, then decided that selling the rest at the farmers market seemed like a good idea.
I’ve been selling handmade items at craft shows since I was in college to supplement my income. When I first started selling at the farmers market, I sold dried flower wreaths and wheat weavings alongside a few assorted vegetables from the garden. I was working full time at the USFS, and selling at the Saturday Farmers market. After a couple of years of selling produce for “extra income”, we decided that we would get more serious about growing for market and began cultivating more ground and marketing Greentree Naturals as a business. We started out like many do, without much of a plan other than we knew we loved growing food and being good land stewards for this place we call home.
We began working with our first restaurant in 1992. It was the beginning of local chefs wanting to connect with local farmers in Sandpoint. We had just certified organic and the owner/chef was an enthusiastic supporter of organically grown; he featured us on the menu and promoted us to other restaurants. After a few years at the farmers market and a year with one restaurant, we decided to start planning for expanding our gardens to meet the demand. We quickly added five more fine dining establishments to our venue and developed a growers collective to help us meet the need.
I quit my job at the USFS to pursue expanding our small farm into livelihood after a couple of years of juggling farming, marketing and working off farm. In hindsight, I can say that we made tons of mistakes starting out because we sort of made it up as we went. I participated in a multitude of grower conferences across the western U.S. and after each experience, returned home with new ideas and enthusiasm to explore new vegetable varieties and different venues. Over time, I learned the importance of planning, having a vision and a farm plan as a means to get to where you want to go. I’ve made the choice to teach and share what we’ve learned so others considering small acreage farming might avoid some of the mistakes that we made starting out.
What changes have you seen over the years vis a vis the local food scene?
In the formative years at the farmers market, there were only a handful of growers cultivating a garden for market. Mostly we were made up of backyard gardeners selling their excess produce and flowers. As the years have gone by, the growers have increased in numbers, expanding the variety and quantity of produce available, and the community support has increased. Now our farmers market hosts an ever growing number of small acreage farmers; some are organic, some are not.
When we first started selling to restaurants, we were pretty much the only ones. The demand for locally grown, organic produce was greater than we could meet so I approached other growers at the farmers market to become a part of a growers collective. Greentree Naturals had the “contracts” with the restaurants, we just needed help meeting the demand. Basically, I was ordering and purchasing produce from other growers to supplement our restaurant orders. The collective disbanded when three of the restaurants went out of business. The restaurant business can be pretty volatile, especially in a small town like Sandpoint. They rely heavily on tourists and the tourist season is mostly Memorial Day through Labor Day.
When restaurants started closing down, we realized we needed to pursue new marketing outlets. I attended a conference about Community Supported Agriculture in 1996 and immediately started up the first CSA in Bonner County. I definitely encourage new and tenured small acreage farmers to make a point of attending conferences when they can. There is always more to learn and what better way to learn than from fellow, experienced farmers?
When the first food co-op and natural foods store opened in Sandpoint, we made contact immediately and were one of the first farms to provide locally grown, certified organic produce to these local establishments. Now, there are a multitude of small farms selling through different venues and increased interest in supporting local family farms. There are only a handful of us are certified organic.
I think the public interest has increased towards buying local because of all the promotion going on across the country for health benefits associated with farm fresh. Farmers markets have increased in numbers across the country, more chefs and restaurants want local, and consumers are becoming savvy shoppers and want to show support to locally grown. Local retail outlets have learned that buying local, farm fresh produce means a longer shelf life, improved flavor, and special varieties offered that the food wholesale company cannot offer.
What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Climate change is a considerable challenge. We have learned to adapt to the changes, and accept that there is nothing we can do but prepare for weather extremes. There is no “normal” with what to expect for first and last frost or much relating to the weather effects on the crops that we grow. For twenty years, we’ve been exploring all aspects of season extension to increase soil and air temperatures for early and lengthened harvest. Now many of those warming techniques we’ve been using need to morph into something different. Adapting to climate change is key to our ability to continue to grow crops.
Another challenge on the farm is simply that we are in our 60’s and the physical challenges of land management have changed. We have learned how to set a steady pace and accomplish what needs to be done. We have learned how to prioritize and plan each days work. Things that I used to be able to accomplish alone, I now need assistance with. That said, any kind of small acreage farming operation is challenging simply in time management. Our motto for many years has been “do as much as you
can, and then do some more.” Now it’s more “do what you can, take a nap, and do some more”.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
It is a proud moment having an 86 year old man tell me “those are the best tomatoes I’ve ever eaten” at the farmers market. We have long time customers who have become friends and local food enthusiast at the farmers market. There is no greater praise to a farmer than “yours is the best I’ve ever tasted”. To have someone introduce me as “my farmer mentor” always makes me happy. We love feeding people fresh, certified organic produce and teaching others to grow is a passion that I will continue doing this as long as I am physically able.
In addition to rewarding aspects of growing food, an integral piece of what we do is teaching others how to do what we do. Whether it is through on-farm apprenticeships or workshops, field days, on-farm research, or extensive educational programs through University of Idaho, it is most satisfying to have students walk away with knowledge that they personally utilize. We have hosted hundreds of student educational programs and many of them have gone on to become successful small acreage farmers. Some of our apprentices and gone on to become food advocates, managers of community gardens, school garden coordinators, and much more. Last year, one of the organic gardening workshop participants said she had been attempting to grow a garden here for 15 years and was ready to give up. After taking the on-farm organic gardening workshops, she applied what she learned and for the first time had a bountiful garden. I am proud of being able to help develop a foundation of hands-on learning that has empowered the next generation of small acreage farmers and food enthusiast. To me, this is as important as growing good food.
When you aren’t busy farming, what kinds of things do you like to do?
I like to write and make a point of writing every day. Living in parts of this rural and wintery landscape of north Idaho, it’s good to have a hobby to do in the winter months to pass the time; I am not one to sit without doing something. I don’t think I’ve ever been bored at home. Winter is the time of the year that I can relax a bit and do things that let me explore my creative self. The crafts I have made over the years are working with things that nature provides, like growing flowers to dry for making wreaths and swags. I made these and sold them at craft shows for about ten years, but don’t make them anymore. I also weave wheat into wheat hearts, grow gourds and dry them, then use a wood burner to decorate them with Native American designs. I started making what I call “Goddess Dolls” out of felt a couple of years ago just to give away to my girlfriends, but will be making them to sell next year. I make herbal salves and lotions from herbs that we grew and dried along with lip balm and elderberry tincture.
The thing about doing what you love for a living is, it all melds together. In the winter, if there is snow, we go snowshoeing often as there is 350 acres of wildlife management area behind our farm, and another 350 acres in front of us, so lots of ground to explore and spend time in the woods. The dogs love going to walks and they enjoy exploring the wild lands nearby.
What do you envision for the future of our local food system?
I see a need for a local food hub in every community. What I mean by “food hub” is that there needs to be a central location where farmers can bring their food in to be distributed and marketed throughout the local community. A local food hub would strengthen the food system and make it easier to meet the needs of the wholesale marketplace, and increase quantity of sales to possibly be able to meet the need for supplying local schools and institutions.
For a small acreage farm to be successful and sustainable, the farmer needs to be a savvy grower, marketer, food handler, distribution manager, and a delivery driver. With a food hub, a non-farmer and team of food advocates would be managing the next steps for distributing food off the farm. This would make it possible to be able to meet larger orders by combining food from different farms to meet the need. The growers collective that we managed in the early 90’s basically did this.
Farmers markets serve the community well, but most small acreage farms have more produce to sell at the end of the market. There are many successful models of food hubs happening across the country; some are regional and include several states, some focus on locally grown being 100 miles from the place the food was grown. and I’d like to see more of this happening locally.
For something like this to work, it has to be a fair trade proposition where the farmers are getting a decent price for the food they’ve grown. A food hub makes it easier for local eaters to connect with local farmers; it’s a win/win situation for the future of building our local food systems.