Green Acre Radio: Can organic farming be sustained on the Olympic Peninsula?

As with regular farming, the work force is nearing retirement ages. New approaches are needed to attract young people.

As with regular farming, the work force is nearing retirement ages. New approaches are needed to attract young people.

Introduction: If organic farms want to maintain their unique niche — over the past decade sales of organic produce have shown an annual increase of 20 percent — they’re going to have to train people to grow the food. The average age of both organic and conventional farmers is 57. Just 6 percent are under 35. An organic farm on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula is trying to turn things around. For the last fifteen years Nash’s Organic Farm has offered jobs to motivated young people interested in learning the art of organic farming. The next step is offering shares of land to a promising new generation.

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Narration: It’s Kia Armstrong’s weekend to sell organic produce at a farmer’s market in Seattle. She helped grow and harvest every item on display, grains like rye and barley, radishes, Jerusalem artichoke, spinach, and garlic scapes. A customer takes a closer look.  “We were trying to figure out what they grow off of. Yeah. In early summer the garlic plants we planted last fall are going to seed and they send up this tall flowering shoot. They’re great grilled. I like to put ‘em in the pan with some butter in the morning and crack an egg into it. You make it sound very appealing. We’re going to give it a shot.”

Eight years ago Armstrong got a job at Nash’s Organic Farm on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. The 32-year-old farmer has never looked back. “The power of food is amazing and I feel really lucky to be a part of a healthy food system that gets life giving food to people. To me that’s what it’s all about. It’s about empowering our community so that we can continue to grow food together.” The farm grows 150 acres of vegetables, 150 acres of grains, as well as a few pigs and chickens. They sell direct at 11 farmers markets and three wholesale companies. The farm’s unique microclimate in the rich Dungeness River Valley enables them to grow year round.

But it’s access to land that has allowed the farm to diversify and what will allow the farm to hand off shares of land to those who’ve helped it grow. Nash Huber and his wife, Patty, started with 10 acres 20 years ago. Kia Armstrong says Huber always had his eye on other pieces of land and kept track of how quicky houses were cropping up. “He started to build relationships with local landowners and like I say PCC Farmland Trust really set the tone for people stepping up to the plate and saving land."

PCC Farmland Trust is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving farmland. They bought more than 170 acres 10 years ago when Huber approached them to find a way to fight land grabbing by developers. Rebecca Sandinsky with PCC Farmland Trust: “The mechanism that the land trusts around the country use is something called a conservation easement. A conservation easement buys down the development potential of a piece of land and says hereon forward this land can’t be developed for anything other than in our case we say agriculture, specifically organic agriculture.” Following in the steps of PCC Farmland Trust, another land trust and others interested in protecting farm land here have purchased easements on 385 acres of this 400-acre farm. 

The next step, and one the farm hopes to resolve shortly, is how to pass shares of land to the next generation. Nash Huber hired a consultant a couple of years ago and incorporated the farm. I catch up with him on a lunch break. “You have to be able to keep your good people that’s the secret and we’re still struggling with how we want to do that, how we can do that. Because my goal is not to have a farm auction when I’m gone and my wife has to sell everything. No. My goal is to see this farm exist for many generations after I’m gone.”

But even when Huber figures out the mechanism for passing shares of farm land on, challenges remain. Salary is minimum wage. It goes up slowly. Those who become managers can earn more. Huber won’t disclose the exact sum but says it’s close to what average college graduates are earning this year, $27,000. To sweeten the deal, everyone who farms gets all the produce they need and discounts on eggs and pork. Lifestyle and community are what draw most.

The second challenge and a big one, says Huber, is to restructure the way the agricultural economy works. On average food travels 1,500 to 2,000 miles before it gets to someone’s plate. “We’ve not approached it from the point of view of producing it ourselves. Most of the food we eat now is imported. So we’ve not thought about who’s going to do the work.” The answer, says Huber, is to train people to work hard and teach them to appreciate the meaningful lifestyle farming offers — community, land beneath your feet, the tastiest food around. “Agriculture is so varied that it has potential to turn you on whatever way you want to be if you really want to work on it.” With that, he returns to the midweek farm lunch shared by all and prepared with ingredients grown right here on Nash's Organic Farm.

Green Acre Radio is supported by the Human Links Foundation. Engineering by CJ Lazenby. Produced through the Jack Straw Foundation and KBCS.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.