Every day we become more aware and thankful for essential workers. None can be any more essential than farmers. But every year there are fewer of them. Farmers and ranchers make up just 1.3% of the employed US population, totaling around 2.6 million people. Today, there are about 2 million farms in operation in the US, a steep decline from 7 million in 1935. (businessinsider.com)
Of that only 5% of current farms are family-owned. (Wikipedia) and less than 1% of existing farms are organic. So a third generation farmer who has been certified organic for the last 25 years is a rare person indeed. Ron McLean is that person.
His family has owned sub irrigated bottomland along the Colville River north of Addy for all of his life. His grandfather had a dairy herd there when dairy was good money. His father farmed grain as agribusiness went through the “green revolution” and Ron learned the trade growing up.
The farm is just as big as it was 45 years ago, around 700 acres, over a square mile. He farms 520 acres of it. Holding on to land that keeps increasing in value while the value of your crops keeps decreasing is tough. Years ago the farm had a gross income of $50,000. It was a decent living in the 1960s. Now it wouldn’t cover the cost of operations.
It was helpful that the family invested in buildings and equipment when they could. Having silos for his crops allows Ron to wait years until the price is right for his crops. Sometimes that is 2 or 3 years. Along with infrastructure, staying in business means having capital, so you can wait out the price fluctuations. Being able to raise your own food and repair your own equipment helps with that.
Besides the cost of doing business going up, the competition from around the world for bulk commodities has been driving the value of crops down steadily since the year 2000. That is not just true of conventional crops but also – and maybe especially – of organic crops. Aiming for that higher value, foreign countries are less ethical in policing their products. For instance, Whole Foods sells a “California Blend” of organic vegetables that comes from China where organic certification inspections are practically non-existent. (www.fooddemocracynow.org)
McLean just planted his organic peas when I talked to him. Last year’s average price for conventional dry peas grown in Washington was $1.20 per pound to the farmer. Organic peas are worth over twice that. If it is that profitable to sell organic crops, why are only 1% of our crops grown organically?
There is no simple answer to that. As a farmer you need to pay attention to a lot of factors. One of them is yield. Success with conventional crops is usually measured in yield. But growing more on the same amount of land no longer means making more money. While the cost of chemicals and equipment keeps going up and the value of crops competing in a world-wide market keeps going down, the solution is most often to “Get big or get out.” But once your soil gets used to more minerals and chemicals, it won’t yield without them. Ron views it as a kind of addiction that takes 3-5 years for withdrawal.
Recently Ron has been able to sell his crops to Brad Murphy and his family at Red Bridge Farm Livestock Feed in Kettle Falls. Other organic farmers growing livestock are wary of the risks in quality and supply when depending on foreign suppliers for feed. Red Bridge offers a secure domestic source for organic feed. Business keeps growing as word gets out. Brad has been able to rejuvenate the grain silos and railroad connection in Kettle Falls. He is able to store, grind, mix, sell and ship organic feeds all from this one location.
Staying small means paying attention to your soil; the market; your equipment; the weather and your own health. Ron developed a dislike for the chemicals his father was using when he was young. The mix of hard work dust and dirt is hard enough on your health without breathing fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides.
The health of your soil underlies the whole enterprise. To keep his land producing Ron rotates winter wheat, peas, wheat again and then fallow ground. The fallow ground allows him to control weeds like yellow thistle and replenish organic matter. The peas build nitrogen in their root nodules. The rotation discourages pests from accumulating year after year.
Staying small means looking at your net profits and not just your yield per acre. The bottomland is your bottom line. You can’t just buy your way out of every problem that the farm throws at you. Ron says you have to keep trying new things and learn from experience. Part of his experience is that you need to work the soil in order to get anything out of it. Soil quality does not just improve on its own if you leave it alone. As he says “Do nothing, get nothing.”