Piece By Piece Farm
The Story Behind Produce Prices
Laura Mosher and Kelly Battershell have been devotedly working the land near their home in Northeast Olympia for nine years, or as Laura puts it, “seven seasons.” Piece By Piece Farm has developed into a productive small-diversified vegetable farm. Their produce can be purchased at both Co-op locations, by signing up for their seasonal CSA program, visiting their on-site farm stand Wednesday from 3-6:30 and Saturday 9-4 pm, and starting this spring at their new stall at the Chehalis Farmer’s Market. The one-day a week commitment at the Chehalis Market was too appealing to pass up. For those of you who frequent this market you are in for a real treat.
Sitting in an old apple orchard near their fields one afternoon with Laura and Kelly of Piece by Piece Farm and Kim Langston, one of the Coop’s two Local Farm Coordinators, I learned about the joys and struggles of small farmer life. I also came to understand more clearly what the price per pound of a melon in the summer really means. It’s not just about how much is spent at the register, but about what it takes to get that sweet melon–grown just down the road–to the table.
Being surrounded by all of the many details it takes to get our amazingly fresh produce into Co-op coolers, Kim brought with her some of the questions and concerns she struggles with daily. And so I serve here as a reporter to pass on some answered questions and hopefully illuminate our OFC membership about the hidden costs and precious value of the food we so appreciate.
Getting to Know Our Farmers
Laura and Kelly met at a Farmer’s Market in Belfast, Maine, where Laura was apprenticing at a goat dairy. While Laura was enjoying farm life – milking the goats and making the cheese, Kelly too was nearby experiencing full-on farm living and working long hours apprenticing on an organic vegetable farm. At the time, Laura saw her direction as one of a cheese-maker, not realizing that down the road she would find her deeper love and commitment as an organic vegetable farmer.
Kelly told us that he first discovered his love for fresh veggies by gardening his yard in Olympia, which drew him to enroll in Evergreen’s Sustainable Agriculture program. As fate would have it, he came across a flyer one day for a full-time apprenticeship on an organic farm in Maine. He applied and was accepted and his life was never the same again. It was here that he first met Laura. After two seasons in Maine he returned to Olympia eager to break his own land. With the help of a friend he secured his first piece of land. They still farm there today. Rather than re-enroll at Evergreen, Kelly opted to dive headfirst into farming and has never looked back. Eventually Laura realized that she too was ready to dive headfirst into veggie farming, so hung up her cheese-making apron and moved to Olympia. Although they started on two separate paths, they eventually came together to create Piece By Piece Farm. They’ve been farming and growing together ever since.
They now farm about 7 acres of leased land close to their home off Shincke Road in NE Olympia. The land ranges from sandy loam—heavy on the sandy—to blue clay. Laura and Kelly have settled into life as small farmers, passionate about the work they do, committed to producing quality produce for our community, and loving the lifestyle that also gives their table such nutritious food. When asked about their favorite veggies, Laura immediately commented on the variety of peppers she loves to grow, adding that the tomatoes are her favorite to munch on. Kelly had a hard time singling out a favorite, pointing out that whatever is in season is the most appreciated, although both chimed in that melons are a lot of fun once they are ripe and ready for harvest. There always comes that time in the season where you just can’t eat another pea or green bean. Fortunately for them, there’s always another crop right around the corner.
Kim wondered how farming in Olympia compared with the farming experience in Maine. Both Laura and Kelly observed that Maine is a special place when it comes to organic farming. There’s a “strong commitment to sustainable agriculture and an overriding spirit of self sufficiency that isn’t common in most places.” Kelly laughingly admitted that, “even the conservatives buy local produce. Local food is just what you eat there.” They both spoke appreciatively of the Maine Organic Farms and Gardens Association (MOFGA) and the farmer-supportive programs they sponsor. Programs such as a fall fair, much like a county fair, in which even the food vendors are required to use organic and local products; an apprenticeship program that encourages local farms to employ and train new farmers (Laura got her goat farm start with them); and a journeyman program that offers land and equipment to apprentices to give them a final boost toward working their own farms. While Washington has many great programs to offer, it became clear during our conversation that Washington could stand to learn a few things from the state of Maine regarding agricultural support programs. But that conversation is for another day.
The acreage they work close to Olympia keeps them busy and offers a variety of interesting challenges. Like many of their fellow farmers in Olympia, they struggle with soil that isn’t as rich as that which can be found in land along the banks of the Chehalis or Cowlitz River. They have several types of soil on the seven acres they farm. Each one requires them to be mindful of what, how and when they plant each crop. You can’t do the same things with sandy loamy soil that you can with hard clay soil. Increased summer temperatures and dry spells have really increased their appreciation for the heavy clay soils. The sandy loam acts like a sieve and requires more water and maintenance to keep up with during the hot months. While the clay may be harder to work, it requires less water. Farming is all about trade offs.
Land in Olympia is also more expensive to lease or buy per acre than it is down south 30-50 miles away. In Olympia it is typical to only find smaller plots of land are available and water rights can be a tricky situation for anyone farming. Laura could think of few other small farmers in their neighborhood who sell to the public. But among those who are working to farm the larger region, she feels comradre and sees a willingness to share information about their trials and successes, knowing that what works for one might not for another. There’s a tight community of local farmers who help one another out and who they can go to with questions and solutions.
When asked about what they do to try to make the farm more sustainable they said they, “spend a lot of time thinking about the way we do things and are always working to create a sustainable lifestyle for ourselves.”In addition to installing a drip irrigation system, they have partnered with another local farmer on two seed-saving projects this year. They also try to purchase seeds as often as possible from small seed companies. They are adding a new greenhouse this year, which will help them save water and get crops going earlier and will be raising pigs again to help them deal with all the compost and produce that never makes it off farm. But unlike larger operations that can afford expensive grey-water or solar projects for sustainability, these small farmers are just happy to make it through the day. “I’m lucky,” says Laura, “if I can get all of last night’s dishes done, lunch made, eat some breakfast, work the farm and get home in time to eat dinner and do it all again the next day, I’m doing pretty good.”
Organic Produce Pricing & Defining Local
Sometimes confronted with member requests for lower produce prices, Kim often finds herself thinking about the organics industry, both regionally and nationally. “It used to be that you could only find organics in really limited places,” she says, “and now they can be found in any grocery store in the country, even if only a small selection. Locally sourced produce has been the big new trend for a few years now. Every store out there touts their local/regional organics program. More people are buying organic now than ever before. But acreage for organic farming is not increasing quickly enough on a large scale to meet the demand. I think locally we have a skewed perception of what a medium or large-scale farm is. In our local program, a farm with 50 acres in production feels huge. But in reality a 50 acre farm is very small, almost a blip on the radar. Most of the farms we work with farm less than 15 acres. If you add them all up they equal quite a lot of acreage, but on their own they are so small.”
“It also gets really interesting when you start to research how stores define local. For the Co-op, local is anything that we buy directly from Thurston, Lewis, Mason, Grays Harbor or Piece County. To be a part of our buy-regional program you must deliver the product directly from the farm to our stores. Two examples of this are Brownfield Orchard in Chelan and the Okanogan Producers Marketing Association (OPMA) in Okanogan County. So when people are shopping in a store they should always stop and ask someone working how their business defines local. I think they might be shocked to learn the answer. Often time’s local simply means Northwest grown. I don’t personally think of food coming from Oregon as local. I think of it as regional. There’s a big difference between the two.”
Kim goes on to add, “one problem I see for consumers is that demand for organic produce has increased nationally, yet organic prices keep staying the same, often increasing, and sometimes decreasing depending on crop availability. Why is this happening? Great question. Lack of quality farmland, cost of farmland, lack of federal assistance programs, high cost of running an organics program, expenses that typically never go down for small producers, higher wages for farm workers–the list goes on and on. In fact, most of the farmers in our program have expressed concern about the drastic increases in the cost of seeds, amendments, pest control, equipment, water, and etcetera. Food is priced so artificially low in our country that it’s hard to know the real cost of production any more. This puts farmers everywhere in every sector in a hard position. It’s our job at the Co-op to try and keep the dialogue real and the best interest of our producers and shoppers in mind at all times.”
When asked about how these factors affect them, Laura says, “there’s a lot of manual labor on a 5 to 10 acre farm. Our costs are high. Unlike larger operations that benefit from bulk supply purchases and expensive technology and equipment, small farmers don’t have a lot of money to invest in ways that can lower prices. Small farmers just don’t make a lot of money. The cost of what we buy to grow vegetables doesn’t decrease, even though more people are buying organic. There’s really nowhere to go as far as lowering prices–you can’t go down from just getting by. So–why do we do this? Because we love what we do!”
How the Co-op Helps our Local Farmers
So how do our produce managers at the Co-op deal with this disparity? “We ask the local farmers what they need to live, to pay their crew and then we do our best to try to match it,” Kim says. “We don’t always succeed, but we try, considering also what our customers can afford and expect–then we educate so that our members understand exactly what their money is paying for. It’s important for our members to know that for every $1.45/pound they pay for locally grown yellow onions they buy the farmer is getting paid $1. The farmer makes $1 and the Co-op makes 45 cents. In most circumstances the opposite would be true.
The Co-op has a unique way of supporting our local producers directly by offering them a higher wholesale price than other grocery stores will pay and using a lower mark-up to keep it as affordable as possible. While other grocery stores lower the price of their organic options by increasing the price of their conventional options to make them more competitive, the Co-op chooses to use a higher mark-up on non-local produce purchases to make up some of the difference.
The Co-op Mission and values are present in everything the produce department tries to do. We strive to make good food accessible to more people, support efforts to foster a socially and economically egalitarian society, and support local production.
“Did you ever doubt your choice to pursue farming?” Kim asks Laura. “Every day in August–I get tired,” Laura answers with a laugh. “Sure I doubt it sometimes, but I love being self-employed, and have learned how valuable my time is.” When asked what advice would she give others wanting to pursue farming as an occupation she says “occasionally I regret coming to farming later in life.” Laura admits that, “if I had realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life ten years earlier–it would be amazing.” And so her advice would be to “fully immerse yourself–don’t dabble–in farming. Work on several farms and in an area where you might want to farm–then dive right in and farm for yourself.”
For more information about Piece by Piece Farm you can visit their Facebook page or drive out to the farm during their open farm stand hours on Wednesday from 3-6:30 and Saturday 9-4 pm. The farm is located at 4141 Shincke Road, NE. You can also find their gorgeous produce on display in both Co-op locations as available.
Desdra Dawning, Board Member
Kim Langston, Staff Member