Renewing the Countryside: Washington

Closing the loop
It started ten years ago with "a rototiller and an idea." Today, Full Circle Farm grows organic produce for 500 CSA members, 50 restaurants, 15 grocery stores, 12 farmers' markets, and 4 wholesalers.

By Ingrid Dankmeyer
Excerpted by permission from the forthcoming book,
Renewing the Countryside: Washington.

Posted September 13, 2004


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

In 2003, the non-profit organization Sustainable Northwest joined with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU, Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, and Farming and the Environment to identify and promote 50 outstanding examples of ecosystem restoration, working lands management, and watershed stewardship in the state of Washington. “Renewing the Countryside” is a national project brought to Washington in partnership with Minnesota-based Renewing The Countryside, Inc., which plans to publish collections of case studies on land stewardship and restoration for every state in the U.S.

Renewing the Countryside: Washington is scheduled for publication as a high-quality coffee table book in February 2005. For more information, or to purchase a copy, contact:
Sustainable Northwest
620 SW Main, Suite 112
Portland, OR 97205
503-221-6911
www.sustainable
northwest.org

Farm at a Glance

Andrew Stout &
Wendy Munroe
Carnation, WA

Location: 30 miles east of Seattle

Land: 120 acres in production

Markets:
• 500-member CSA with three box-size options and 25 pick up locations
• Over 50 restaurants
• 15 grocery stores
• 12 farmers' markets
• 4 wholesalers

Other projects:
• Developing a compost facility to help manage was for several areadairies
• Researching with Washington State University into better flea beetle management
• Test-growing Chinese healing herbs
• Producing jams and salsa
• Promoting farm-to-cafeteria programs and institutional purchasing of local foods

The weathered red barn and old tractors moving slowly through Full Circle Farm seem typical, but on closer inspection you might notice that many of the folks cleaning produce and loading boxes or driving tractors loaded with flats of lettuce seedlings look more like college students or high-tech entrepreneurs than seasoned farmers. On this land the ideals of the organic movement have been grafted on to the sophistication and market savvy of the 21st century, and the results have been fruitful.

Full Circle Farm has about 120 acres in production this year, most of it along the Snoqualmie River, 30 miles east of Seattle. This large scale, along with cooperative links with other West Coast organic farmers, has allowed them to offer greater flexibility than other subscription farms, bringing the idea of community supported agriculture (CSA) to new audiences by providing unparalleled selection, convenience and service. Where most CSAs offer their subscribers with box of whatever is ripe every week from spring through fall, Full Circle Farm collaborates with other farmers to provide a wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables every week of the year. Customers can make online substitutions and opt out of some weeks to accommodate their schedules. Instead of one-size-fits-all quantity and pick-up options, Seattle-area clients can choose from three box sizes and 25 pick up locations.

“We are really making it as consumer-friendly and convenient as possible and the feedback we’ve been getting is just amazing,” says owner Andrew Stout. “People are so excited about being part of this, about the opportunity to work with the farm, while also having it work for their lifestyle. It’s 2004 and people have busy lives and they don’t want to be tied to a traditional CSA.”

CSA membership has recently doubled to 500 subscribers, and Andrew expects that number to double again as they add eggs, honey, cheese, bread, and shade-grown coffee to their list of offerings. They also sell to over 50 restaurants, 15 grocery stores, 12 farmers’ markets, and four wholesalers. All of this adds up to expected sales of over $1.1 million this year.

Falling into place

The seed of Full Circle Farm sprouted just over a decade ago in the Midwest. Andrew Stout and Wendy Munroe had completed an internship on an organic farm in Minnesota, and they were looking to start their own farm in the Northwest. They raised capital for the new venture by unconventional means, making and selling over 1000 egg rolls at Grateful Dead shows. Then, along with Andrew’s brother and a friend, they leased five acres in North Bend. “It had just three acres of tillable ground on a beautiful mountain side, but very rocky, rough conditions,” Andrew remembers. “We started with a rototiller and an idea, and only novice farming skills.”


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

“We started with a rototiller and an idea, and only novice farming skills.”

--Andrew Stout
(pictured with partner
and wife, Wendy Munroe)

Still, by the end of their first summer, they had put together 20 sample boxes with a price list, farm description and a business card, which they drove around on a Friday to give to restaurants and grocery stores in the Seattle area. “We called people back on Monday, and we started with $1600 in sales that next week and it’s climbed ever since.” Every year they were able to put a bit more acreage into production in different locations. “We managed to survive that time because we had really good quality produce and we were fortunate in stepping in at the right time.”

By 2000, they were farming four different sites and moving equipment efficiently from place to place was becoming logistically challenging. When the roof blew off the donated trailer they were using as an office in North Bend, they decided to consolidate elsewhere. Through a service offered by King and Snohomish Counties, called FarmLink, that connects aspiring farmers with land and services, they were able to find this 80-acre dairy in nearby Carnation.

Quite a bit of work was required before they could move the whole operation there: “Two hundred yards of concrete later; completely power-washing 80 years of debris out of barns; getting rid of all of the manure, stables and stanchions; putting up the greenhouses; and basically building infrastructure (kitchen, break rooms, office) that this place required to be operational," Andrew summarizes. "We did all of that while farming 40 acres. That fortunately was the year I was getting married [to business partner Wendy] and we wanted to get married on the farm. There’s nothing like a wedding to make a farm look good!”


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004
“We have a good marketing plan and a very diverse cropping mix . . . If one crop fails we’ve got ten more to take its place . . . If one account is not buying much that week, we’ve got 15 other outlets to sell to. It was hard to build that up, but now that it’s built it’s fairly able to run itself and can take the stress off of us as the business owners and principal farmers.”

Now Andrew and Wendy are reaping the benefits of their hard work. “We have a good marketing plan and a very diverse cropping mix. We are not really at the mercy of anything. If one crop fails we’ve got ten more to take its place.” Andrew smiles and demonstrates his unflappable sales skill: “If you don’t want my apples, how about my kale, my potatoes, my squash? You find they can’t say no to everything. If one account is not buying much that week, we’ve got 15 other outlets to sell to. It was hard to build that up, but now that it’s built it’s fairly able to run itself and can take the stress off of us as the business owners and principal farmers.”

Andrew still doesn’t consider himself an expert farmer. “I am not a great grower. I am good, but it takes years to be great. Marketing is my strong suit and providing service.” Those skills are also helping other small farmers reach consumers through partnership with Full Circle Farm’s CSA program.

Saying 'yes'

Full Circle Farm has also reached out to work with regulatory agencies to address environmental concerns, which are focused on the Snoqualmie River running along one side of the farm, and Griffin Creek flowing through it. They were the first farm in King County to complete a horticultural plan that addresses potential erosion, waste management and stream setbacks. “We passed with flying colors, and it’s exciting to do. We’re trying to be the exemplary farm around here that says, ‘Look, you can work with the government, you can do all of these things legally and it’s not a hardship, it is not something that’s crippling. They have a lot of resources and they tell us a lot about how we’re doing things.’”

When the farm’s irrigation ditches needed cleaning, Full Circle Farm braved the 19-month permit process that led to the ditch being sloped, graded, meandered, planted with willows, and augmented with cedar stumps. “It was not easy. But it worked, and we were able to show the county that some parts of the process probably weren’t necessary.”

Partnership building clearly comes naturally to Andrew. “We’re just out there saying yes to whatever we can. It’s exciting!” Other projects underway include: development of a compost facility that will help several local dairy farmers manage their waste; Washington State University research into better management of the flea beetle; test-growing Chinese healing herbs which currently have to be imported from abroad; production of jams and salsa; and promoting farm-to-cafeteria programs and institutional purchasing of local foods. “We are always trumpeting that local is better: local flavor, local fresh, local support.”


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

“We’re first generation farmers, which is unique, but also becoming more common . . . Now we’ve got new people coming in and the barriers to entry are stiff, but there is a strong desire to do well by both yourself and the community.”

Finally, Andrew and Wendy have themselves come full circle by offering seasonal internships to aspiring young farmers. Of last year’s five interns, four have started their own farms. “We’re first generation farmers, which is unique, but also becoming more common as a lot of folks from the old days have gone out of it because the food system is broken and they weren’t able to survive. Now we’ve got new people coming in and the barriers to entry are stiff, but there is a strong desire to do well by both yourself and the community.”

Andrew is bullish on the future of organic farming, and his optimism and enthusiasm are contagious. “We grow food because I believe that’s what I am supposed to do – grow good healthy organic produce for people.”