Renewing the Countryside: Washington

Local with a vengeance
Grant Gibbs won't sell his organic produce and meats beyond a 20-mile radius of his farm in the Northern Cascades of Washington. He'd rather feed it to his hogs than take it out on the interstate--and he's doing just fine.

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

Posted October 14, 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

Grant Gibbs
Gibbs’ Organic Produce
Chelan County, WA

Location: about 100 miles east of Seattle

Land: 80 acres

Products:
timber, beef
• pork
• poultry
• mixed vegetables
• apples
• pears

Markets:
informal subscription sales
• farmers' markets
• food co-ops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grant Gibbs is a modern day pioneer who has integrated farming and forestry operations on his 80 acres into what he calls “a 1930s-era fully cycling farm.” In his pine-encircled valley tucked in the North Cascades, eight organic garden patches are interspersed with pasture, orchard trees, a creek, poultry and pig pens, a small scale mill, and round wood buildings he constructed from timber he selectively harvested from the steep surrounding hills.

Grant has invested almost 30 years in managing and maximizing this land’s productivity, using every natural farming technique ever heard of and then some. “I saw this farm as a spot to do ‘permanent cultures’ and pass it on generation after generation. When you plant an orchard it is not a one person lifetime thing – it goes on and on and on. The berries, the fruit trees, the forest, the riparian zone – the whole ecosystem is working together as a permanent culture. I am not ever going to take my hayfield out of hay because I need it for the cows, and I need the cows for compost, and I need that manure for the orchard.”


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

"My goal was to make 10,000 bucks off this land. . . . Back then, who would have guessed that organic would do what it did?"
Grant’s first lesson in farming came in the late 1960s when he decided to head for Canada instead of being drafted for the Vietnam War. “I didn’t have enough money to make it to the border. So I went underground, working without a social security number as a migrant, a hobo. I rode the freights and picked orchards.” In 1975 he was able to buy this deserted dairy farm. “It was a mess. Nothing was here, no power, no wells, no fields, no road. It was all going back to forest, so I had a huge chore to build all the buildings, start managing all the timber stands, figuring out my field layout.”

“I started farming organic after working chemical farms all my younger life. I could see what it was doing to the ground and the air and the water and the people that worked it. I saw how it was a vicious cycle. I knew I didn’t want to go down that road.” He was less certain about how he would make a living farming a different way.

“My goal was to make 10,000 bucks off this land,” Grant remembers. “I was pretty happy when I first hit that and my dream had come true. Back then, who would have guessed that organic would do what it did? I thought it was going to be a major problem my whole life trying to find a market, somebody who wanted to buy organic hamburger, organic pears, organic lettuce. It was actually a project as much as farming to sell your crop. Now the demand is such that you can basically stay home and let the phone ring and if you want to answer your phone you’ll sell your whole crop.” But Grant has chosen to only sell locally, even though the demand for organic produce is far greater west of the Cascade Range, and that means marketing remains a challenge.

"Customers don’t have to pay me up front, but it essentially is a subscription agricultural program. People say, ‘Raise me 10 chickens. Raise me a hog. I want a quarter of beef from you.’ It works out real good."
“I refuse to haul it to Seattle. It is either going to get sold in this county or fed to my pigs. I’m not going to run the I-90 gamut and burn fuel. I just want to stay simple and sell it within 20 miles of the farm.” Even with that self-imposed limitation, demand has grown and Grant now raises produce on about two and half acres. “Originally I had three gardens, now I have eight. I raise six to twelve cattle depending on my hay crop – they are grass fed and people love it. My hogs and fryers are all spoken for. Customers don’t have to pay me up front, but it essentially is a subscription agricultural program. People say, ‘Raise me 10 chickens. Raise me a hog. I want a quarter of beef from you.’ It works out real good.”


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

In addition to selling direct to his neighbors, Grant retails the products of his farm at a number of local farmers' markets and food co-ops. He acknowledges that the hardest work has been selling, rather than farming. “Probably the biggest challenge was accepting the fact that I was going to have to be a marketer and a farmer, and learning how to market. To farm like I do and stay in control of everything you grow - you’ve got to be a marketer.”

Eliminating off-farm inputs

Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

"My biggest bill every year is the taxes. The best incentive that could ever happen to me would be if the county tax assessor realized that this awesome farm provides clean water, healthy forests, organic agriculture, organic Christmas trees, organic meats, organic hay. If they valued that enough they could cut my taxes a bit or even eliminate them."

Grant has designed his farming systems to assure that almost everything that comes off his land has a market or is reinvested in the fertility of the ground. He is close to meeting his goal of having no off-farm inputs. “All my fertilization comes from the farm, that’s why I keep livestock.” Grant designed and built a “pig tractor,” a movable pigpen that he rotates over all eight vegetable gardens as part of his four year rotation. “Wherever I had the pigs last summer, I plant sweet corn the next summer; after that comes the leafy greens; then I grow a tuber – carrot or beet – on the third cycle; and the fourth year I do a legume before I go back to the hogs.”

Every second year Grant does a light application of compost on his gardens, and that is where the other livestock are useful. He makes a couple tons of chicken manure compost every year. The coarse sawdust from his Volkswagen-powered mill becomes bedding for his cows, and then a key ingredient in the annual batch of 20-25 tons of cow manure compost. “I’ve been monitoring the plant growth – as long as I see good vigor, good dark green color in the leaf then I know my nitrogen level is up – so it’s saving me time and money in the long run not over-fertilizing.”

Grant designed his orchard to provide an additional hay crop. “I planted the trees far enough apart because I knew I wanted to get a crop out of there in perpetuity. I manage the orchard floor like I would the pasture because I consider it a benefit to have that long tall grass in there that offers a sanctuary for the beneficial insects. I release hundreds of dollars of beneficial insects every year, eight different kinds. Over 20 years I’ve been doing that, and now I am monitoring the populations to see if they are over-wintering and checking their work out to see if they are keeping the pest insects in check. I have had really good luck with it. It is a long-term fix. Instead of a short-term ‘spray the problem with a biological insecticide and call it good,’ I am planning, 20 years down the road, on having the whole thing balanced out, the insect population working for me.”

“My biggest bill every year is the taxes. The best incentive that could ever happen to me would be if the county tax assessor realized that this awesome farm provides clean water, healthy forests, organic agriculture, organic Christmas trees, organic meats, organic hay. If they valued that enough they could cut my taxes a bit or even eliminate them. That would be a huge help to me. I’m doing the same thing I‘ve been doing for 30 years and everything is changing around me. All these mountain tops are getting second or third family dwellings built on them, and guess what, up goes my taxes.”

“As the farm changes and new neighbors move in, there are a lot of things going through my mind: maybe it’s about time to bite the bullet and spend $10,000 and build a new stainless steel, county-approved kitchen so I can do value-added food products. Maybe that’s the way the farm can keep up with the increasing taxes and the surge of people coming into town with the big money.”


Copyright © Jim Anderson 2004

In the meantime, Grant has his hands pretty full as it is. Over the past 12 years he has hosted one to five interns in a seasonal farm apprenticeship program. Now other members of his family are taking on more of the farm work. Grant’s oldest son has built his home on the property and lives there with his wife, assuring continuity among the human inhabitants.

As he surveys the tall pines that loom around his fertile green pastures and leafy green gardens, Grant reflects on how his lifestyle is a continuous learning process. “I feel like life and farming are an ongoing experiment with no certainties to the outcome. A lot of my experiments have failed and a lot haven’t; whether they fail or not, it’s still a learning experience. As long as things keep changing, I’ll stay on the beginning end of the learning curve.”