January 27, 2005: The Willamette Valley
is Oregon's organic farming heartland. Here in the broad green
floodplain between the Cascade and Coast Ranges, stretching
north from Eugene to Portland, excellent markets combine with
good soils, a favorable climate and still-affordable land
to create real opportunities for aspiring organic farmers.
Spend a few days here and you think, this is how it should
be: a place where apprentices can become journey-people and
then move on to farms of their own without leaving behind
hard-won contacts and local knowledge.
Groundwork Organic Farm, owned and managed by husband and
wife team Gabe Cox and Sophie Bello, is a case in point. In
just six seasons, Cox and Bello have built Groundwork from
scratch into a thriving independent enterprise, cultivating
over 40 different crops on 41 certified acres, including greens,
cucurbits, root crops, tomatoes, beans, brassicas, alliums,
corn, rhubarb, strawberries, herbs and cut flowers. They run
a 100-member CSA, service a wide range of wholesale accounts
and do a staggering seven farmers' markets a week--three in
Eugene, two in Portland, one in Bend and one in Lake Oswego.
"The farmers' markets are where we really saw the opportunity,"
Bello explains. "Markets in this area are really good,
and they've been getting better and better," Cox agrees.
When Groundwork first got started, he says, $3,000 for the
day was a good farmers' market gross. Since then, Groundwork
and other local organic farms have been regularly breaking
their own records, topping $7,000 and even $8,000 on a good
day at the height of the season.
Of course, those kinds of returns don't just happen—Groundwork's
growth has been the product of hard work, steady commitment,
and courage. "We lost $30,000 the first year we started
farming," Cox recalls. "We broke even the third
year, and made a profit the fourth year." For the first
several years they couldn't get a bank to back them ("No
bank's loaned us money until this year," Cox notes) so
they had to cobble the financing together on their own by
moving debt around on zero-percent-interest credit card offers
and borrowing money from family members.
Neither Cox nor Bello grew up farming. A child of the Indianapolis
suburbs, Cox says he was attracted to farming in part because
it offered such a different way of life from what he was used
to. In his late teens, he got interested in horticulture;
at 21, he dropped out of college to do his first farm internship.
Next he went to work for organic grower Tom Denison of Denison
Farms near Corvalis. It was here that Cox gained the experience
that really shaped him as a farmer. "Tom took me in the
direction I wanted to go," Cox says simply.
After working with Denison for a couple of seasons, Cox started
scoping the area for a place of his own. "I must have driven
past this farm fifty times, admiring it—when it went on
the market I jumped," he recalls. Borrowing money from
family members at market-rate interest, he and Bello paid $215,000
for 30 acres and a run-down house. (Five years on, they're just
finishing fixing up the house.)
"What I like about farming
is the diversity of the things you get to do. It's sales,
it's growing things, it's mechanical, plumbing, electrical,
greenhouse construction. I like it all."
The quarter-quarter section of level silt loam lies just
off the main road north of Eugene, toward the small town of
Junction City. Traditionally, this area has been home to sod
farms and nurseries; this farm was previously used to grow
corn and seed. On three sides the fields give way to the willows
and alders of Curtis Slough, which in turn merges with the
Today, in addition to their own land, Cox and Bello farm
10-acres belonging to a neighbor, renting the land along with
a house for some of their full-time employees. Cox admits
he's been lucky in finding land so far. This is one of the
few but expanding number of areas around the country where
certified organic acreage is commanding a rent premium. Good
conventional farmland here rents for about $125 per acre per
year; good certifiable farmland can be twice that.
At 29 and with eight years of farm experience under his belt,
Cox is modest about his achievements ("It's hard to grow
really quality stuff like you want to--I'm pretty much an
amateur," he says), but he's also clearly a person who's
found his calling. "What I like about farming is the
diversity of the things you get to do," he smiles. "It's
sales, it's growing things, it's mechanical, plumbing, electrical,
greenhouse construction. I like it all."
Bello was working as a baker when she and Cox met, and in
the early years of Groundwork's development she continued
to hold an off-farm job while gradually shouldering more responsibilities
at the farm. But today she too is a full-time farmer. "Bit
by bit every thing sort of came together," she reflects.
So what are the secrets to Groundwork's success? The key,
Cox says, is seriously hard work combined with a good dose
of moxie. "You've got to put yourself on the line, take
some risks at some point," he argues. "After my
first year, for example, I finally got the courage to buy
one of these," he says, gesturing toward one of a small
fleet of Kubota tractors lined up along the edge of the farmyard.
Having the courage to go for it enabled Cox and Bello to scale
up, improve their production systems, and take advantage of
emerging market opportunities.
Along the way Cox has blossomed into something of a tractor
and equipment hound. For crop establishment, he’s got
a Rain-Flo water-wheel transplanter out of Pennsylvania and
a precision mesclun seeder from Sutton Ag Equipment in Salinas,
California, which can plant up to 22 rows on 44-inch bed.
For managing weeds, he's got an Allis Chalmers G and two IH
Cubs with a slew of cultivation attachments, a Bezzerides
Brothers spring hoe, a 3-row Multivator for rototilling in
between beds and a homemade single-row flameweeder.
|Gabe Cox &
Groundwork Organic Farm
Junction City, OR
Size: 41 certified acres
Markets: 7 farmers' markets/week,
100-member CSA, wholesale, restaurants
Crops: mixed vegetables, herbs,
small fruits, cut flowers
Cox says his soils are low in calcium—"the grass
farmers never applied lime"—so his soil amendment
regimen includes regular applications of powdered ag lime
(calcium carbonate) and gypsum as well as composted chicken
manure, as indicated by soil tests. During the growing season,
Cox also fertigates with Phytamin 800, an OMRI-approved product
available through Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. It has an N-P-K
analysis of 7-0-0.
One crop Groundwork specializes in is strawberries. This
year they have 5 acres, managed as annuals on raised beds
with plastic mulch. In Oregon's typically dry summers they
don't have much of a problem with the grey mold that afflicts
East Coast strawberry growers, although they do have to watch
for spider mites and for lygus bugs, which cause 'cat-faced'
berries. Cox advocates assiduous sanitation practices, including
pruning off bad berries and removing them from the field,
and tries to maintain a vigilant spray schedule with products
like Safer soap, Erase, and AZA-Direct.
A key part of Groundwork's winning strategy has been to prioritize
season extension. In addition to one heated propagation greenhouse,
Cox and Bello have a total of about an acre under hoop-houses
at the home farm, and recently put up a new Haygrove tunnel
at the leased farm that will double their area under cover.
Even in the darkest part of winter, they've got picture-perfect
watercress, beets, carrots, salad mix, spinach, and arugula
in full production, enabling them to keep selling at a winter
farmers' market in Portland and to a select group of restaurants.
Groundwork began a late-season CSA in 2000 and a summer CSA
in 2002. They now have about 100 members from May to December,
most of whom pick up their shares at one of Groundwork's farmers'
market stalls. Shares are priced at around $20 a week; in
addition, members receive a 10 percent discount on any additional
items purchased at the market stand.
Wholesaling—both directly to restaurants and small
shops and through regional organic distributor/broker Organically
Grown Company—has become an important part of Groundwork's
marketing mix. (Click
here for a New Farm story on Organically Grown Company.)
Because production allotments with OGC are distributed according
to seniority (which Groundwork has yet to acquire much of),
Cox concentrates on "find[ing] things that can sort of
offer a niche, like we do radishes for them from the end of
March through the end of June."
Although prices are necessarily lower than retail (OGC charges
a marketing fee of between 22 and 25 percent, Cox says), wholesaling
makes possible a scale of production that Cox feels is crucial.
"I think you have to get to a size where you can pay
your bills, pay a mortgage," he comments. "The benefits
are, you can sell quite a bit to OGC and it’s a guaranteed
Overall, says Cox, the farm's current business is 63 percent
farmers' markets, 7 percent CSA, 25 percent wholesale to Organically
Grown Company and 5 percent direct wholesale to restaurants
and smaller stores. Profits have definitely improved over
the years, but they can still vary widely from year to year.
In 2004, Cox says, Groundwork's labor costs amounted to 43
percent of their gross income. The year before, they were
33 percent. "The difference was we had some additional
weather-related labor requirements this past year. So that
hit us pretty hard."
Just being able to calculate those figures, of course, says
a lot about Groundwork's level of management. "We keep
track of a few things," says Cox self-deprecatingly.
Working hard, well, and smart
With so many acres in vegetables and fruits, Groundwork's
labor needs are substantial: Cox and Bello employ seven farmworkers
full-time, year-round, and as many as 26 in high season, not
counting up to 18 farmers' market people. (Groundwork's farmers'
market stands are so busy they often require a staff of four
or five.) They have a core group of Oaxacan immigrant workers
who have been with them for several years, which Cox and Bello
both acknowledge has been a huge benefit. "You couldn't
ask for better employees," Cox says of his field crew.
"They're smart, they're loyal, they're hard working,
and they're conscientious."
As a farm management team, Cox and Bello make major decisions
and long-range plans together but have evolved a rough division
of labor in terms of day-to-day work. Bello is in charge of
the greenhouse seeding, the CSA, and the cut flower operation;
Cox oversees the rest of the fieldwork and handles the ongoing
building and maintenance chores. In addition, they each work
two or three farmers' markets a week.
Still, Cox and Bello agree that one of the areas in which
they need to improve is labor management. "We'd like
to move to having crews more responsible for their own type
of things—a strawberry crew leader, a weeding leader,
pack-out leader," Cox explains. "Sometimes it seems
like we get running around with everyone trying to do everything
at once." "I feel like we're still learning how
we best need to delegate work," adds Bello. "It's
a big challenge doing that many farmers' markets a week [for
example] because we can't be personally present at all of
Another thing Bello wants to work more on "is getting information
off the farm and to the market staff." It's critical that
market staff be kept up-to-date about what's going on at the
farm so that they talk intelligently with customers, she argues.
Details about the farm can also be conveyed through newsletters,
pictures, or other signage. It's not easy adding materials like
this to the display "when you've got so much stuff to set
up already," Bello admits, but she feels it's worth the
effort because "it's something customers really are wanting."
||"Five years ago, we were farming
half an acre. Now we've got about 35 acres of farmable
ground, with a total of closer to 50 owned and leased
altogether. We don't want to keep expanding at the rate
we have. We just want to get better at what we're doing."
Finally, Groundwork continues to look for ways to diversify
their crop mix, add more high-value crops and improve their
farm stewardship. Last year they put in 85 peach trees and
an acre of blueberries, they just ordered 50 fig trees and
in the future they hope to add raspberries as well. "I'm
looking for the right piece of land [to add more fruit],"
Cox explains, adding that expanded permanent orchards are
part of a larger vision that also includes more arable ground
and longer rotations. "Ideally, I'd like to have up to
100 acres of available land, but only have about 40 in use
at a time, so we can do lots of cover cropping," he says.
Cox takes a deep breath, thinking about the future. "Five
years ago, we were farming half an acre," he marvels,
as though even he can barely believe it. "Now we've got
about 35 acres of farmable ground, with a total of closer
to 50 owned and leased altogether. We don't want to keep expanding
at the rate we have. We just want to get better at what we're
Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.