Scaling up
Ten years ago, Gabe Cox and Sophie Bello had barely begun to think about farming. Today, they grow vegetables and fruits on over 40 certified acres and sell at 7 farmers' markets a week, in addition to managing a CSA and wholesaling.

By Laura Sayre

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.

Bootstrapping success

Shady ladies: Sweet peas grown in the cover of a hoop house .

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.

"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."

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.)

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 Willamette River.

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.

Serious management

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.

Farm at-a-glance
Gabe Cox & Sophie Bello
Groundwork Organic Farm
Junction City, OR
Established: 1999
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 sell."

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 them."

"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."
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."

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 doing."

Laura Sayre is senior writer for NewFarm.org.