Competition puts pressure on small organic farms

Tom Zimmerman has been growing organic produce since the 1970s. “As I kid I raised a large vegetable garden and started to grow commercial organic vegetables later on,” he said.

GRAYS RIVER — There was a time when Tom Zimmerman sold everything he grew.

It was a day when demand for organic produce was seemingly insatiable and the farms producing it were decidedly fewer.

Today, when the 56-year-old farmer walks the fields of Glory B Farm in Grays River, he’s filled with nostalgia about how the industry once was, before the commercial sale of genetically-modified foods and the proliferation of large-scale organic farms.

“I can’t say organics are not doing well, just not for small farms like it was,” Zimmerman said as he walked along his 10-acre plot. “When I got into it there wasn’t much supply. I could sell everything I could grow. That’s not the case anymore.”

California farms continued to grow as Washington farms shrink.

In California there are more than 2,700 certified organic farms that account for $2.9 billion in annual sales, approximately 38 percent of the U.S. total in 2016. Washington and Oregon accounted for $636 million and $351 million in organic sales, respectively, the same year. Overall, organic food sales have climbed from $13.2 billion in 2005 to more than $47 billion in 2017. However, small, organic farms aren’t the ones cashing in, according to Zimmerman.

“The wholesalers have moved away from dealing with smaller farmers to larger businesses,” he said. Zimmerman believes his demand drop from wholesalers is likely a result of more organic farms in California. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms in Pacific County decreased from 390 to 330, a 15 percent drop.

It’s been an uncharacteristically dry year in Washington — particularly so in Grays River, a region that rarely experiences drought conditions. The dry weather has had a direct impact on crops.

“It’s a dry summer,” Zimmerman said. “But not as dry as I’ve seen.”

Zimmerman recalled a particular summer in the late-70s that left large swaths of his farm brown from drought. This summer the artichokes, rhubarb, fennel and several varieties of peppers are flourishing. The melons and corn, however, were a casualty of the conditions.

“We try to extend the season as long as possible, but it’s been a little difficult this year because it’s been so dry,” Zimmerman said. He is hopeful that damper days and cooler nights will come soon, making what has become his signature crop extra sweet.

As an organic farmer, Zimmerman is particularly proud of his pesticide-free strawberries.

“Strawberries are at the top of the list as far as pesticides,” he explained. “Buying organic makes a lot of sense for them and people realize that. It’s probably our biggest crop.”

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