Skokomish Valley Farms, Washington
Paul Miller of the cooperatively owned and managed Skokomish Valley Farms, Washington speaks of the benefits of growing in soil, the challenges under the current USDA organic label, and his history as a fighter jet pilot and gardener.
Skokomish Valley Farms, Washington
Paul Miller:While an organic label is kind of a step in the right direction, don’t just trust that as the end-all, be-all of it.
The more close you can get to your food, the closer you can be to knowing your farmer, the more you can know what their practices are and the land where that food is grown, and how it was grown, then you’ll be in a better position to make an informed judgement, an informed decision on what food you want to buy and consume and feed to your family.
About our farm here at Skokomish Valley Farms, we have 18 owners, each with 40 acres, and the majority of that 40 acres is in an agricultural easement that we then cooperatively farm together.
We grow mostly vegetables, some fruits, and we have chickens as egg layers.
So, a wide variety of vegetables, I think our crop list this year had 70 different crops and 120 different varieties, and that’s not counting the cut flowers that we have as well.
The Organic Difference Is Living Soil
Anderson, one of our part-time workers on the farm When she was driving cross-country to move out here, she was talking with one of the checkout clerks at the store and noticed that she was buying a lot of organic produce that costs more than the traditional.
Store clerk: “Can you really taste the difference? Is it really any better?” You’re kinda missing the point. It’s not just about the taste or flavor, you know. The extra health benefits, one, of the food, and two, of the whole practices beyond organic to grow it in a way that we’ll be able to continue to grow it and all of the additional micronutrients that you’re having in your food when it’s grown in living soil makes a big difference.
So, I think it’s important to recognize and not let the organic label be diluted by practices that are run counter to those ideas.
One of the reasons that I find organic farming is important to me is that I want the land to better every year that I’ve been farming on it rather than using it up.
We had asked ourselves questions at the beginning, “Okay, we are going to be organically growing our food.” “Is it really sustainable for the world — can we grow enough food this way?”
After looking into it more and having done some ourselves, I kind of turn it around and ask the question of, “You know, could we continue to grow enough for the growing population of the earth using conventional methods?” Because it really seems like the organic methods are in the long term, a lot more productive, more sustainable, and that that seems the way to go.
The Organic Label And Animal Welfare
So some of the things with the Real Organic Project and things that we love about that are conversations that we have been having with many of our other customers and other growers in our community, both owners on the farm, but also other farmers in the local area.
One side of it is sometimes the organic label can get a little bit of a bad name because of a lot of the practices that larger organic companies are doing which are not necessarily as beneficial for the environment or for their soil or animals that they have on their farm may not be treated in a manner that most people would consider to be responsible.
We find that a chicken should live the life of a chicken. It should live the best life it can in accordance with its agricultural purpose.
And having it in a cage or just with a tiny little door to a dirt path outside doesn’t seem like the way a chicken is supposed to be living.
So we find it important to have chickens much more out in the open, spending their life like a chicken. And we have to think that, in addition to it being a happier and healthier chicken, that’s going to result in more healthy food from the eggs and from the meat of the bird as well.
Working With The Natural Complexity Of Microbiomes
Soils are another important thing. So the soil and the microbe community in the soil is so complex, just like we’re finding now that your gut biome, in a human is much more complex than we ever used to think it was.
And that complexity is something that’s a lot more difficult than we can just put together a bag of mix to add to your water to assume that everything in there is going to be everything that that plant needs to grow and thrive and provide healthy nutrients for us to then consume.
Let’s work with nature instead of against it. Make the environment and your soil in such a way that it can provide those nutrients from a healthy, living soil to the plants, so they’re nice and healthy and nutrient-rich and able to resist pests and disease both to make farming easier and more productive for you, but then also to have a better consumable product, that it’s a more highly nutritious and nutrient-dense for when we’re eating it.
You can make all of the money claims of sure, it’s a growing portion of the market, commands a higher price, but those are really more ancillary benefits than the reason we chose to do what we’re doing.
The Power of Growing Food Everywhere
My electrical engineering degree and computer science degree and being a fighter pilot for 20 years didn't really directly prepare me for being an organic farm manager. While we were stationed in Misawa, Japan, I had a fairly sizable garden and found that I really enjoyed working out in the garden whenever I had the time for it.
Also, really got a kick out of neighborhood kids coming by and they were more of a pest than the rabbits were, I guess you’d say. Wake up Saturday morning, you hear the hose going and kids are out and have been pulling carrots and washing them and eating them right there!
Also getting a kick out of other kids [who were] not really sure what was going on with the garden. One young girl asked, “Why do you grow your own food? Can you not afford to buy it?”
Just people getting in touch with their food — I love that whole idea. Another girl was there helping us harvest some ears of corn, and I didn’t realize until later that she had shucked the corn and was pulling all of the kernels off of the cob, because it was the only way that she'd ever seen it — was frozen nibblets you know, in the grocery store, she thought that was the only way you could have corn.
Just a lot of good getting to share that with our kids growing up and then also with other kids around in the community.