For our second field trip our oddly blended entourage headed out to one of our biggest produce suppliers. Ralph’s Greenhouse. The name is a bit of a misnomer, suggesting a tiny little homestead perhaps, rather than the global authority it actually is. The owner, Ray de Vries, inherited the farm from his father, Ralph, and it did indeed start as a small greenhouse. One that still stands but is mostly used for employees to grow their own pet projects. For Ralph the farm started as a retirement project after 20 years of dairy farming. The three acres, however, quickly expanded and grew until estimates put the acreage anywhere between 250 and 330 acres, depending on whom you ask. They went from a small family farm to providing most of the organic leeks in the country.
Our tour was lead by Tim Terpstra, the farm manager. It says something about our society that we have a certain image in our minds when we think of farmers. Go ahead. Picture one now. Are you imagining a field of plaid and denim? Big, clunky work boots or cowboy boots? The truth is some of those stereotypes are true but maybe not for the reasons you think. Practicality is the trick to farming. Yea they wear work boots to deal with mud and cowboy boots are stiff enough so a horse won’t crush your toes when they inevitably step on you. And they have a heel so your foot doesn’t slide through the stirrup while you’re riding.
Tim fits the image of a farmer. He’s wearing plaid and wellies. But behind that is a well educated renaissance man. A man who focuses on the science of farming as much as he does the socioeconomic impact of market prices and shares. He graduated with honors in Political Science and has studied French, Arabic and learned Spanish.
“I got tricked into working here,” he tells us with a laugh. In truth it’s how Ray started working at the farm too. Ray, an accomplished wood worker and contractor, started out part time to help his dad. Tim came to Ray to learn about woodworking rather than farming. That was in 2003. “I still don’t know anything about woodworking,” he tells us.
No, now he is working grueling long days, hitting the ground running at 5:30 a.m. and finally winding down around 6 or 7 p.m.. It’s a massive undertaking to handle this much acreage and that is demonstrated by his constantly ringing phone. One of the challenges the farm is currently facing is the lack of employees. Currently they have around 80 people working, but in actuality they need closer to 110 to get all of the work done.
When a farm is shorthanded crops sometimes have to be sacrificed because they simply don’t have enough people to harvest them. Those crops are sometimes tilled into fertilizer, or turned into animal feed. With our current stretch of dry weather the issue is compounded by the need to water all the crops. A combination of river water and well water is used to keep the plants alive and a team of eight works as an irrigation team, moving pipes throughout the day from field to field. The rain Washington is so prized for saves them about $1,000 a day in labor costs.
The farm has been certified organic since 1988 (the first year the program started in Washington) and although leeks are their biggest selling item they are major providers of carrots, beets, potatoes, kales, chards, collards, spinach, fennel, cabbage, parsnips, dandelion greens, shallots as well as a few tulips and daffodils and a new experimental project with dahlias. The dahlias are a joint effort with Floret Flowers, another of the Skagit Valley’s farming success stories.
While the soil in Skagit Valley certainly lends itself to astounding produce, organic farming has its own unique set of challenges. “A lot of organic farming is paying attention in a different way,” says Tim. Rather than pesticides and weed killers the farm looks to techniques like flame weeding and companion planting. One example he shows us are rows and rows of Kale studded with a plant called phacelia, which attracts a parasitic bug that kills moths that can damage the plants.
A lot of what works for them has been a labor of experimentation and trial and error as well as listening to their employees. “We absolutely listen to our crew. We really value our workers.” He describes people who have worked for the farm for 10 years, 20 years. People who are genuinely invested in the well-being of the farm as a whole and who take pride in what they do and the beautiful plants they produce. Ray and Tim work hard to ensure that those workers are well taken care of. Crops like tulips and daffodils are usually planted at a loss but, during their slow season when root crops aren’t as active, it keeps their workers employed.
The attention to detail, the amazing results they achieve and the absolutely stunning products they produce are all enough of a reason for us to use Ralph’s Greenhouses products but once again we find ourselves excited about their future. One of the many projects in the works is a cheese house, which will hopefully be turning the milk from their large herd of goats into yet another delectable treat that we can invest in and share with our own customers. In the end it’s their passion and drive to always do something more, something better, that makes them such an amazing partner for us.