Growing organic food just part of husband-wife team’s mission

Northwest Organic Farms does its part for agriculture education

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

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RIDGEFIELD — Joyce Haines seldom misses a teaching opportunity. It’s one of the reasons she and her husband, Greg Valdivia, have frequent visitors to their home, where they run Northwest Organic Farms.

Often, Haines finds her guests have a lot to learn.

There was the time a child insisted that milk comes not from cows, but from WinCo. When a group of teens visited the farm a couple years ago, it was clear some of them had never seen an apple growing on a tree, Haines said.

“I wish we could get more kids from schools to come out,” she said. “A lot of kids don’t have any idea where their food comes from. Absolutely none.”

Haines and Valdivia have made education a key mission of Northwest Organic Farms, located just off Northwest 179th Street south of Ridgefield. The farm has been a regular stop on agricultural tours coordinated through the Washington State University Clark County Extension. It’s also hosted an annual garlic festival for more than a decade.

As the operation has embraced ag tourism, it’s also become something else: a successful small organic farm that thrives on Clark County’s growing interest in local, natural foods. Haines has noticed a huge change in the local landscape, even from five years ago.

The difference, she said, is people want to know more about what’s on their plate — and they want more fresh options.

Growing, marketing

Even if you’ve never heard of Northwest Organic Farms, you may have tasted its produce. Haines and Valdivia count local grocers among their customers. Perhaps the two biggest names on that list, Chuck’s Produce and Zupan’s Markets, suggest a high standard.

“Those are much more exclusive grocery stores,” said Charles Brun, horticulture adviser with the WSU extension. “That’s a hard nut to crack.”

Selling in those stores requires more than an outstanding product, Brun said. It also requires successful marketing and an outgoing personality, he said.

For Northwest Oganic Farms, that would be Haines. She describes the dynamic between her and Valdivia this way: “He’s the worker; I’m the talker.”

Valdivia most often works the farm with his brother, who lives a few miles away. The farm produces garlic, tomatoes, peppers and a host of other fruits and vegetables. For Valdivia, operating the farm is a way to stay connected to his roots.

“This is how I was raised in Mexico,” said Valdivia, whose family moved to the United States in 1990. “I have this in my blood, you know?”

In many cases, fruits and vegetables from the farm skip the store and go straight to local dinner tables. Northwest Organic offers a community supported agriculture program, or CSA, through which members can purchase a share of the farm’s bounty and receive a box of produce each week through the season.

The arrangement, offered by many small farms in the area, gives people fruits and vegetables that are hours old, rather than days or weeks old, Haines said. It also helps determine what goes in the ground each year, she added.

“We try to grow what we think people in the CSA would like,” Haines said.

Safeguards

When they started the farm some 10 years ago Haines and Valdivia decided to make Northwest Organic more than a name. The farm is certified organic by Oregon Tilth, and keeping that status means navigating a complicated set of requirements and rules, Haines said.

“Anyone can say they’re organic and that they’re following the practices, but are they?” she said. “It’s just another safeguard.”

As a certified operation, the farm is subject to regular inspections, Haines said. And officials look at more than the final product — they’ll also look at soil samples, bank statements, invoices and other documents, she said.

“You have to keep good records,” Haines said. “They want to see everything.”

Haines and Valdivia say the certification is well worth the trouble. And the decision to go organic was simple: It’s a healthier way of growing that uses natural methods and avoids the use of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals, she said.

This time of year, the work days are shorter than the peak of the season. Trees are pruned, seeds are ordered and odd maintenance jobs get done, Valdivia said. Eventually, planting starts the growing season in earnest.

But Haines won’t turn away a visitor, a chance to expose agriculture to a new set of eyes, even in the winter. That’s a valuable offering for a trade now practiced by a very small percentage of the population, Brun said.

“You can learn from the American university, but ultimately you’re going to learn a lot from farmers who are willing to share,” Brun said. “I use them as an example of what other farmers could do,” Brun said.

Joyce Haines

Profile of Joyce Haines, owner of Northwest Organic Farm in Ridgefield.