[Market-farming] Organic farmers share tips for competitive marketing

Aozotorp at aol.com Aozotorp at aol.com
Thu Nov 6 14:21:53 EST 2003

Organic farmers share tips for competitive marketing 
Washington Tilth Producers gather in Bellingham this weekend 
Ericka Pizzillo, The Bellingham Herald 

Twenty years ago, much of the small amount of organic produce in the country 
was sold to wholesale companies that trucked the food to cooperative groceries 
or health food stores across the country. 

But today, with the growing number of farmers markets, corporate agriculture 
getting into organic farming and demand for organic produce even in the most 
mainstream of grocery stores, small organic growers are looking for new ways to 
market their produce, said Anne Schwartz, an organic farmer in Rockport in 
Skagit County. 

If you go
The Tilth Producers Annual Conference will be Friday through Sunday at the 
Best Western Lakeway Inn, 714 Lakeway Drive. 

Registration is $110 for nonmembers for Saturday and Sunday seminars, and an 
additional $50 for the Friday organic farming symposium with author, 
consultant and organic olive grower Amigo Cantisano. 

Information: (206) 442-7620 or www.tilthproducers.org. 


The changes for small-plot organic growers in the state will be the topic of 
Schwartz's speech and several of the seminars at the Washington Tilth 
Producers conference at the Best Western Lakeway Inn this weekend. 

About 350 tilth members are expected at the three-day conference, beginning 
Friday night. The conference will focus on environmental issues that farmers 
face, marketing organic produce and technical information on organic farming. 

Washington Tilth began in the 1970s, with various chapters made up of organic 
growers and buyers. Tilth means "the act of tilling land." 

One of its chapters, The Northwest Organic Food Producers Association, formed 
a statewide production and marketing group and certified growers as organic 
for two decades, until the state took over the certification. 

Washington Tilth's producers cooperative took the lead in pushing organic 
certification in the state and has worked on national organic standards that 
became federal law last year. The law now requires that food labeled as organic 
must meet certain standards, including being free of chemical pesticides. 

Big competitors 

The national standards came while organic food sales were increasing by more 
than 20 percent per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And 
now with food giants such as General Mills and Heinz involved in organic food 
production, the farmers who started the movement are changing how they market 
their products. 

"It's so competitive now that you simply can't compete with a grower that 
grows 6,000 acres of carrots," Schwartz said. "So there's been a big shift in the 
last couple of years to figure out what will work." 

Brent Harrison, who farms five acres of organic produce and herbs north of 
Bellingham, has been growing organically for 20 years. When he started Growing 
Garden, he was considered to be on the fringes of the agricultural industry. 

He now sells his herbs to large grocery store chains based in Bellingham such 
as Haggen and Brown & Cole, which operates Cost Cutter and Food Pavilion, as 
well as the Bellingham Food Co-op and Fairhaven Red Apple Market. 

While organic is already in demand, Harrison said the fact that he's local 
and can provide some of the freshest products to local stores is his best 
marketing point. 

"Before, we used to be unique for being organic," Harrison said. "Now we can 
say we have an additional advantage of being local. And the reality is if 
we're local, we're one step closer to being sustainable." 

Harrison said he hasn't had problems adjusting to the new national organic 
standards. But some farmers in the state have chosen not to undergo the new 
standards and simply educate the public about how they grow their produce and 
market themselves first and foremost as "local." 

In her early days of farming, Schwartz said she would sell some of her 
produce in small batches to Cascadian Farms, the Sedro-Woolley-based company that 
has since been bought by General Mills. 

"In the early days, my rhubarb would be shipped to 20 different markets up 
and down the West Coast," Schwartz said. "But with the prices going down and the 
big corporations involved, there's no way I could do that now." 

Many large-scale food companies are now passing up small amounts of organic 
produce in favor of encouraging traditional farmers to switch to organic and 
grow dozens, if not thousands of acres of organic produce to meet the growing 
demand from the public. 

At the same time, the number of farmers markets has increased by more than 
one-third in the country, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. That 
gives small growers a greater outlet for their food locally, said Schwartz, who 
sells her produce at Pike Place Farmers Market in Seattle and a farmers market 
in Twisp. 

"Everbody's had to change to survive," Schwartz said. "The challenge now is 
how to get the message out to consumers that their vote is their dollar if they 
want to support local agriculture." 
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