New grants help organic farmers thrive

This article was originally published in March 2021

Francisco Cabrera (L) talks with Kate Smith. Photo credit: Karen Ducey

Francisco Cabrera (L) talks with Kate Smith. Photo credit: Karen Ducey

 

Grants from PCC will help three local farms improve and expand their production of organic crops.

The PCC Organic Producer grants were open to farmers and producers throughout Washington state, regardless of whether they were PCC suppliers.

“Organics are better for people and the planet,” PCC’s social & environmental responsibility team said in a statement inviting applications. “Washington state is the third largest producer of organics in the U.S. (in farmgate sales), and demand for those products continues to grow. We believe Washington state can grow organic production to meet this demand.”

A pilot version of the program last year had proved especially valuable as the COVID pandemic affected producers. Recipient Moon Valley Organics, for instance, received a pilot grant for an expansion that included purchasing a new filling line that was recycled from another local body care producer. “Before this we were hand filling all our foaming soaps and body washes. The new line increases production by 150%!” company leaders said in a grant update. River Valley Organics in Tonasket used its grant funds to reconfigure its covered parking area and provide more heated break space for employees, while Seattle’s Shen Zen Tea, a tea and kombucha company, received a pilot grant to buy an industrial-strength juicer to process and then freeze more local fruits.

Committee members considered several factors when awarding the 2021 grants, balancing the benefits of helping smaller and newer farms establish themselves in the industry with the benefits of helping older and larger farms reach the next level. They also worked to help individual farms reach their goals while also funding projects that could reach a larger number of producers.

There were so many admirable producers that made these proposals this year, said Joe Hardiman, PCC’s longtime produce manager. “It’s pretty tough, it’s a tough choice,” he said.

Ultimately it was rewarding as well, supporting producers in reaching our shared goals.

Here are the three 2021 recipients, who will each receive $5,000:

Cabrera Farms

The grant to Cabrera Farms in Mount Vernon will allow owners Zochitl and Francisco Cabrera to buy a water-wheel planter to help farm more efficiently and expand production on their family farm. It will also fund the purchase of organic rye/vetch seeds for cover crops on 11 acres, improving the health of their soil.

“I began farming when I was very little in my village. I worked for other people for most of my life. I came to California and picked strawberries. Now, to have my own farm business of 10+ acres feels like a big success…” Zochitl wrote in the grant application. “Before, as farmworkers, every year was the same and we didn’t have the opportunity to advance. Now, we are working for ourselves and our business is growing!” The couple has been farming for six years now, and dream of having “a larger farm and more employees to be able to grow more healthy food for the community.”

Committee members noted that the grant would cover the entire cost of the machinery and that bringing in the planter could be a game-changing benefit for the small business.

First Cut Farm

Samuel Bowhay, who founded First Cut Farm in Mount Vernon in 2019, will use the grant funds toward equipment and electrical work that will make it more efficient and effective to wash and pack his snap bean and potato crops. The project will improve shelf life and freshness for his crops “while making the work more gentle on our bodies,” he wrote in his grant application, including allowing workers to pack potatoes without bending over. Bowhay began the organic farm on 2.5 acres, relying on his own labor and help from friends, then expanded to 7 acres with 2-3 employees depending on the season.

“I strive to grow beans that recall the ones you picked in your grandparents garden and potatoes so delicious you reach for that cookbook in search of creative new ways to prepare them,” he wrote. “I plan to scale and mechanize very intentionally such that First Cut Farm can offer stimulating and sustainable year-round full-time work.”

Four Elements Farm

Four Elements Farm, a family-owned certified organic vegetable farm in Puyallup, will use its grant money toward a “bed shaper” as part of a larger project to use the land more efficiently and grow vegetables in more standardized shapes and sizes.

“It will mean a much higher efficiency, which in turn will ease the backbreaking work employees do in hand weeding and other labor associated with our current planting methods,” wrote Amy Moreno-Sills, who owns the farm with husband Agustin on 120 acres of land conserved by the Washington Farmland Trust. The couple founded Four Elements in 2014 after 15 years of managing other organic farms, and she wrote that they want to be able to invest more in employees and on conservation work.

“We have been the employee. We know EXACTLY what it is like. We understand with every fiber that without the employees, there is no farm,” she wrote.

Committee members said the well-established farm knows how to scale up to larger projects and would contribute to the grant program’s goals of improving and expanding access to organic products in Washington state.

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