Washington state’s organic-farming picture dimmed some last year, but some farmers in Clallam and Jefferson counties are enjoying a ray of sunshine — in terms of popularity.
A recent Washington State University report showed a slight decrease in organic operations, with 104,962 organically farmed acres across the state in 2009 slipping to 100,553 acres last year.
The number of growers went from 753 in 2009 to 735 in 2010.
But these are the numbers for farmers certified organic by state inspectors — and not a reflection of what’s growing on the North Olympic Peninsula, said WSU Extension officials familiar with the local scene.
Clallam County has 11 certified-organic farms, the same number it had in 2009 and 2008, while Jefferson County went from 11 organic operations in 2008 to 13 in 2010.
Clallam’s state-certified organic farmland, meantime, went from 420 acres three years ago to 458 last year.
In Jefferson County, the acreage did decrease, from 939 three years ago to 824 in 2010.
But “I see no diminishment in the goal of doing organic practices . . . in fact, I see an increase in young people wanting to come here and farm,” said Pamela Roberts, interim director at Jefferson County’s WSU Extension office.
“[Organic farming] is increasing. Even those who are not certified are using organic practices.”
In Clallam County, you could say Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Produce is the big daddy of chemical-free farming.
“Local is the new organic,” Huber said last week, referring to the demand he sees for locally grown produce, certified organic or not.
“That’s where it’s all headed,” he added, “and that’s fine with me.”
Huber, who started growing organic vegetables on less than an acre in 1979, now farms some 400 acres across the Dungeness Valley.
He’s watched the country’s demand for organic produce blossom over the past decade.
But these days, people are also hungry for fresh, local food — not necessarily with the certified label — as evidenced by the health of farmers markets in Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Those operations have flourished in recent years, enjoying increases in sales and numbers of vendors.
In Port Townsend, for example, the farmers market’s annual sales have risen steadily since 2005 to exceed $1 million last year.
“‘Organic’ doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning it did a number of years ago,” said Curtis Beus, the longtime WSU Extension agent who moved from Clallam to Okanogan County earlier this year.
“Quite a few large, industrial-type farms in Washington, California, Mexico, Chile and elsewhere are now growing ‘certified-organic’ produce, even though their production systems are a far cry from the original intent and spirit of the original founders of organic agriculture,” he said.
“In today’s market, many small farms are choosing not to become certified-organic, even if they essentially use organic methods,” Beus noted, adding that certification is costly and cumbersome even for small farms.
In communities like Port Angeles, Sequim and Port Townsend, “the relationship between seller and buyer often trumps the need for any type of certification,” he said. “There is trust built up.”
That’s the experience of Karyn Williams, who’s seen sales jump at her Red Dog Farm in Chimacum.
Between 2009 and 2010, Red Dog’s volume rose about 35 percent, Williams said, and the sales numbers are continuing to grow.
She did get organic certification for her 13-acre farm — where tomatoes, strawberries, broccoli, spinach and salad mix are among the most popular products — because Williams wanted to sell her vegetables in the Port Townsend Food Co-op’s organic produce department.
But the people who are members of her CSA — or community-supported agriculture — service join simply because they want local food straight from a local farmer, Williams believes.
CSA shareholders receive a box of fresh produce weekly from the farm, which also sells vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers to the public seven days a week at its stand at 406 Center Road in Chimacum.
“Most of my customers have a relationship with me” and the farm, she said.
“They know my practices. They’re not worried about the state” and its certifications.
At West Wind Farm in Joyce, farmers Peter and Jane Vanderhoof are not certified organic, though they use no pesticides nor herbicides.
“Given the paperwork and time cost, it was too prohibitive,” Peter Vanderhoof said.
West Wind is also following the trend Roberts alluded to: younger farmers joining the veterans.
Lela Copeland and Robert Ginwright, both in their 20s, work alongside the Vanderhoofs; they’re all seeing an increase in appetites for their local food.
Sales of West Wind Farm’s vegetables to Country Aire Natural Foods in downtown Port Angeles, for example, bumped up between 2009 and last year, Peter said.
Statewide, however, sales of organically grown products have slimmed.
From 2008 to 2009, the latest year for which data is available, the numbers slid 15 percent to $210,704,970, according to the WSU report.
North Olympic Peninsula farmers fared better: Organic produce sales have risen 50 percent in Clallam County since 2005 to nearly $1.234 million last year, while Jefferson County’s increased 34 percent in the same period to slightly above $1.125 million.
Huber, who sells Nash’s Organic Produce goods from Port Angeles to Seattle, has watched the demand for chemical-free food grow both in the Puget Sound metropolitan area and closer to home.
The Seattle market has been vigorous for quite some time, he said.
As for the home turf — Sequim, Port Angeles, Port Townsend — “for the past five years, it’s been very active. The local market is growing.”
Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.The Associated Press contributed to this report.