Ralph’s Greenhouse

Ray deVries, Member Spotlight, August 2011

Washington Tilth Producers August 2011 Member of the Month

Anyone who imagines farmers as curmudgeons never crossed paths with Ray deVries of Ralph’s Greenhouse.  Even though being a farmer was never part of Ray’s life plan, his exuberance and kind spirit, his commitment to his work and to the people he works with are tangible even over the phone. “The major thing we do here is employ people,” says Ray. “A lot of the reason for growing things is so the people who work with us always have something to do. We are able to employ people all year round.” The efforts of those people produce fantastic cold weather crops such as leeks, kale, beets and more. “Here, people work with us,” Ray states. “Nobody works for anybody else around here – and that’s important. This is our farm, together.”

What’s your most radical farm practice?
“We always take Sunday off. That’s really important. People think they can work every day of the year. That’s the problem with farming, you are never done. There is always more work to do, you are never finished. I picked this one up from my dad’s dairy farm. We set up the hay bales on Saturday so when Sunday came around we could just push them in, and have from 9am to 3pm off.  As a society we’ve forgotten the value of time, we’re always chasing dollars, but we can’t buy time – I think that’s something that’s probably different on our farm. When we grew zucchinis, we chose to throw the big zucchini’s away on Monday, rather than have to pick them Sunday.”

Wait, wait. Did you just say Dairy Farm? I thought you were the Leek King?
“My dad was a dairy farmer. In 1980, he retired, sold off the cows and equipment, rented out the farm and started a garden. He ran that eight years with a retired friend. In 1988 they got an order for 300 boxes of leek. When they got to box 175, dad called me up and said, “They are only getting 175. We quit.” He then asked me if I maybe wanted to help out a bit. I said, “Sure,” thinking I’d spend my mornings helping dad out and my afternoons in the woodshop. Twenty-two years later I’m still trying to spend my afternoons in the woodshop.

I once ran into a quote that said, “Once you own land the land also owns you,” I think that is true. As a kid in the Netherlands I remember that farm, then moving to the U.S. and watching my parents start all the way over from the ground up. They had to learn the language, start the farm and make it all work. After watching the price that had to be paid to make it happen it was too much to walk away from. You see, each generation gets to build on what the last one left, or they have to fix what the last one leaves them. I was left with something to build on.”

Will someone continue to build once you move on to retirement (and by retirement I mean wood working and contemplating the philosophical problems of the world)?
“First of all, what’s been built in my time has nothing to do with me. I work with a fantastic team of people and together we farm. My wife Becky does all the financials; there would be no Ralph’s Greenhouse without Becky. My only finance job is to get the checks to the mail box, Becky takes care of everything else. We have three boys. The eldest is a machinist. The youngest doesn’t know what he’s going to do yet but he’s having fun sorting it out. Our middle son, at age 11 said to me, “Dad I need cows.” I was able to put him off for a year, but only a year. He’s just finished up his degree in animal science and odds are really good that he’ll stick around with the land. He just doesn’t know what he’ll do with it yet. It probably will come full circle, back to cows, just like my Dad.”

Since you aren’t doing cows – what’s your favorite crop for growing?
“Leeks!”

Surprise, surprise.
“They grow slow, so slow that you have lots of time to watch them grow. You can check in and then say, “See you next week, we’ll see how you are doing.” The picking is fun – it’s a crop that suits me well.”

Do you still get to do the picking?
“No, now I just talk on the phone. That’s always been my favorite part of the job; just talking to people as part of the normal course of the day; people who buy our produce, truck drivers, people who sell seeds and supplies. Everyday things that make the farm go round – I have people in a wide range of places that I get to talk to and I really enjoy that.”

What advice do you have for beginning farmers?
“Deliver a good product and deliver it on time. That’s all it takes. And grow something that fits the area that you live in. If you want to live in Western Washington, grow something that will grow well in the area. We don’t grow oranges because they don’t grow well here. Don’t try to push water uphill, we used to try to do that until Woody Deryckx said to me, instead of pushing the system why don’t you just work with it? Instead of trying to have leeks in May and June, just tell people – there aren’t any leeks right now because they’ve gone to seed. As you get older you pick up on some of these things.”

What’s your soil like?
“We have really, really nice soil to farm in, fluffy sandy loom. It’s incredibly nice for whatever you want to grow. The fun part for us is working a field that’s new to us. As we start farming the ground organically, the soil becomes this really fluffy stuff and has all these bugs doing what bugs do, and its fun to see the transition. The longer we farm organically the less disease we have, and after 20 years of work you get to see that. The first few years it’s an uphill push to get soil going; it probably takes seven years to get there.”

Do you get push back about growing organically?
“Not nearly like we used to. People used to look at us like we had two screws loose and a flat tire when we told them we were organic farmers. Now people are like, “Whoa! He is an organic farmer!” People want to meet their farmer in the store or at the farmers market. Farming was organic when my dad started farming but it wasn’t called “organic”, it was just called “farming”! People have been farming for a long time and it is only recently that the name “organic” was added. My father just kept farming the same way his dad farmed in the old country. One day Roger Wechsler stopped in to talk to my dad and he asked, “You don’t use pesticides or herbicides?” My dad replied, “No, you don’t need to.” Roger then went on to tell dad that he was farming organically. My father’s reply was “Oh, that’s nice,” and he happily went on farming his vegetables and wondering what all the fuss was about.”

And finally, why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
“From my perspective farmers can be isolated on their farms and need to interact with other like-minded people. Tilth provides these opportunities, and the membership only costs a couple of boxes of produce a year. A number of years ago I was on the Tilth Board and we talked about WSU needing to start up an Organic Program.  Later on my son went to WSU and came back with an Organic Certificate as part of his degree. I never expected to see such a direct a result from the decisions that were made while I was on the board, but it happened, because Tilth made it happen.”

Ralph’s Greenhouse is situated on 100 plus acres in Mount Vernon, WA at 16942 Calhoun Road. Contact Ray at leekking@hotmail.com.

Tags: Greenhouse, Leeks, WSU