Billy Allstot, Member Spotlight, March, 2014
Tilth Producers caught up with Billy Allstot, founder and owner of Billy’s Gardens in Tonasket, WA, while he was in Imperial Springs, CA. Billy and his partner Stephanie Blackstad were farming there for the winter both to keep their hands in the soil and to warm their bones. In the Okanogan valley, Billy’s Gardens have been a constant on the organic scene for over 40 years. They cultivate certified organic tree fruit and berries, winter squash, melons, flowers, and two acres of greenhouse crops.
TP: What are you doing in Southern Central California in February and what is like there?
Billy: I love to farm. We start our artichokes in Washington and vernalize them there, then bring them here to bud in March. I can start my seedlings for my Washington crops earlier down here, with reduced costs, so why fight it? We are saving $20,000 a year in propane costs alone, and it takes just $500 in gas to transport us. Plus we have sunshine every day.
I have been coming down here for ten years, after finding the land on the internet; I walked in and got it certified. It is more rural here than home, with plenty of nice neighbors. Our not-so-nice neighbors are coyotes who rip up the drip line.
TP: How did you get started?
Billy: I was raised on an apple orchard. I knew early on it was exactly what I wanted to do. My parents took us through here [Imperial Springs] when I was 14. There are so many crops here – dates, row crops, cattle – it stuck in my head. I wanted to quit school and farm but my parents said no. So I took a bus down here and worked for about month. My parents wanted me to come home and agreed if I did, I could quit school. I went home but I did end up going to school. As a kid I never went out for sports; farming was all I wanted to do. After school, I got a loan and bought my first place. I was ambitious and optimistic. In the 80’s the apple farm went broke I was so far leveraged out; it was the reason I later diversified. That’s part of it how you learn. I had debt, got a divorce, and lost my farm. I kept my kids, though. Then I connected with Stephanie and her kids. She liked the lifestyle, and we slowly started over.
TP: Do your kids share a similar passion?
Billy: My son Noah bought his grandparents’ farm and leases back to us. We have our own farm. Stephanie and I have 50 acres, and we lease 40 from Noah.
TP: Tell me about the flower operation.
Billy: The flowers and herbs are Stephanie’s focus. It’s how we got started back the second time. She was doing wild dried flowers, foraging, and wreaths. I helped with the market, and it got me back into farming. I could see how I could make it if I did my own retailing; she does the herbs and bedding plants. We really help each other. We actually run two sets of books.
TP: What are some of the challenges?
Billy: The biggest is the financial end of it – trying to get money – especially once you go broke. Financing is so hard, especially if you are a little out of the main stream. In my experience, they would loan you money for apples even if you are losing money because they are familiar with it. But for tomatoes, you would be told no one else is doing tomatoes, and so you couldn’t access money as easily.
Twenty years ago, after leasing different parcels of land, we did get a farm when we found someone who believed in it. Cash flow is still a struggle, which is why we diversified: to keep us going year round. It’s also why we are down here. You don’t have to borrow money for operating. We do borrow money on contract: loans for machinery and land. Operating cost loans are the hard ones. You have to have money or you are done, [for example] for seed.
TP: What are some of the changes you are seeing in the landscape?
Billy: Weather has definitely changed. I have been watching record lows and highs in the Okanogan. The year I was born it was it would be 20 below zero in the morning, which would have killed the whole tree and fruit buds. Without extreme lows, we have more guaranteed success with our soft fruit crops. Moisture and snow pack this year is ok, but in California it will be decimating. It’s a nice micro climate, protected by the mountains. I have noticed a little more high winds and they cause havoc, and I think there’s more hail, too. I know we are going through major weather changes. Thank goodness the organic market is growing by leaps and bounds!
TP: What is your pest situation?
Billy: IPM in the surrounding orchards has helped our pest situation. I think it’s great they are figuring it out and we are better for it. My friends and neighbors are conventional growers, and we are all in this together. They used to think organic is a joke but now the conventional growers are using organic methods.
TP: How do you manage soil fertility?
Billy: Even if it is native weeds and grasses, we rotovate in the biomass. I am a firm believer that the soil will trigger what it needs. Watch the ground grow, and turn in the organic matter. I have watched and noticed how different weeds come up in different years: it’s the soil expressing itself. We do some cover crops and supplement with purchased compost. We seed clover in the orchard.
Stephanie has bees, ensuring our pollination. She treats the mites with oils, all done organically. Steph is fighting it [bee losses] like everyone. It is really confusing to see strong hives suddenly disappear. Very scary: they’re gone and not laying outside of the hive.
TP: How is your labor situation?
Billy: We hire seasonal labor and it has been real challenge the last couple of years. People come on your farm and coax your workers to leave. Last year we could not harvest our berry crops since there were not enough workers.
TP: You have changed your marketing and aren’t at the Seattle markets now.
Billy: We are doing restaurants and wholesale now, and are getting a good price. We handle everything ourselves and don’t store anything in the winter; we make trips twice a week. We spend less time on markets; having that extra time makes the difference. There are restrictions by markets and sometimes the pressure is not worth it. We put twenty years in the markets and we do miss the people.
TP: How did you get into Whole Foods market?
Billy: We were selling tomatoes to Thriftways and had a good relationship with our contact there. When Whole Foods came to Seattle, that employee moved over to Whole Foods and we went with him.
TP: How do you get a foot in the door with restaurants?
Billy: Do research, read, get a hold of the chef, make a sample box and drop it off. Everyone is looking for a taste and samples really help. Go home and try to make yours better. The chefs have to do the best job they can and they’re the ones that appreciate the quality. Get exposure where you can. A lot of chefs go to markets though some don’t have the time. That’s how it works: survival of the fittest, and its fun.
TP: What advice do you have for beginning and new farmers?
Billy: You need to know the lifestyle is not about the money: you farm because that’s the lifestyle you want. Farming is an art form. The number one thing is to have a partner on the same page, someone to hang onto when it is going rough. No matter what we hang onto each other and make it work. Also, only grow what you really love because the customers sense the passion. You’ve got to be able to sell it and if you’re passionate then it’s easier and all the steps fall into place.
TP: What has been your inspiration?
Billy: The lifestyle. I am so amazed to watch a crop like the melons: every day I see a difference. As a kid I would notice the guys who were passionate, who take pride. It would be obvious because their farm would be in really good shape and they enjoy what they’re doing. You realize how tough it is, but also that you will get to that point. It is very magical.
TP: Why organic?
Billy: I was one of the first organic farmers in Okanogan in the early 70’s. I was interested in it and the hippy culture; growing organic made more sense to me.
TP: How does your future look?
Billy: Our California farming is working. In Tonasket we are in our first year of four acres of almonds. We have cherries, apricots, and are going to do more in green houses, including a better tomato. The green house is the best place to plant everything. We make ours out of local lodge pole [pine] so they can handle the snow load. It all happens so fast. Then, it’s more of a job to keep things cool; ventilation is extremely important. The future looks great.
By Jacqueline Cramer