Chris Petry, Member Spotlight, October 2015
Late in August, Tilth Producers was able to experience a day-in-the life of Chris Petry, farmer/owner of Oh Yeah! Farms in Leavenworth, WA. Following him from field to bakery to farmers market, it was a pleasure to see this young farmer share his passion from soil through sales. Somewhere in between morning harvest and milling flour, Education Coordinator, Angela Anegon, was able to sit down with Farmer Chris to converse about his farm operations, aspirations for becoming a master baker, and love of all things Tilth Producers.
Tilth Producers (TP): When and how did you start farming?
Chris Petry (CP): My first real farm job was working on my family friend’s Christmas tree farm years and years ago in upstate New York. It was my first experience where I thought that maybe I could be a farmer. Then for about 10 years I worked as a mountain guide in the Cascades, taking people up and down mountains up until about 2008. Then the market crashed and I get a call that I probably wouldn’t be getting a lot of guiding work that coming season. The senior guides would be getting a lot of work, but the younger guides would be missing out a bit – and I was a younger guide at the time. So I called up a high school friend of mine who I knew had been working on farms. He told me to check it out because I could get food, housing, and work outside. Since I could live on the farm, a lot of my living costs would go down from living in the city. So I thought, what the hell I’ll give it a shot. I didn’t know how to find a job farming, so I looked it up on Craigslist. Only one farm popped up and I didn’t have a real resume to send them – it would have been mostly mountain guiding anyways. So I sent them my physical stats – “I’m 6’4’’, 200 some pounds, I’m really strong, was an athlete in college, my dad’s a racecar driver, I can drive anything…” – and then I went out to the farm and they had me bunching carrots and onions for about 20 minutes and then hired me on the spot.
This farm was Nature’s Last Stand – John Hutchley’s off-shoot of Full Circle Farm. I worked for him for about 2.5 years doing mostly the marketing aspects – CSA deliveries, working farmer’s markets, and managing the nine acres of vegetable production when he was away from the farm. So I thought, if this guy can do this and I can do this with very little education – besides reading some Eliot Coleman and other books – then maybe I should give it a shot on my own. At Nature’s Last Stand, I received some hands-on education with the harvesting, marketing, and general management side of things – not so much on the planting and growing. I was trying to figure out how to move to Leavenworth because I knew I wanted to be in the mountains to be able to continue mountain biking, climbing, and skiing.
A fellow ski guide that I was working with during the winters suggested that I get ahold of Grant Gibbs. I was interested in interning and living on the farm so I went over to Gibbs Farm and basically worked out a deal where I lived in one of his cabins on a nearby logging property. I did that for about three years with the first year as an unpaid farm intern. Even though I went from paid farm worker to unpaid intern, I was learning so many new skills. I drove tractors and learned about all the different implements – cultivators, seeders, and combines for the grain. Working for Grant was when I really started to fall in love with growing grain. I definitely wouldn’t be a grain farmer if it wasn’t for him and probably wouldn’t be where I’m at as a vegetable farmer either.
During my third year at Gibbs Farm, I worked up some land on Ski Hill Rd. [near the current farm] and then that following year, I plowed up about six acres and planted garlic. I knew I wanted to be a garlic farmer as well. I’ve beengoing all out ever since, with this season being the first year I’ve tilled up the entire property – just over 5.5 acres. Plus, I have about 1.5 acres in winter squash and dry beans at another farm property.
TP: How did you acquire the land you currently farm?
CP: I met the owners of Haus Rorhbach (http://www.hausrohrbach.com/), Mike and Carol Wentink, four years ago through Grandma Garlic who lived next door in the house I currently own. I would hang on Grandma Garlics front porch, drinking wine, and would always ask about the un-utilized land across the street. The land was concord grapes many years ago, then alfalfa, and for the past fifteen years just weeds that Mike kept mowing. I thought, “What a jackpot!”. I asked to be introduced to Mike and Carol and the rest is history.
They have been kind to be from the beginning allowing me to farm there at no cost other than a full CSA share valued at $600. They dug a 1000′ water line to my wash station and installed irrigation throughout the farm. Mike helped me fix up the resident, old Massy 65 tractor to cultivate my fields in the beginning. Unfortunately, the Ol’ 65 smoked, had no brakes, and could barely turn around. I owe a great deal of my success to them as a young farmer not having any real capital to start a farm. Without them I would still be a gardener, not the bonified farmer that I am today [laughs]. I am very excited to help them develop a strong relationship with my farm and their bed and breakfast in the form of agro-tourism. Young farmers need to turn to the kind people of the world who have land they’re not using. I was suprised how giving Mike and Carol are, and am sure there are more great people like them!
TP: What appealed to you about farming when you started?
CP: I fell in love with the physical aspect of it – I like to work hard and sweat and be outside. I like to be moving and farming is a super stimulating thing for me. I have a thousand things to think about and try to keep in line in a given day. I also started to value the importance of healthy food and where my food came from. I was an athlete in college, so healthy food and eating was always important – but did we eat organic? No, we didn’t know about organic food. I fell in love with the process of where food came from and the sustainability of the system when considering transportation of food and fuel needs of large scale agriculture. You know, looking at its impact on the environment and communities. I whole-heartedly believe that we need to look 100 years back because we can’t sustain the food system as it is with growing food to ship it across the world. I feel comfortable taking my food to Seattle because it’s within a couple hundred miles but I wouldn’t go further than that.
Also – and I might be getting high and mighty here – but when I was a mountain guide, it was a very selfish job taking wealthy people up and down mountains, for good money. And now, I’m working my ass off to make a decent living – especially considering I’m basically just starting out and still putting every dollar back into the farm – but I feel truly good about what I do and that’s the most important thing. I look at other people and other jobs and I wonder “How do they do that? How do they wake up day-to-day and feel good?” One of the biggest goals for myself as a young farmer – especially in seeing my peers and the young people working on my farm – I want to create healthy work opportunities for young people. I want to be an incubator for young farmers because we need more of them.
Another thing I loved about farming was the community and the comradery. The mountain guiding and collegiate track communities were very egocentric and about themselves – worried about how they are and what they do, not really about how other people are doing. So I enjoy seeing the joy that I put into farming reciprocated back – when people compliment my work or tell me that they are proud of what I’m doing. Then when people enjoy the bread that I’ve made from wheat that I planted, harvested, milled and then baked – that’s the greatest accomplishment of my life.
TP: Who have been your inspirations?
CP: My family is a huge inspiration. Grant Gibbs is up there and probably has been the most educational – I look up to him in so many ways and he’s the ultimate wizard when it comes to mechanics. I just took my tractor to him the other day to help me fix some things. He’s a great wealth of knowledge to ask questions, which is the key to young farming – asking the old timers questions. And then there are all the farming greats – Joel Salatin, Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, Masanobu Fukuoka.
TP: Farming can be a challenging profession. What has motivated you to continue farming?
CP: The community support. When people say something that hits home and gives me that fuzzy feeling, I hold on to that. So for those days that suck, when things break, I’m thinning rows of carrots, or I’m working those 14 to 16 hour days – I hold on to all those positive things and think of the people that rely on me for their food. And I think of the people that come to the market with their kids to have them meet the farmer and understand where their food comes from – it’s a really beautiful thing. Sometimes I get jealous of my buddies that may have high paying jobs and can afford to go on vacation – I want to go on vacation! – but then I think that I’m in my building phase so that one day I can hand it off to a young manager and train other farmers. I know right now isn’t my time, and that right now is my time to build – to build something from nothing.
TP: What have been your greatest challenges? How did you approach them?
CP: Employment has been hard and I don’t think that it will ever be easy. Finding the good people to intern or work with you – it can be a double edged sword. I also don’t have a partner that’s helping me pay my mortgage or building up the farm, so I’m doing this solo. Right now I have great employees, but they’re expensive. Then there is the challenge of what to grow and what to sell, and how to grow and how to sell – these things that you basically have to make mistakes to learn and feel a tenth closer to knowing what works. Another challenge was not owning tractor up until this year. Now that I have one that works, I can cultivate my land more efficiently. And that’s the name of the game – improving efficiencies. It’s something I drive home to my employees so that we’re not always going backwards to go forward again.
Other challenges include money, which is always tough. What I would say to a young farmer is get a CSA – it is the model for a beginning farmer. It used to be that a farmer was born into farming and inherited the land, the barn, the cows – now everything to start is a cost. Let’s say I make $50,000 in a year I would easily spend $35,000 for things needed on the farm. I’m on year three of my five year plan, and by year five I’d like to have some money to put into my house, or some travel, or back into the farm again [laughs].
TP: Where/who/what is your largest source of information that you go-to when you’re in a pickle?
CP: Grant Gibbs and the farmers at the Seattle farmer’s markets – basically any farmer that I know is the best resource! When I go to a farmer with a problem either they’ve experienced before or they’ve made that mistake before. If I can’t find an answer from a farmer then I’ll turn to books. And lastly, I’ll look on the internet but I try not to do a lot of that because it’s often home gardener type information. I’ll go to my mother and father too because it’s not always farming advice that I need.
TP: What have been your greatest successes?
CP: Being interviewed by Tilth is definitely up there. For sure the greatest accomplishment would be planting, harvesting, cleaning, and then fresh milling wheat to bake it into 100% whole grain sourdough bread. Plus, then toasting that bread and eating it with some yummy butter. I’m not a baker but it is definitely a new passion.
A future success will be building a bean thresher as a BCS attachment for large and small beans, plus the option to change the screen to do grain. It would be for homesteaders, people wanting to build up a seed bank, feed their animals – not very large scale.
TP: Do you set goals for your production/farm business? If so, what types of goals do you set?
CP: It’s always to increase sales, plus be able to hire employees and provide a good working environment for people. I’m on this five year plan where at the end of it I want this business to be a well-run, well-oiled machine. Now I’m on year three, I think I’m doing pretty well though I definitely wanted to have more infrastructure completed. I spent time away from building fences, getting a walk-in cooler, building shade structures to instead build a tiny home. And just like I’m not a baker, I’m not a builder so it took some time and a decent amount of money away from more farm related infrastructure. But now, I have a space what I can rent or provide housing to an intern, which will definitely be useful for my farm.
In the next two years, I want to at least get the beginnings of a large garage with a commercial kitchen and a bakery – maybe with a wood fired oven. My goal is to not have to leave my house to work. Right now, I go to Gibbs Farm to mill my flour and then into Leavenworth to use a kitchen to bake – all of that adds time and is not efficient. My profit margins would change if I was able to bake at my house and get more out of my time instead of running all over town.
I also want to be making pancakes at the farmer’s market and maybe even grilled cheese. I’ll keep growing vegetables for myself and locals, as well as the niche products like garlic that really work out for me. But I really want my focus and my future to be about being a baker. I think it’s a really cool model farmers are turning to – not only are they growing everything but then they are preparing it in some way, tripling its value.
TP: Do you have any unique farming practices that have increased your production efficiency?
CP: I suppose the fact that I grow grain is pretty unique. I’m able to suppress weeds on a large scale, I’m dryland so it doesn’t need irrigation, and I have it as a crop rotation – all of which is an important piece of my livelihood. I’m interested in implements that allow me to increase efficiencies using my tractor, but I’m just not there yet. I’m still a young, learning, vegetable farmer and an aspiring grain farmer. What’s unique about me is that I’m willing to look outside the box and grow grains, or make pancakes at the markets. It’s hard to get a leg-up at markets – selling at them can be cutthroat.
TP: Do you have any nagging pest pressures on your farm? How do you manage them?
CP: I don’t have a lot of pest problems. And you read about how pest problems often are worse where there is unhealthy soil. I’m all about rotations and fallowing. Rotating fallow is a huge organic tool. If you’re not fallowing, and growing vegetables in every space, every year, you’re going to have problems. If I have a pest problem, I’ll till the crop under and then fallow.
TP: How do you approach marketing? What has served you well in this realm?
CP: Smile and a positive attitude. I love talking to people and sharing my excitement for food. I do a lot of education at my stand about grains and growing grain – and all of this talk of gluten intolerance. I don’t think it exists. I mean, I’m intolerant to Safeway bagels and McDonalds hamburgers. If you eat whole foods – whole grains included – there shouldn’t be a problem unless a person is specifically allergic or has Celiac’s. When people say they feel so great after cutting out gluten, I think, “Yeah, because you’re not eating processed food or Panera bread or Safeway bagels anymore!”
I also keep a really clean market booth with my veggies in nice wooden boxes. I’ve had more than one customer come up to me and say that I have “museum quality produce” – I want to put that on a banner. And since I’m smaller scale, my vegetables are minimally handled and look nicer than those from larger farms that might use more mechanization in their handling. I also will quote customers when they tell me that I have “the world’s best arugula” – when people see “world’s best” on something, they will buy it.
I also think that my farm name is welcoming, and I get compliments on it. At the market, people will walk by and scream “Oh yeah!” – so it’s fun. I feel strongly that farming is a celebration – like, “where does food come from? Oh yeah! A farm!” I like that my farm name is plural – it’s Oh Yeah! Farms not farm. I want to encourage young farms and incubate young farms to collectively grow food, and the name represents that – hopefully even more so in the future.
TP: What role has community played in your farming?
CP: Well, the CSA allows me to do what I do. If it wasn’t for the CSA members, we wouldn’t be doing any of this. I would not have the $3000 at the beginning of the season to buy seeds or pay employees before money starts coming in during the season.
TP: Tell me three things on your “bucket list” (farming related or otherwise).
CP: Building a commercial kitchen with a wood fired oven to be able to bake year-round. And this is not a joke, but a goal of mine is to speak at a Tilth conference. My first year working for Grant, he paid my way to the Tilth conference and it was so inspirational – I’ve gone every year since. It’s also best opportunity for networking. I mean, the second year I went, I talked to the right guy and made a deal for a free, 40 foot shipping container from Wenatchee Valley College – all I had to pay was for the delivery. After that I decided I’d never miss another Tilth conference again, if every 10 years it meant that I get a free, $6000 shipping container – it’s totally worth it [laughs]. I’ve just held on to so many of the words said there with all the great keynote speakers. A third thing would be to manufacture a small-scale combine, to sell to small farmers, seed producers, homesteaders, and maybe even internationally to developing countries.
TP: What is your favorite crop to grow? To eat?
CP: Growing wheat is really fun. I enjoy eating the bread that I bake. It’s one of those things that when a crop is really good – like when you grow a killer broccoli crop – it’s a really good feeling. But when you grow broccoli that gets sunburned or has a bunch of bugs, it’s not a great feeling and then I don’t really like broccoli. I also really love growing eggplant – fresh eggplant is so beautiful and I love eating it. The alliums really fascinate me – garlic and onions – because everyone eats them but not everyone grows them. I’m one of the few garlic farmers coming into Seattle – I grow about 2000 pounds of it. And onions I’m going to continue increasing my production – we planted 2000 last year and 7000 this year. Basically the crops that sell well, I like growing those.
TP: What are three pieces of advice you would give to a beginning farmer?
CP: Read your books. Intern with an old guy or gal who’s been doing it for a long time, who’s diverse – has animals, grain, orchards, vegetables – so you don’t have to intern five times to get all the information. Seek the right person out. As simple as it sounds, ask questions all the time. And go to Tilth conferences, which was huge for me. I tell all my employees to go.
TP: Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
CP: After my first conference I was hooked, and I believe in the organization and that there is no better advocacy group for agriculture in Washington. So I’m going to support them. I see the old-timers who have been part of the organization for a long time – these farmers are devoted and care about it so much that you can’t help but want to be a part of that community.
TP: What role do you see Tilth having in promoting the next generation of sustainable and organic farmers?
CP: The next level could be more video. Picking ten topics to showcase every year – like go to this farm to learn about changing oil on a tractor and then this other farm to see flower production and then this farm to learn about canning. Showcasing these types of skills that are surely on YouTube, but having it directly from a super credible source would be a great outlet for information. Organizing a young farmer’s Tilth would be cool – maybe something with the Washington Young Farmers Coalition – but setting it up so young farmers are speaking to and connecting with other young farmers. Having the old timers connect with young farmers as Tilth already does is important, but it would be empowering and special for the youth to have something like that for themselves.
TP: Last year, Tilth celebrated its 40th year as an organization. What is your vision for agriculture 40 years from now?
CP: Small-scale. What you see now is subsidized, large-scale, genetically modified commercial ag – all that needs to turn around and go back to where it came from. Sure we need to feed the world, but I think maybe we should focus on feeding our neighbors and our communities. In the next 40 years, we need to seriously reconsider who we are growing food for, how we are growing the food, where we are growing, and what we are producing – hopefully keeping it seasonal. For myself, I never buy tomatoes in the store, or avocadoes and bananas – and if I do, then I feel weird about it. I buy apples and pears because they grow here. Plus, with the water situation in California, if agriculture ceases to exist there, then the large scale food model needs to be reconsidered. Where will that agricultural production go? The system will collapse in a way that means food will have to be locally sourced, and maybe even to the point that local, organic produce at the farmer’s market is priced competively – or even less expensive – than the food shipped in to grocery stores. I think this type of paradigm switch will happen within my lifetime – the need to buy sustainable grown, local produce.
Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers Education Coordinator, can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 206-632-7506.