Nate Johnson, Member Spotlight, July 2011
Lon Ball established Trout Lake Farms in Trout Lake, Washington on the “organic frontier” in 1973. Thirty-four years later Lon was ready to retire and offered his son, Nate, the original homestead and 45 surrounding acres to strike out on his own. “I went to college with the express purpose of getting off the farms,” Nate says, but regardless, Nate returned and established Farmgate Organics. Nate concedes, “It’s in my blood. I wouldn’t know any other way.”
You’ve been working on a farm your whole life it seems.
I studied political science and economics in college. In retrospect it is actually really beneficial to have that knowledge. It helps with understanding irrigation districts, water, local politics and stuff like that. I didn’t study farming at all at college – all the farming I’ve learned hands on. I started at ten years old on the weeding crew, working ten hours a day with guys from Mexico, and I became bilingual doing that. Then I got old enough to handle a tractor and do mechanical work and such.
Develop any wicked cool farm hacks in that time?
Hmm—are there too many to list, or do I not really have any? I’d say I at least try and fix everything myself more than once before I give up. Improvisation is my strong point with farming. And as far as any other hacks, I wouldn’t want to give those away.
What are you growing out there at the base of beautiful Mt. Adams?
Farmgate primarily produces dehydrated herbs and spices. We are on the location of the original Trout Lake Farms, which was probably THE premier organic herb farm in the United States. The herb markets are a really interesting spot these days, particularly for dehydrated stuff because it’s nonperishable, so you have to compete with foreign markets. I’ve found niche markets where people want the product to be domestic.
Why organic Nate?
I wouldn’t know any other way. My Dad’s been organic since the very beginning. It comes naturally. It makes complete sense to me. I feel like using chemicals is illogical-if you can use ways that have less impact, then why wouldn’t you?
Your Dad is working on projects that are anything but domestic.
Dad is trying to set up organic rice production overseas right now. Once we’re successful with that, we’ve been eyeing cattle ranching. We’ve both made attempts and are working with different things in China – working with farmers and people over there, trying to bring sustainable agriculture all over the world. Right now people are really scared about buying products from China because they know people cheat, but that is no reason to give up. I see smaller scale farmers with specialty items who are out in incredibly third world conditions doing great work. It’s all about getting them seed and seeing what you can do with it. Teaching them to save their seed and problem solve. Reminding them to do what they already know how to do, and trying to get people certified in a genuine matter. Organics can’t just happen here; we’ve got to make efforts everywhere if we really want organics to be successful.
What advice would you give to beginning organic farmers?
Don’t expect to make money, at least not right away. And don’t get discouraged; because the learning curve for farming is high and constant, you never stop learning when you’re farming. That’s the name of the game. That’s what organics are all about, constantly improving. And don’t charge too much for your organic products, get a fair price, but don’t gouge people. If the organic movement is going to successful it must demand a fair market price. If we want people to have organics they have to be accessible.
Ever think you’ll leave the farm to be a political analyst?
I’ve never really had any work off the farm, farming is my livelihood and it has been for the past four years. I do try to pick up some winter work plowing and what not …I’ve often had years where I’ve entertained going and working for somebody else because I’m sure it would be a lot less stressful, not constantly worrying about cash flow and disease, or if the rain’s going to ruin your hay. We’ve got all kinds of opportunities in front of us right now, and those will really determine my ability to stay on the farm.
Are you running that 45-acre show alone?
I am pretty much running the farm; my sister has come back from Portland recently. She gave up on the job market and has been helping. I hope to see more of that happen, as times get harder, and I think we will see more people moving back to the family farms, not as a hip trend, but as a necessity.
And your soil…?
Ha! Half rocks. I say that jokingly and at the same time very literally. My father used to like call it volcanic ash; it’s kind of a rocky loam.
What grows nicely in volcanic ash?
Oregano. It’s an amazing medicine as a great tasting culinary herb. It’s definitely my favorite and it does amazingly well here.
Why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
Information, really. I like to read the Tilth Producers Quarterly. It’s given me a lot of ideas; forage crops, crop rotations – I’ve gotten turned on to the people with those ideas as well. I’ve learned about small grain producers, struggling with economies of scale and smaller equipment and processing. Processing is something I’m fascinated with – because it’s not done on a small scale. Farmers have to travel a long way to go get processed, I think as time goes on, folks won’t have to travel as far, and we really will be consuming local goods. That’s the real future, if any new farmers can figure out how to do their own processing and their own value added stuff that will be their real success.
Farmgate Organics is located in Trout Lake, Washington at 149 Little Mountain Road. Learn more at www.farmgateorganics.com.