From asparagus to zucchini, Washington’s rich soils and diverse climate zones make our state prime for producing a diverse array of premium, organically grown vegetables. In 2011 Washington had 90,108 acres of certified organic farmland. Of that land area, 15,194 acres were devoted to organic vegetable production, a 15 percent increase over the previous year.
Family farmers selling at neighborhood markets is the image most urban shoppers have of organic farming in our state, but the reality is that the vast majority of the crops grown by Washington’s 180 organic vegetable producers are grown on large, high-volume farms east of the Cascades, especially in the Yakima Valley and irrigated areas of the Columbia Basin.
In 2011, of Washington’s land area devoted to organic crop production, 71 percent was located in Eastern Washington and 29 percent in Western Washington. The primary crops were sweet corn (6,091 acres), peas (3,241 acres), green beans (1,602 acres), potatoes (1,044 acres), and onions (499 acres).
Our state’s organic vegetable producers represent a continuum, from ambitious start-ups like Red Truck Farm near Ridgefield in Clark County with just 1½ acres in mixed crops and Nash & Patty Huber’s Nash’s Organic Produce with 360 acres in the Dungeness Valley, to large commercial grain and produce farms such as the Zakarison Partnership in the Palouse and Schreiber & Sons CSA in Franklin County, which have converted parts of their land to organic production as part of a strategy to transition to more sustainable practices.
The contrast between large and small-scale farms in our state is reflected in sales. In 2010 Washington’s organic farmgate sales hit $244.6 million. But the top 9 percent of our state’s organic farms, with gross sales exceeding $1 million, accounted for 51 percent of those sales, while the lowest 31 percent, with gross sales under $25,000, represented just one 1 percent of the total.
Washington’s largest organic farming operation, Watts Brothers Farms in the Tri-Cities area, has 4,357 acres of certified organic land, which is 28 percent of the state’s total cropland in certified organic vegetable production. Purchased in 2008 by Lamb Weston (a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods), the farm produces organic carrots, peas, potatoes, and sweet corn, which are quick-frozen in the company’s processing facilities and marketed under the “Watts Brothers Farms” label.
In addition to its certified organic acreage, Watts Brothers Farms has 15,000 acres of commercial farmland managed under Lamb Weston’s Sustainable Agriculture & Grower Policies, with requirements for water conservation, crop rotations with nitrogen-fixing plants, and integrated pest management. The farm works closely with WSU researchers and is helping pioneer the way for large-scale operations to incorporate organic farming practices.