2015 25. 1 Farmers of the Year
FARMERS OF THE YEAR
This Farmer of the Year award acknowledges Ray and Becky de Vries as outstanding stewards of the land, and as a friendly, shining beacon in the Skagit Valley. Ray and Becky are noted for their work as teachers who set an example of peer-to-peer education, generously helping other growers gain a foothold to success. Tilth Producers honors their support of the community— cultivating both land and people. Hats off to two dedicated members of Tilth Producers and of organic agriculture in Washington State.
Tilth Producers Journal Editor Sarah Stoner chats with Ray at their farm Ralph’s Greenhouse in Mount Vernon, WA. The 250 acre farm is named after his late father Ralph, a former dairyman.
Tilth Producers (Q): What’s your farming background?
Ray de Vries: My father started a dairy farm in Holland after WWII . We farmed there for 12 years until he saw that the farm wouldn’t support us anymore. That’s when the decision was made to move, and here we are today, speaking in English together. We reached the Skagit Valley in 1960 so I must have been about eight when we got here. Having a perspective from where I grew up and from the U.S. gives you a different outlook on life.
I never expected to be a farmer. I was going to teach… study and research… build furniture. But somebody had to be the family farmer. Instead, I’m studying and researching different products or markets or vegetables that can be grown.
The first year, my dad and I had three acres. It was the middle of January and all of our bills were paid, everything that was left was going to be profit. Instead, we got an arctic cold front that just hammered the crop. It got to 2 degrees and there was nothing left. I remember my dad saying, “Ah, there will be something left, Ray. You just be patient.
” Sure enough, in May, there were about 10 boxes left. And if I’d been smart I would have saved those few leeks and used them for seed because they were winter hardy. But I didn’t. Besides, I was just doing this temporarily while the furniture business got going… The next year was a good year: we took all our profit and did what normal farmers do—expanded. The third year, we had five acres. That was the year the dike broke and our house filled with water. By the time my five year deal with my dad was over I was too broke to quit. So I had to keep farming. Here we are today!
Q: Tell us about one of your mentors in the farming world.
RAY : A neighbor farmer who was 10 years older. When we first started and every time I got stuck I’d go to him and he’d tell me where to go to get what. We don’t need to be reinventing the wheel. Having a farmer down the road to go to for advice? That was really useful.
Q: I was struck by a comment as you accepted the award— about being the “event planner” for Ralph’s Greenhouse. Can you tell me more about your perspective?
RAY : My dad and I had a good working relationship because he knew all about plants but he didn’t have a clue how to sell them. I don’t know a thing about plants but I know how to get the product on the right truck at the right time and off to where it has to go. My dad would say, “Ray! The leeks are ready!” And that would mean, start selling. That’s how the relationship would work. He was the grower, the farmer, I was doing the marketing end and organizational work, and Becky would do the paperwork.
I remember working with my dad in the greenhouse once; he looked over at me and said, “Ray, can’t you tell the difference between the weeds and the leeks?!” and I said, “No, Dad, they are all green.” We each worked in each other’s strengths. He liked to grow, and I like to talk on the telephone. My dad was a farmer. I’m an event coordinator.
Q: Tell us about your farm team.
RAY : The people who work with us, you can’t call them employees. They are the people who work with us. I’m not the big boss, dictating what people do. Americans don’t get it. Instead of a top down system, it’s the people who work with us that know the job better than I do. It’s their job to take care of their department. It’s my job to get them what they need so they can do their work.
Q: What would someone be surprised to learn about how you farm?
RAY : We plant a number of things just to keep people who work with us in jobs year round. For me, the real joy in farming— probably what makes my life and farming worthwhile—is that the people who work with us, for a lot of them, this is the first time they’ve had the chance to stay in one place. Their kids get to stay at the same school; they get to build a future. I appreciate that we’re giving the people who work with us an opportunity to make a life.
The part you have to remember is that our family was in their spot fifty years ago. We moved from Holland to California. Cows don’t care if you don’t know English. I know where they’re at because I was there once.
During the slow time of the year—between Super Bowl and Memorial Day—it’s the hardest to keep people busy working. We are starting a goat farm with the idea that we can transition from the vegetables to taking care of the goats, and about the time the baby goats are old enough, we are back to the vegetables.
Q: What was the best advice you received as a beginning farmer… or along the way? RAY : My dad said, “If you stick with it… it will work out okay. You’ll get there.” You go in with a lot of enthusiasm when you’re starting a farm and then the realities kind of wallop you on the backside. Then you get used to—or accept—the fact that the way you thought it was going to be isn’t the way it really is. And you just keep on going.
The other bit of advice? “Don’t buy anything that eats while you sleep.” (I’m not sure how the goats fit into that!) What we are really saying is, if you have continuing ongoing expenses that you can’t control you can drain your farm financially. It’s the monthly service charge that you can’t control that can get you.
Q : Are you looking to grow into different areas of expertise or production in the coming years?
We have the goats, we have our equipment—we just don’t have it installed yet. That’s the next step. Soon, these goats are going to start having kids again. It won’t be until this coming year that we’ll be able to put the milk in bottles and whatever we’re going to do. It’s all about fulltime year-round jobs for the people who work with us.
They also need to be good paying jobs. As a farm, we need to take the wages that we pay people and move them to this $12 to $15 an hour range. That’s where we need to be—as farmers, as farm workers, as a society. You can’t pay the bills for your family at $10 an hour. It’s my job to figure out how we make this happen.
I am also trying to get some women to drive tractors but that can be a really tough barrier for some. Spanish is another big goal this year. My Fries is really good, my Dutch is okay. My English is okay too. I’ve got to get good Spanish, not half-baked Spanish.
Q: What does it mean to you to be awarded Farmer of the Year?
RAY : The real people who make this possible are the people who work with us. Becky and I are the front people; we organize and coordinate. It’s the people who come here day after day and do the work who are the real movers and shakers at Ralph’s Greenhouse.
It’s really quite humbling. One weekend you’re Farmer of the Year; the next weekend you’re frozen out and you can’t even get your Thanksgiving orders together. The following weekend, your mother passes away. The weekend after that it’s freezing again. There are a whole variety of things that you just roll with.
You know, that’s farming. If you don’t want to accept the risk, you shouldn’t be doing it. The thing about it, as a farmer, I know the odds are in my favor. If I go to the casino, I know the odds are in the house’s favor. So I’ll keep farming.
Q: And lastly, why are you a member of Tilth Producers?
RAY : Because of all the people who are a part of Tilth. The policy people, the organic certification people, the seed folks, the buyers who buy and resell our product, the truck driver who gets it to where it should go, the folks at Tilth who arrange the Farm Walks. Without that whole support group there would be no Ralph’s Greenhouse; there would be no Farmers of the Year.
It took me about 10 years into farming before I realized that there was a Tilth organization. We were farming organic by way of that my dad simply farmed the way he did in the Netherlands. And when he moved, he just kept on doing the same thing.
I realize the next generation needs to step in and start taking over. That’s one of the fun things about Tilth conferences now—the next generation is there. Ten years ago they were not. It’s really nice to see the next generation stepping up, and there are all these opportunities out there!
I can remember in about 2009 reading the newspaper and it said, “The end of the organic industry is here! People won’t pay the extra money for organic produce in a downturned economy.” It hasn’t happened at all, folks.
Tags: advice, Farmer, Interview, patience, Tilth