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The Colorado Organic Scene: An Interview with Andy Grant of Grant Family Organic Farms, Part I

Saturday, March 21, 2009 by: Jim Dee
Tags: organic farming, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) [This is part one of a two-part interview with Andy Grant of Grant Family Farms, which was the first farm certified organic by the state of Colorado. Today, they farm 3,000 acres in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains about an hour north of Denver.]

JIM: Andy, reading over your web site, it looks like the inspiration for all this came from your father, Lewis Grant, right?

ANDY: Well, actually my dad was a professor at Colorado State University ... and I grew up around him having a weekender farm, a hobby farm. From a very early age, the bug hit me. I loved farming and I loved growing vegetables. And so, whereas he was a professor at Colorado State University, I was the kid that grew up around his weekend farms that wanted to figure out how to make a career and a living out of it.

JIM: And so you just got into it? Did you just buy farmland when you got to be a certain age?

ANDY: I went to Colorado State University and I actually started farming on my own in high school and all the way through college -- although that's been a lot of years ago now. But, it's just gradually over the last couple of decades; (it) continued to grow. I bought some land on my own and we rent quite a bit of land from our neighbors, and have developed Grant Family Farms to the point it is today.

JIM: So, the word "family" in Grant Family Farms... Is the Grant family involved?

ANDY: It is. My father is 86 years old but astounds everybody with his energy. He's very interactive and active on a daily basis -- kind of watching and helping consult and telling the youngsters how we should do it better, of course, as dads do. I have several sisters that are involved in our CSA in Colorado Springs and in Denver. When we came up with the business name Grant Family Farms in the late 90s (because it's gone through different transformations), the family was actually chosen as a name from our employees. I let the employees name what the farm was going to be. And the family, they signified as including them. So, Grant Family Farms, you think of myself and my dad and sisters, but the story of the beginning is that the family really means a lot of people that have worked with me on the farm for going on 30 years, and that was them.

JIM: Is there a younger generation of Grants that will--

ANDY: No, not so much, but over the last 25 years and 30 years, there's a lot of people who have been here and their children are becoming involved. The farm will continue for sure.

JIM: So, I'm speaking with you in mid January, and I was wondering what happens at a Colorado farm in mid-January. Is everything in hibernation mode, or...

ANDY: Well, I'll tell you what... It's Saturday evening and I'm overwhelmed with how much work I still have to do that I didn't get done this week.

JIM: Wow.

ANDY: We have a livestock operation. We have hens and broilers and lambs to take care of. We're ramping up for 2009 CSA season, signing up members to our CSA. There's a lot of repair work to do on all the equipment, getting prepared for when the frost is out of the ground in mid-February. We've got to hit the fields early and fast to make it all work. And, just the business of running the business. So, really the notion of a farm not really having much to do in the winter doesn't exist in Colorado.

JIM: About a year ago, my wife and I were doing some personal research into air quality in the USA. We were trying to find the cleanest air in the whole country and, pretty much right up where you're at -- north of Denver / south of Cheyenne -- came up tops in the list. I was wondering if the people who live there know that or pay much attention to that?

ANDY: Well, I was born and raised here and I didn't even know that; but it doesn't surprise me because, especially in the winter, it's kind of windy here. You get south into Denver and they have some issues around air quality. But, I love living where we do. We see the upper peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park every day. We're up on the Cheyenne ridge and it's a great place to live.

JIM: It must also add something else to the whole experience of organic farming in an environment that's that clean...

ANDY: You know, that's what we've kind of talked about for many years. Where we farm, there's really no agriculture to the north or west of us. And that's where our water comes from, from the mountains. And our air is clean. We've done a ton of lab tests on our products over the last 30 years for different customers to prove that we don't have any residues. Just about anywhere in the world, any kind of food testing that's done, they can still find traces of DDT, in almost every environment. And, over 30 years of testing, we've never once had any positive indication of residual DDT or any chemicals in any of our foods. So, it must speak to the environment we live and farm in.

JIM: We talked before about livestock and so forth, but in terms of the vegetables and herbs and produce, I notice that your product availability is generally May through November. You said you kind of start getting into the fields in February... I was wondering, are there farms up your way that try to extend the growing season with greenhouses and things like that?

ANDY: Not really. We're about the only ones, and we only have a couple smaller greenhouses. We have tomatoes into December. But, right around us, there really isn't that much that try to extend. I think it's a huge opportunity as people become more interested in local food and organic food, as that market grows. Usually, in American agriculture, supply will meet demand. Demand needs to be there and people will figure out how to supply it.

JIM: So, you guys do have greenhouses...

ANDY: Yes, just a couple of small ones. They're 30' x 100'. We use them mostly to start a lot of our transplants. But, in the late summer and fall, we grow heirloom tomatoes in them.

JIM: Speaking of individual crops, I had a few questions about some individual vegetables. These might seem bizarre, but I thought I'd ask anyway... So, I eat a ton of cucumbers, organic ones. But, these things are really pricey. They seem representative of a vegetable that is much more expensive organic versus conventional. I still buy them, but is that a tough crop to bring in via organic methods?

ANDY: No, not really. On the east coast or the south it would be because of disease problems and insect problems. They're really not a tough thing for a farm in the western U.S. to grow. But, what a consumer pays at retail rarely reflects what the farmer is getting. You know, it's a food system and, from the producer through the wholesaler and distributor into retail. What you see as far as market price, what you as a consumer pays, for the most part has little bearing on what the grower is paid.

JIM: So it's just supply and demand...

ANDY: Supply and demand and, you know, retailers need to make money too. They price things based on elasticity models and they know the items in their produce department that they can charge a lot of money for and people will still buy them. And they know the ones that are elastic, that if they lower the price, they'll sell a ton more. A good example would be an onion. A retailer is going to keep that price up because, by dropping their price, it really doesn't stimulate more demand. But if a retailer will drop a price on strawberries, it will exponentially increase demand. So, they'll use strawberries as a lead to get people shopping in their store. The "hardware items," if you will, like frequently lettuce or cucumbers or onions - doesn't really matter what price they charge; those that want them will still buy them, so they have a higher margin.

JIM: Let me ask you a newbie farming question... In terms of crop rotation, if you're going to grow, say, two main crops... For example, at your farm, I notice you guys grow a lot of greens and squash. Would it be considered good crop rotation to switch those two things back and forth in the fields?

ANDY: We generally try to have a five-year rotation in our fields, where we're not growing spinach after spinach. In a five-year rotation, we might have a year of corn, we might have a year of spinach or lettuce, we might have a year of squash, we might have then a year of wheat. Wheat is a good one. We like growing dry beans because they're really good - not only a cash crop, but good for the soil. They're a legume and fix nitrogen. But, generally, just good farming practices, we'd prefer a vegetable crop not being in the same land, but every five years because that's the best first defense toward disease, pests, or any other problems.

JIM: So, when you have 3,000 acres to keep track of, does that get kind of complicated? Do you have spreadsheets, or...

ANDY: Oh, absolutely. We've got mapping and we've got a full-time guy who's been with us for many, many years. That's what he does is keep track of where we planted what, and when, and laying out what crop we're going to plant there next year.

JIM: Wow, I hope you guys back up that database. [laughs]

ANDY: Yeah. [laughs]

JIM: Speaking of the business end of things, how does the seasonal aspect of farming affect you? Are workers at a big farm like yours looking for year round income? Is it tough to hold onto people? How does that work?

ANDY: Well, that's a tough one. From a management standpoint, good people need full-time, full-year jobs. We try to provide as many of those as possible, but as a seasonal farm in Colorado, we can only do that on a limited basis. In the winter time, we probably have 20 people - from mechanics and tractor drivers to people in the office and people in finance that work the farm year round. But then in the summertime, we need a couple hundred people. So, we have people that have worked for us for many, many years who kind of plan that and they work for us from April through November. Then they may even have to travel out of state to Florida from December through March to make their income work.

[To be continued in Part II.]

About the author

Active members of the raw and living foods community, Wendi and Jim Dee founded Pure Jeevan in 2006 to help raise awareness of this optimally nutritious and health-giving lifestyle. Since launching Pure Jeevan (see http://www.PureJeevan.com), they have organized retreats, given public presentations, hosted raw food meetups, and maintained an extensive online presence through their blog (http://www.PureJeeevan.com/blog), their directory (http://www.AllRawDirectory.com) and through considerable community involvement both online and in person.

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