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Organic farming

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

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

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(NewsTarget) [This is part two 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: Kind of a related question: There are a lot of initiatives for people who like to work on organic farms, like WWOOFers [the Willing Workers on Organic Farms]...

ANDY: We're aware of the WWOOFers, and we're somewhat intrigued by it. But we're a working farm, and it's about timing and efficiency for us. So, we're trying to figure out how to offer the opportunity of apprenticeships or internships or even WWOOFers. We haven't really figured it out because we're a business farm; we train our people and we need to depend on them on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. But this last year, we took on, for the first time in a long time, an apprentice. And he really worked out well. He had a tremendous work ethic and really stuck to it, learned and worked hard. So, it's given us kind of a hope that we could start to develop those kinds of opportunities for people interested in what we do and want to learn about farming. But the WWOOFers... I think we'll probably sign up this spring and experiment with it. But to have somebody who just comes here for a day or two, or a week... you spend so much time just teaching them and training them on what they need to do, and then they're gone.

JIM: Yeah...

ANDY: And that's not a model that works very well for our business. We need people day-in and day-out.

JIM: You'd be looking to develop some sort of a more long-term intern program where they come and they really spend some serious time.

ANDY: Absolutely. And I know a lot of the smaller farms and smaller CSA models, they almost depend on that internship labor to make it work. And that doesn't work for us because we have to make things happen on a daily basis.

JIM: Are there a lot of conventional farms, meaning non-organic, in your area of the country?

ANDY: Yeah, well Colorado is a huge agricultural state. Certainly, a vast majority of Colorado agriculture is conventional. I can say, around us - north of Fort Collins - it's striking over the last 25 years how many farms around us have watched us and then converted to organic. I'm sure Larimer County probably has one of the highest certified percentages of farmed acres. All of our neighbors, for the most part, are now certified organic farmers.

JIM: Well, what I was wondering about that was, since you have some crops where the conventional guys are doing GMO stuff, do you ever worry about cross-contamination?

ANDY: We don't have any conventional farms around us with GMO crops. To the west there's no agriculture, to the north there's no agriculture, and everybody to the east and south has now converted their acreage to organic.

JIM: You guys have a nice web site. It's not just farming information, but recipes and all sorts of things. It seems like that, along with the commercial side, it looks like you're a local destination. Are there activities and things?

ANDY: No, we're a working farm. There are farms down toward Denver that get more involved in agri-tourism. But we're kind of nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guys. We farm to grow food.

JIM: I thought I saw some stuff like things you can buy from the web site.

ANDY: Well, we sell CSA memberships, and you can buy meat on our web site.

JIM: Oh, okay.

ANDY: You might have been looking at... We have a home and garden store in Cheyenne. It's a side business, and they're just developing that. But the farm is the crux of what we do. Now we do, in the fall, as an appreciation for our CSA members, we have what's called a "harvestival." That's when we invite our CSA members to come out in October and bring the kids. We have hay rides, and they can get a free pumpkin. As we have lots of music and food - kind of a harvest celebration where we engage with the community and they participate and spend a day on the farm.

JIM: Well, speaking of the CSA program, when did that start?

ANDY: Well, it's kind of interesting. When I was in college back in the late 70s, and I was starting to farm organic vegetables, I really tried to start a subscription business where people would commit in advance of the season to a certain amount of produce. There wasn't really a CSA model that I knew of at that time. We were just trying to make something like that work where the consumer could kind of step up in the planting season and say "I want this." But our society and culture really wasn't ready at that time. So, it really didn't do well. So then I went toward trying to find customers for the things we grew. So, the next couple decades, I grew by engaging more and more retailers, from Kroger and Safeway and Albertsons, [to] Whole Foods and HEB down in Texas. A farmer's got to find somebody to buy the product. Well then two tears ago, because there has been such an interest in local food -- and of course the books "Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" have really spawned a lot of interest in people -- we retried a CSA concept in 2007.

[Interviewer's note: Those books are: "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan, and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life" by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp.]

JIM: Okay...

ANDY: We had a learning curve. That first year we had 126 member families, in 2007. In 2008, we were ambitious and hoped to grow it to 500 member families. We actually ended up with over 1,000.

JIM: Holy cow!

ANDY: Our goal for this coming year for our CSA is 2,500 member families. And it's just awesome. We get so much positive feedback, which is good for a farmer to hear every once in a while. Positive feedback and people that are very into what we're doing. We've done a good job for them and it's awesome; every CSA share we sell means there's one box of produce every week that we're not having to load on a semi truck and ship to Texas or the east coast or Atlanta or Florida. It's really exciting that the food we're growing is going to a local community that are appreciative of what we do.

JIM: CSA's great. We've tried a few different ones here in Pittsburgh and it's great. It's a wonderful model and I'm glad to hear it's going well for you.

ANDY: Yes.

JIM: So, looking back on the history of where the Grant Family Farm came from and considering where you're at today, what other long-term objectives do you have, aside from the development of your CSA - for example, new crops, new facilities?

ANDY: Well, first of all, new facilities come out of profit and, I'll tell you what, farming has not been a very lucrative venture of late. Mostly, Colorado just had an epic drought for six years that really hurt us, and then the last two years (we think we're out of the drought) we've absolutely been trashed by hail. But, in saying that, we'd certainly like to improve our facility. But, I would say our long-range goal is to really try to develop that connection with our community in Colorado and Wyoming and grow our CSA. I would say that goal would be that the majority of what we grow goes into our local community. Even if we grow this year to 2,500 member families of our farm, that still only represents 10% of our total production. So, we have a ways to go. Our goal would be that the food we grow stays home and goes to people that live right here.

[Update: When I spoke with Andy again several weeks later to clarify a few things from this interview, I had a chance to ask about Grant Farm's CSA membership goal. He replied, "It is amazing the support. We just started signups in February and already have 900 member families! With that kind of trend I think we will easily reach our goal ... and surpass it."]

JIM: So, does the food that you grow for the CSA, is that the same crops you're growing for shipping?

ANDY: Well, a lot of them are, but then we also grow small amounts of specialty crops that we don't offer to the retail or wholesale trade, and we grow them specifically for our member families.

JIM: So, at the beginning of the year, when you figure out how many people you do sign up - say it's 3,000 (let's be optimistic) - from that point forward, you'd say, "Okay, I know how much I'd need to plant"...

ANDY: Sure.

JIM: Yeah, so you'd just work it from there.

ANDY: Well, you know, if our members will sign up early in January and February, it definitely helps the farm financially to have the funds to buy seed, make payroll, fix tractors and all that stuff. But, it also gives us a good early indication of how much of particular specialty things we'll grow for them.

JIM: Speaking of the seed stock, do you produce and of that yourself?

ANDY: No, we really don't. We do grow seed for some of the seed companies. But, in agriculture you need to stay focused on what your mission is, and our mission is to grow food crops - not grow seeds and try to figure out how to do everything. We're better to take part of it and try to do it well.

JIM: Well, that was a non-farmer question. I still don't know enough about organic farming to know whether it's better to grow your own seed or...

ANDY: No, I think it's better to focus on what you're good at.

JIM: Right. I guess you just need to get the good stuff, the good seeds.

ANDY: Well, after 30 years, we know which varieties perform well in our climate.

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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