Becoming an organic farm owner is alluring. Not only are organics a current hot commodity, but who wouldn't want to make a living growing delicious organic food or beautiful organic flowers? It certainly sounds good in theory.
However, organic farming is not always easy, and it's not for everyone.
If you've ever boldly stated, "I'm going to start an organic farm," read what Liz Smith, successful organic farm owner, has to say before you jump feet first into the soil.
Get to Know Westwind Gardens:
Phil and Liz Smith have owned and operated their family farm, Westwind Gardens, in beautiful Forest Grove, Oregon for 18 years. The husband and wife team have managed to do what many aspiring farmers would love to do - carve out a profitable business growing certified organic vegetable and herb starts.
Westwind Garden organic starts are sold to local garden centers and nurseries across Oregon and all the way up to Seattle, Washington. The family also successfully sells their special organically grown and roasted peppers at Portland Saturday Market.
Organic Farming Before Organic Was Hip:
According to Liz, when the Smith's bought their farm, it wasn't a question of why to grow organic but, "Why not grow organic?"Liz and Phil have grown organic crops from the start, based on lower costs and available resources. For example, a neighbor's horse provided them with an ample pile of free manure, so why not use it to improve their soil?
The farm is now officially certified by Oregon Tilth, but making the move to organic wasn't a stretch. "Westwind Gardens is ahead of the learning curve. Good news because stores are now interested in organic plants, so there's lots of business to be had," Liz says.
Look Before You Leap - Grow Your Own Roots of Experience:
Phil grew up on a farm, earned a degree in horticulture and spent about 15 years working on farms before he and Liz bought their farm. Liz studied horticulture in college and gathered agriculture experience while working at a retail nursery.
First-hand experience with farming has provided Liz and Phil with the know-how required to address farming issues that pop up on their own land.
Before leaping into a farm career, Liz says it's wise to obtain some farming skills. "You should gain horticulture skills through college, or at the very least, spend ample time in a farm apprenticeship or internship," Liz says.
Making a Good Living as an Organic Farmer:
Can you make a good living as an organic farmer? Liz explains that it's not easy:
"Yes, organic farming can equal a good living, but it's taken us years to grow the farm to this level of success. In fact, it's taken about 12 years to really feel like, 'Whew, we made it!' Now there's considerably less stress but it did take time to get there. Farming is a great job. It's instant gratification to see plants thrive and it's nice to be the boss, but you also have to be willing to put in the time."
The Organic Farm Workload Can be Intense:
Liz notes that her and Phil work 7 days a week, year round. During the spring, their busy season, the Smiths can easily pull 10-12 hour days. Liz considers these long hours simple. "If we only grew food crops it would be harder... If we sold at farmers markets' it would be a lot harder. Basically, by keeping our operations simple we've managed to grow a good business for consumers and our family," Liz says.
More Than a Lifestyle - Farming is a Business First:
Some people aspire to organic farming because they see it as a lifestyle choice. Others think farming is a good way to satisfy their love of growing crops. However, Liz notes that aspiring farmers should remember that farming is a business first.
"One farmer I know wants to grow affordable food for the community. He sells crops for less than he should. Because of that he's not a successful farmer," Liz says. "In the long run he could set aside a fund to help people afford food. Since he's not thinking of farming as a job first, he may not get the chance. Take care of yourself first if you also want to help others."
A Green Thumb is Not Enough:
It takes more than a love of crops to run a successful organic farm. It also takes cold hard cash. Liz and Phil, for example, employ six full-time employees and hire up to triple that during the busy season. Liz mentions that the costs of hiring help, buying land, expanding the greenhouses and certification all cost money but new farmers sometimes forget this.
Beyond a green thumb and money, Liz says that accounting skills are very useful and since you may spend a lot of time working with consumers at retail outlets or though a CSA, people skills are a must have.
There is No Such Thing as Overnight Success:
"Our biggest success is that people tell us that we're setting the bar for quality organic vegetable and herb starts. It's nice to hear that, but waiting 12 long years to get to this point has been very hard," Liz says.
Now Phil and Liz are happy with how the farm is doing and have few plans to change. "We want to continue to grow our business, of course, but we don't have plans to expand much. We'd like to maybe add a few more greenhouses and we're looking into growing organic native plants, but other than that we're keeping it simple," Liz says.
Learn More About Westwind Gardens:
Westwind Gardens is not a retail farm, so it doesn't make sense to visit if you're a consumer. Interested consumers can look for Westwind Gardens' PlanetWise Plants at local Northwest garden centers and nurseries.
If you're in the organic industry and interested in learning more about Westwind Gardens, Phil and Liz do welcome visitors - but call ahead! Visit the Westwind Garden website for contact information.