The new American farmer
Guy Evans returned to the family orchard with a new vision.
Sunshine Farm Market is not a place to look for off-grade product or cheap fruit. Marketer Guy Evans offers an experience, as well as good food produced in the region.
When Guy Evans's father, Denny, asked him to join the family orchard business a decade ago, Guy just wasn't interested. Sunshine Orchard at Lake Chelan, Washington, was a hundred acres of primarily Red Delicious—the pride of Chelan's apple growers at the time.
Guy had a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington, and in 1998, rather than join his father at the orchard, he went into the video business, recording oral histories and doing corporate work.
Then, in 2000, after three years of low returns in the Washington apple industry, Denny found himself deeply in debt and at risk of losing the orchard. He saw no option but to pull out half of his 100-acre orchard and lease the land to a neighbor.
Guy, whose family had been growing fruit in Chelan for over a century, felt the pain that many small orchardists were experiencing as they faced higher costs and lower returns and struggled to find their place in a consolidating industry. He teamed up with Wenatchee writer Jamie Howell to produce a documentary film entitled Broken Limbs, that would explore what went wrong for growers like his father.
The picture seemed grim until they heard agricultural economist Dr. John Ikerd talk about the emergence of "the new American farmer."
These farmers, according to Ikerd, are not preoccupied with production and profits. They value quality of life over standard of living and see themselves as stewards of the earth, working with nature, rather than trying to conquer it. Because they farm in harmony with nature, their farms should be more economically viable, as well as ecologically sound. They market locally to people who care where their food comes from and how it is produced, and receive premium prices for it. They earn a decent income, but more importantly are living a life they love.
"Wow," Guy remembers thinking. "People are thinking about things that make sense here. It ignited a hunger in me to learn more and to see who might actually be trying to do these things."
The film, which featured some of those people, was shown twice on the Public Broadcasting Service and was nominated for two Northwest Emmy awards. It's been distributed to schools, colleges, and libraries and viewed by perhaps 100,000 people.
Financially, however, it was less successful for the two filmmakers, who had gone into the venture unaware of the challenges of fundraising. They felt fortunate to raise $34,000 towards production costs—for a project that they worked on full-time for a year, and half-time for a couple more years. Fortunately, both had working wives.
In 2003, while the film was still in production, Denny's long-time fruit-stand manager left. Financially broke, Guy took the job for the summer, reasoning that it would provide income along with the flexibility to finish the film.
"I got back here and found I really enjoyed it," he recalled. "The market had not changed that much, but my context had. I had spent three years learning about this new paradigm—sustainable agriculture. Looking at the farm through that paradigm, I saw endless possibilities. The film Broken Limbs was as much a personal education as it was a creative endeavor. I came back after Broken Limbs with this question: How can we sustain food production on our farm?"
To be sustainable, the farm had to be socially responsible and ecologically sound as well as profitable.
His father had been trying to figure out how to dig himself out of a $750,000 financial hole. He scaled down the tree fruit production, planted six acres of grapes, and aimed to take advantage of escalating real estate prices by selling most of his lake-view orchard as sites for "ranchettes." Nowadays, one acre of orchard on the slope would sell for at least $100,000 because of its development potential, realtors say. Given the value of the land, how could they justify continuing to farm?
Preserving ag land
But Guy felt there had to be a way. He and his father, in collaboration with neighboring property owners on Lake Chelan's south shore, have drawn up a new vision for Sunshine Farm that includes a clustered housing community but focuses on preserving agricultural land and open space. Also in the plans is a learning center offering classes and retreats focusing on sustainable living, creative expression, and spiritual growth.
"I look forward, in addition to sustainable food production, to having an avenue on the farm where people can come and have their souls refreshed," Guy said.
Besides selling fruit from their remaining 11 acres of orchard, the Evanses sell organic vegetables produced on 3.5 acres of land that they lease out to farmer Rachel Airmet. They also have pasture where they raise grass-fed beef, and they plan to produce cheese, bread, and
His father grows the fruit, while Guy is the marketer.
"I've learned that I'm definitely drawn to marketing," Guy said. "Marketing is telling a story. It's a little bit of theater. It's building an experience. I don't have that farmer's calling to be out in the dirt growing stuff, but I can get people excited about food.
"When I came back, I really focused on ramping up the quality a lot and doing more in the merchandising arena and giving people an experience that was different from just cheap fruit along the road."
In addition to the fruits and vegetables grown at Sunshine Farm, he sells sweet corn, melons, and early- and late-season cherries from other parts of Washington to lengthen the season.
So, how does he define local food?
"If I can buy from the farmer, that's local," he said. "If I'm buying from the farmer, that means he or she is geographically close enough to make it worth transporting it to me."
Imperial's Garden in Yakima supplies corn to most of the fruit stands in north central Washington, he said. For Guy, growing corn isn't profitable, but Imperial's Garden
Web of producers
Supplying local food doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself, he stressed. "It's growing what you can grow well and working with a web of other producers," he said. "When I work with these other producers and sellers, I really get a sense of how strong this subculture of local agricultural commerce is. I really see that regionalized model and system growing in the volume it produces."
Like Ikerd, he questions whether industrialized agriculture can continue to function as it has in the past. Lacking a cheap and plentiful energy supply, it won't make sense to ship lettuce from California to New York, for example.
Selling local, sustainably produced food—food with a face, as he describes it—helps people reconnect with themselves and builds a community, he said.
"I'm an idealist, no doubt about that. I tend to think of the environmental and social return. Part of me is thinking about the community."