Organic grower diversifies
Mike Brownfield looks at his organic orchard as he would an investment portfolio.
Tough economic times in fruit growing have prompted Mike Brownfield of Chelan, Washington, to develop new marketing strategies and expand the range of crops grown on the family’s orchard.
“Personally, I’m looking at this place more like an investment portfolio,” he said. “I want a wide range of diversity in the kinds of fruit and varieties, and in my marketing strategy. I’m just trying to cover all the bases.”
His father, John, an organic grower and founding member of Washington Tilth, might have influenced Brownfield to grow fruit organically, but when he returned to the family farm in 1990, after graduating from college and working for a time in California, organic farming made sense to him environmentally, ethically, and economically.
“The economic incentive was there to do that until the late 1990s,” Brownfield said. He farms in partnership with his father and his uncle, Dave.
But that started to change. A damaging hailstorm in 1997 heralded a period of declining prices and tougher economic times. The family was selling mainly apples and pears through the wholesale market.
Recognizing they needed a new business strategy to get them through the tough times, the family saw the opportunity to pack and market a larger portion of their crop themselves, delivering fruit personally to small retailers and natural food cooperatives in western Washington.
“It was an economic decision primarily,” he said. “While the wholesale prices were lower, it was becoming evident to us that we needed to do something differently if we were going to survive.”
They’ve been direct marketing for four seasons and enjoy the face-to-face communication with customers, as well as healthy returns. “Up until this year, the difference was pretty dramatic in what we were receiving on a per-bin basis back to the farm for our fruit,” he said.
For example, the 15 percent of the 2004 crop that the Brownfields sold themselves brought in 40 percent of their total income—though it wasn’t accomplished without considerable effort and investment. The family built two cold storage rooms on the farm. Delivering the fruit can involve a 625-mile round trip from Chelan to Olympia, up Interstate 5 to Bellingham, and back to Chelan. During the summer they might make the trip twice a week, though sometimes splitting the route between two people.
But there have been bonuses, such as more control over pricing. Brownfield generally sells his fruit for the same price throughout the season, which he feels is a benefit to both buyer and seller. The customer doesn’t have to worry about repricing, and he’s assured of the price he’s going to receive from week to week.
“I think I could have got a little more out of our Honeycrisp last year if I’d pushed it,” he said. “But I decided to stay to a level I felt comfortable with and leave it there for the whole season.
“The other great thing about the direct marketing for us is the cash flow,” he added.
He’s usually paid within ten days to two weeks, whereas it can take up to a year to be fully paid when the fruit is sold through a packer. It can be almost two years from making the first investment in the crop to receiving the final payment for it from a packer.
“What other industry’s suppliers get paid last?” he wondered. “I would like to see some changes. More commission-based sales, and somehow the sheds helping out with the cash flow problem. All the burden falls on the farmer. It doesn’t seem right when everyone else is getting economic benefit, from the packing shed, to retailers, and farm supply places. It’s an odd system that we’re in.”
Selling direct has led to new strategies in terms of what to grow. It doesn’t make economic sense to set off with a delivery truck that’s less than full. Brownfield recently planted small acreages of apricots, peaches (including a white-fleshed variety), and plums, of several varieties that mature at different times so he can supply his customers for most of the season. He’s also planted Starkrimson pears that mature in early August before his Bartletts, d’Anjous, and Asian pears.
“Our goal is to have a few varieties that cover a pretty normal season for that fruit,” Brownfield explained. “I’m not interested in having anything that’s super early or super late. I don’t want peaches in September because I have apples and table grapes.”
He’s planted an acre of cherries, which includes five varieties, and will plant two or three acres more to supply the wholesale market, but won’t be converting the whole farm. “I see growers around here pulling out their apple orchards and planting all cherries,” he noted.
While his small plantings of soft fruits and grapes won’t make a huge difference in terms of tonnage, they should add significantly to sales dollars and mean less downtime for his workers.
“This operation is going to be more complex with all the different harvesting, thinning, spray programs, and pruning regimes, but, at the same time, it helps me utilize labor.”
His three full-time workers are involved in the packing operation and deliveries when the growing and harvesting season is over. Packing the fruit on farm brings more money back to the farm, since they can do it more cheaply than a big operation, and also means more work for their employees.
The Brownfields have been growing a few table grapes since the early 1980s. Encouraged by the fact that the vines have never suffered cold damage, coupled with good demand for grapes at farmers’ markets, Brownfield planted another half acre three years ago. Last year, they produced their first good crop.
“They’re totally unique,” he enthused. “Most people seem to know Thompson Seedless and Red Flame, but their flavor is not what I would call very complex, whereas the varieties we have do have complex flavors.”
He has six varieties, including some that taste like strawberries and a blue grape that’s redolent of blueberries. He sells them in a rainbow pack including red, blue and green varieties. He’s found the grapes very forgiving at harvest, because they don’t soften very quickly.
“You basically start picking when they taste good,” he said.
Brownfield’s direct-marketing season runs from August through early February. As his cherries and late apple varieties come into production, it will expand to July through March. Gala is his number-one apple variety, but he tries to be sold out by the end of December.
“I don’t try to push anything,” he stressed. “If I think something is not in its prime any more, I’m not going to put it out there. It’s just not worth it.”
The family sold about 20 percent of their 2005 crop direct. That brought in 35 percent of their total income, a smaller percentage than the previous year. That’s because prices from the wholesale market for organic apples and pears strengthened this year, which Brownfield thinks is a reflection of increasing demand for organic foods.
“A lot of big chain stores want to have an organic department, and it’s made a tremendous difference in demand,” he said. “Three years ago, I thought I was going to pull out all my d’Anjou pears, but the organic market got better this year with some of the highest returns I’ve ever seen in pears.
“The industry’s pretty confident we have at least two more solid price years, and then there will be a more major increase in volume due to people transitioning into organics. But even then, the outlook is pretty darned good.”