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Family-Scale Farm is Anything "But" Small Potatoes
by Phyllis Edgerly Ring
Organic Producer Magazine

Last Memorial Day, Jim and Megan Gerritsen and their kids weren’t watching fireworks or having a cookout. Instead, the Bridgewater, Maine, family was planting the organic potato crop that folks all over the country eagerly await each fall.

After nearly 10 days, their fields, sodden from Aroostook County’s fifth wet spring in a row, were finally dry enough for their farm equipment to navigate. Jim’s tractor crept along; pulling the planter through damp sections that forced numerous stops. On the back, Megan and three helpers rhythmically quartered cranberry-colored potatoes against utility knives then watched the pieces tumble into the planter where a dispenser released carefully calibrated amounts of seafood-fertilizer solution into the soil along with the seed potatoes.

The Gerritsens know from long experience that their crop-rotation efforts will confuse insect pests and protect their crop. But for them, there’s little relief from the thick clouds of mosquitoes, the humid heat, and the work’s ponderous pace. Their good humor seemed downright remarkable. Even on the worst days nature deals out, the Gerritsens love their life and work on Wood Prairie Farm.

Jim dropped out of college 30 years ago to begin farming organically. The son of a northern-California farmer, his research had shown him that the soils and climate of Maine’s Aroostook County had produced top-grade potatoes for hundreds of years. While he chose this region for its agricultural assets he was equally attracted to its culture and spirit.

“These are true farming communities that still support family farming. They have a legacy of good values and uncrowded living and it’s a place where people really care about and help each other. There’s a good balance in life here,” he says.

In 1976, Jim spent all the money he had to purchase one of two adjoining 40-acre parcels. (The Gerritsens now own and farm both, as well as a 10-acre parcel they acquired more recently.)  Jim built a small structure that could withstand northern-Maine’s long, tough winters, and help him do the same. While he had a vision of the smaller-scale, sustainable farming he aspired to, he couldn’t have imagined what Wood Prairie Farm would become, all while remaining a truly family farm.

Megan, who grew up with farming experience in New York State, joined Jim in 1984. Today, their Certified Organic family farm serves consumers and growers throughout the country. The couple’s children, Peter, 16, Caleb, 12, Sarah, 8, and Amy, 3, all work the farm, which typically plants about 54 of its acres, primarily with up to 16 potato varieties, plus a few acres of the organic grains they grow for several products and an acre or two of carrots and other vegetables. 

The challenge, they say, has always been to build a productive farm that doesn’t outgrow the size they want to maintain. “We feel that family-scale is sustainably, the right scale for food and agriculture, and for the continuation of a democracy,” says Jim. “We have faith in family farmers feeding people.”

Maine is particularly supportive of family-scale agriculture within the organic-growing community, a situation that arises both from the lifestyle of those who choose to live there and the tremendous work and support of 25-year-old Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA), Jim says. “Folks here really believe in the value of organic food grown close to home, and they’re willing to put down their dollars to show it.”

Like many organic growers here, the Gerritsens initially made their living via farmer’s markets and the Crown of Maine Coop Jim helped found about 20 years ago but over the past decade, they’ve marketed much of their crop most successfully—and widely—through catalog and web-store sales.

“There was plenty of potato-growing in this county, on a much larger scale than ours, so we knew we weren’t simply going to earn our living off of that,” says Jim. “It took a while for us to figure out which specific crops and varieties we could grow organically here that were both good eating and sufficiently resistant to disease.”

“When it comes to marketing, organic farmers have always had to be more knowledgeable, right from the start,” Jim says. “Traditional farmers may run at the sound of the word but organic growers have to know how we’re going to bring our product to market.

The Gerritsens had been marketing mainly within Aroostook County when, in the early ‘90s, a local air-force base was suddenly scheduled to close. “We were going to lose a big part of our local market and knew we needed both to diversity and somehow find broader possibilities,” Jim says. And even though their membership in the coop has linked them with such large wholesale markets as chain stores and an organic baby-food company, they knew that those markets could always shift or dry up, too.”

They evaluated what variety of crops they could grow with the most consistent quality—both table stock and seed—and how they might reach the widest possible market with these while still operating on the scale they prefer. They began a mail-order business with a print catalogue and, like many enterprises today, eventually grew that to a whole new level through the advantages of the Internet.

For the past six years, www.woodprairie.com has offered a wide selection of Certified Organic items produced on the farm, plus a few from other organic growers who, like the Gerritsens, are members of MOFGA, the state’s organization for organic agriculture. Products include everything from a “Potato of the Month Club” sampler of three varieties to an intriguing assortment of “uniquely Maine” organic gifts such as a breakfast basket with local maple syrup and pancake mix made from their own whole-grain flours.

“What’s key in operating a mail-order business is to set up your schedule so that you can both tend your crop and handle orders early enough in the week so that you can ship them out to arrive by week’s end. That’s especially important so that they won’t freeze or spoil by sitting around somewhere en route,” Jim says. They ship their products from early fall through early summer. During the growing season, they take orders for the fall’s crop and send customers notice of when it will be able to ship.

In addition to its sales of unique varieties of table-quality potatoes and other foods, Wood Prairie Farm’s stock in trade is organic seed potatoes. Their rainbow-hued Organic Potato Blossom Festival features six colorful seed-potato varieties. The farm’s Potato Patch kit offers everything the home gardener needs to break into organic potato-growing, including a rugged American-made hand hoe, Certified Seed varieties that include early blue Caribe, Yukon Gold, Red Cloud, and late-baker Elba, Wood Prairie’s special blend of organic fertilizer, a large, handcrafted wooden garden hod, a mesh potato sack, a growing guide, and an award-winning recipe booklet.

A big advantage to growing and marketing organic seed potatoes in Maine is that the state has one of the oldest and best seed-certification programs in the country and has been the leader in production of Certified Seed potatoes for nearly a century, notes Jim. “As Certified-Seed producers, we regularly renew seed stock from disease-free organic sources. ‘Maine Certified Seed’ means carefully grown, high-vigor, early-generation tubers that, in addition to being disease-free, are hardier and produce better yields. Highly trained seed inspectors field-test crops three times during the growing season, plus the crop is subjected to post-harvest, grow-out testing at facilities in Florida, as well.

As they market the farm’s products and accommodate the needs of potato-growers of all kinds, Wood Prairie Farm’s catalogue and web site has become a sort of community marketplace. Both are full of helpful information about potato-growing and the accompanying feedback from customers around the country makes the site a virtual agricultural community, too.

During the busiest times of year, the Gerritsens’ friends and neighbors lend a hand, which really adds to the farm’s community feel. In Aroostook County, family farming has a long history and children have been a part of potato planting and harvesting seasons for years. Most local schools still have a “harvest recess” from mid-September to mid-October so that everyone can help bring in the crop.

The Gerritisens pay their young workers, half in cash and half deposited into their college funds. Peter, the oldest, has the most experience but his younger brother, Caleb, can drive just about any piece of farm equipment now, Megan says. “Sarah, who’s 8, can put in a solid, four-hour shift and, small as she is, Amy doesn’t want to be left out and we find ways for her to help, too. They enjoy the work as much as we do.”

“We’re trying to encourage the idea that the work you do is a part of the natural rhythm of your life and the community of which you’re a part,” says Jim.

“The kids can see that the way we all do this together really contributes to something important,” Megan says. “We farm in order to grow food for people, and we have a connection with those people, whether they live here in Maine or across the country.”

Wood Prairie Farms: www.woodprairie.com

New Hampshire freelancer Phyllis Edgerly Ring is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture. More information about her work is available at www.phyllisring.com.




 


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