Organic farmers learn to cultivate Internet
Saturday, June 12, 2010
On the Web
WINTHROP — At Crown S Ranch near Winthrop, Louis Sukovaty and Jennifer Argraves farm 120 acres and raise cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, hay, grain and a variety of row crops.
They rotate fields, compost everything, use solar-powered mobile chicken houses and sell organic meat and eggs.
It’s their family business, and it’s all possible because of the Internet.
Also in the Methow Valley, on 175 acres, Brooke and Sam Lucy grow thousands of bushels of organic wheat and emmer — an Old World heirloom grain. “From plow to plate,” they plant, reap, thresh and mill the grains, and look to customers outside the Methow Valley for 75 to 80 percent of their business.
If you Google emmer, your second hit — after Wikipedia — is Lucy’s Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop.
That’s because the Lucys are Internet-savvy, and for the past five years have used their website not only to sell their unique crop, but to educate buyers about the qualities of emmer, and the nutritional value of fresh milled grains.
Brooke Lucy said only about 15 percent of their business comes directly from website sales, but she suspects many more people buy their emmer because of it.
“I think we get a ton of follow-up from having a Web presence,” she said. “Last year, in July, we completely redid our site, and our sales doubled as soon as we did,” she said.
Dave Knopf, director of the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service, said the agency has been tracking computer use among farmers since 2005, and found that those who use computers rose from 70 percent in 2005 to 81 percent last year, while those using computers for farm business rose from 40 percent in 2005 to 50 percent last year.
But only a fraction use the Internet for marketing purposes: 15 percent in 2005, rising to 16 percent last year, he said.
“In my own, personal experience, those farmers that try to reach niche markets tend to be the ones that use the Internet for marketing purposes,” Knopf said.
Both of these Methow Valley organic farmers say they wouldn’t have to resort to a niche market if the federal government subsidized their farms the way it does the larger, industrial farms. They could sell their organic product as cheaply as subsidized grains or beef.
But without financial help from the government, the Internet gives them a tool that helps them to make a living as a small farmer, and support their families.
Both rely on the obvious use of the Internet: receiving orders by e-mail, and telling customers about their product through a website.
But Argraves said Crown S Ranch relies on the Internet for other reasons.
First, they’ve needed it to research the old ways of animal husbandry. Before pesticides and other quick fixes, farmers had already figured out many natural remedies to common farming problems.
Take flies, for instance.
“Our fly trap was invented before World War II,” Argraves said, pointing to the unassuming structure about as wide and as long as a steer, screened on two sides with old carpeting draping halfway down the entrance.
“My husband found it on the Internet from the University of Nebraska and he modified it to fit our needs,” she said.
They convince their cattle to walk through the fly trap by putting their water trough on the other side. As they walk through, the carpeting brushes off the flies, which try to fly toward the light, but get trapped in between the screening and buzz there until they die.
Both Argraves and Sukovaty are engineers, and combine the knowledge of old animal husbandry with new technology to make sure their animals are raised in a healthy and humane way, Argraves said.
This includes rotating all of their animals onto new pasture, and leaving the manure there as fertilizer to raise hay, grain and other crops. Their laying chickens are free ranging, and their broilers are treated to a large, shaded henhouse with no floor that rolls across the pasture — the movement powered by a solar panel on wheels. The broilers eat fresh grass supplemented with organic grain.
Chickens follow the cattle in their crop rotation, so they get plenty of bugs with their green diet.
“Our motto is, ‘Better for the animal, better for the environment, better for you,’ Argraves said.
Like the Lucys, the Crown S Ranch uses the Internet to tell people about the high quality of food they’re raising. And to sell it — either locally or through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership, frozen and delivered to several locations in the Seattle area in coolers.
Last year, they had 100 CSA members, and this year, they’re offering 125.
“Our goal isn’t to be big, it’s to be sustainable,” Argraves explained.
Sam Lucy said he was perfectly happy supplying his special grain to just Methow Valley residents, but he discovered he had to raise and sell 10 times as much to make a living at it.
That’s when the Internet became invaluable.
The Lucys also offer CSA memberships for people who want their fresh grains and flours delivered to their door regularly. They offer a product that’s not very perishable, so they can ship it, bulk, wholesale or retail.
They have customers all across the country, from individuals, to health food stores, to restaurants.
“I get an order, and within seconds of placing it, it can be packaged and shipped out the door the same day,” Brooke Lucy said.
They take orders by e-mail or phone at the granary Mondays through Thursdays. And when no one’s there on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays, customers can place orders through the farm’s website. All of their wholesale customers either call or e-mail their orders. “It’s a quick transaction,” she added.
E-mail also gives Bluebird Grain Farms a reliable record of what was ordered, and when, so mistakes are less frequent.
Brooke Lucy said some people think of the Internet as impersonal. But newsletters, e-mail communication and website comments help to keep those connections less formal.
“There’s nothing that can take the place of personal relationship. We know that, and take a tremendous amount of effort to keep our relationships,” she said. That includes traveling to restaurants and stores that sell or use their products, and responding to correspondence.
Lucy said the Internet provides an opportunity to make yourself known — to provide basic information about your product, about who you are and what you believe in, and an easy way to purchase your product.
“People in the younger generation expect that to be available, and if it isn’t available, basically you don’t exist,” she said.
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