ROSALIA, Wash.-- They cluck like ordinary birds.
But some of the free-range chickens and turkeys at the Palouse Pastured Poultry farm in Rosalia, Wash., have a special quality: they’re certified organic.
The farm started its organic operation two years ago, said Emmy Widman, whose farm has been in her husband’s family for three generations. Of the 14-acre operation, fewer than five acres of organic pasture provide feed for the birds.
“We’re not making a killing off of this by any means,” Widman said. “We’re still trying to make our start-up costs. I’m not sure I’ve turned a profitable dollar yet.”
The Widman family and many other small organic farms are sprouts in Washington’s growing organic industry. Only California ranked higher than Washington’s $297 million in organic sales in 2011, the most recent year of market data.
But a third of these farms in Washington earned on average $18,000, or less than 1 percent of gross sales in 2011, according a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the number of certified farms in 2012 was 731, down 22 from the peak in 2009, according to a report by David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist at Washington State University.
“What are they making? Little,” Granatstein said.
But the data Granatstein collects for the WSDA Organic Food Program cannot describe the success or failure of these small farms over the years, he said.
“If people drop out of organic, they just drop out and disappear the next year. We don’t know why and we have no follow-up,” he said.
The DeLong family’s organic pork farm in St. John, Wash., was one such drop-out.
The family started raising organic pork in 1993 and raised 1,000 pigs a year at its peak, said Sara DeLong, wife of the family.
“Our business was really skyrocketing,” DeLong said. “The markets were there. People were looking for it. And people were willing to pay.”
But in 2006, DeLong’s husband, Joe, injured his shoulder and couldn’t continue his work tending the livestock, she said.
Like conventional farms, organic farms have good and bad years, said Mike Hackett, vice president of non-profit sustainable agriculture group Tilth Producers of Washington.
In the five years he spent as a WSDA organic field inspector, he saw a range of operations, from flowers to potatoes, to a less-than-half-acre growing house that produced thousands of pounds of mushrooms.
Forage fields make up the largest group of organic crops, with 32 percent of the acres in 2012, according to Granatstein’s report to the WSDA. Tree fruits like apples and cherries account for another 20 percent.
But not all acres are created equally, Granatstein said. For example, an acre of apples produces more than an acre for livestock to forage.
And most small farms file under “mixed horticulture,” which makes up 3 percent of the state’s acres, because they grow multiple crops in a smaller area, he said.
Stacia Moffett and her husband, David, own 17 acres of organic mixed horticulture at their farm in Colton, Wash.
They’ve been growing organic for a decade: onions, tomatoes, blackberries, flowers and more, she said.
But the farm brings in most of its money from the 110 acres of conventional wine grapes, she said.
Next to the vineyard, the organic garden is “certainly not something that would support a family or anything like that,” Moffett said.
Yet Granatstein said the small organic farm industry is “very vibrant and happening.”
Many of the farms grow into large operations that bring in profit and drive the organic sector, he said, but others are content to stay small.
“I think there’s a lot of reward with organic farming, because you’re helping the customer and the land.” Hackett said.
Whether it’s through food co-ops or farmers markets, these farms become a part of the community, he said. Customers know the farmers by name and buy into their practices as much as their product, he said.
Palouse Pastured Poultry sells its birds mostly in the Spokane area, but they do business all over eastern Washington, Widman said.
The family’s two-year journey to certification has been full of trial and error. They started growing their own organic feed to save money, Widman said.
The next challenge was getting people to buy. The higher price of organic scares off some buyers, even though others say it’s a great deal, she said.
At $4.95 per pound, the 4-6 pound broiler chickens are sold by the whole for $20-30, according to the farm’s website, palousepasturedpoultry.com. Slowly, the farm is building a customer base for the organic birds, she said. Next on the list: getting Black Cyprus restaurant in Pullman, Wash., to buy.
“I think the process of becoming organic certified would scare a lot of people,” she said, “But we’re here, and we wanted to raise our kids here on the farm.”
The Murrow News Service provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
The full report can be found here.