For a 4th Generation Organic Cherry Farmer, Sustainability is a ‘Big Thing just for Survival’
June 12, 2012 | Hana Lurie
It was while studying engineering that Bill Razey of Razey Orchard, a family owned farm growing organic cherries and a variety of other fruits, came to the realization that he wanted to continue his family’s farming legacy in Washington State. “I left school and went back to the farm and I’ve been poor ever since!” says Bill, somewhat jokingly.
Razey Orchard sits 150 miles southeast of Seattle and is home to fourth-generation farmer Bill and his wife Mary Kay. Initially a conventional farm, Bill decided to make the conversion to sustainable and organic farming in the mid 90s.
I recently spoke with Bill to learn more about the history of the farm, what motivated him to farm organically, the challenges that he faces and more.
Q: What is the story of the origin of your farm?
Bill Razey: The farm was way before me. Our family has been here since before the turn of the century. My great-grandfather decided to sell out in Iowa, around 1899, and then moved the family lock, stock and barrel. They got a boxcar and brought everything they had in it. They settled out here and just started farming.
When I was growing up, we lived in a different city, so we would go back and forth on the weekends to the farm. You could do your homework in the car on the way, then you’d work two days on the farm and then go back to where we lived because I had a regular job. So I went away to university to take engineering and I got several years into engineering and then I had a summer of working at ALCOA (aluminum company of America). At that point I decided that I’d rather go farm. I left school and went back to the farm and I’ve been poor ever since! [laughs] I enjoy the life.
Q: What do you grow on your farm?
Bill Razey: Mostly cherries and apples, but we also do a few vegetables at farmer’s markets. We have other assorted fruits as well.
Q: When and why did you decide to convert to organic?
Bill Razey: It was in 1996 at the Tilth Producers conference. That was at Sleeping Lady Lodge in Leavenworth – a beautiful place. We took our kids up to the conference. I went to a talk by Jan Dietrick – she owns Rincon-Vitova Insectaries. She was supposed to talk about insects but she had just got done listening to somebody talk about soil. She was absolutely on fire; she was just like a preacher. She was talking about the life of the soil and told us that a healthy teaspoon of soil has 60,000 microbes. I had never heard any of this and I was just amazed.
We had wanted to go organic, but there was a lot of obstacles. There were [also] a lot of things we didn’t know about, like what about gibberellic acid, could we use it? Then I saw an interview with a farmer in a magazine out of Canada, and in that article I read that there is an organic gibberellic acid. It’s a naturally occurring chemical, and it turns out that the Japanese first recognized it through what they call the “foolish seedling”. [In short], they would have some rice stalks that would grow way above the others. It turns out that those rice stalks were infected with a fungus. That fungus created a chemical that would feed that rice stalk and cause it to grow much taller so that it could disperse its fungal spores off to a larger distance. At any rate, they figured out how to naturally produce that growth hormone [of sorts]. So, it turns out that you can get that and it’s totally organic. You can use it on cherries to increase their size and firmness. So, after we found out about that, we went ahead and started farming organically. We don’t use the fungus itself, but we use the byproduct of the fungus. That particular gibberellic is used in many crops – it’s used in flowers, it’s used in grapes, and it’s definitely used in cherries. Although we don’t use it on all of our cherries.
Q: How difficult was the organic certification process?
To begin with, it was very easy. But the organic thing gets more complicated and more difficult every year. Farmers are often hands-on people. They do things with the soil. Many farmers are capable business people and good record-keepers, but some of us went into farming because we wanted to get as far away from the world of paperwork as we could. So we’re being drug, kicking and screaming into the modern world of paperwork.
Q: Can you describe some unique sustainable, organic agriculture practices that you employ?
Bill Razey: We have a block of fruit on the hill, and the only thing we do to it is spray bait to get the cherry fruit fly, and irrigate. Other than that, we don’t even drive a tractor through it. We just walk up there, pick the fruit and carry it out. It’s wild growing fruit, it wasn’t done intentionally. Most of what we do on it is done by foot.
There’s a lot of stuff we do without even thinking about it. Some of our acreage is wild, so we have all kinds of native plants and animals here. I don’t necessarily hold myself to be particularly more sustainable than the next guy. A lot of our sustainability is driven by money – we just can’t afford to do anything else. That’s what often drives farmers to do less and operate [more efficiently].
Q: How does the farm make money?
Bill Razey: We do farmers markets in Seattle. My wife lives in Seattle during the summer and I stay here on the farm. She sells at the markets and I provide the fruit. We used to belong to a co-op called Snow Kiss. It was a fresh packer and tannery. It’s been here over 100 years, but just this year that co-op filed for bankruptcy. So, for us the only option is farmers markets.
Recently, the wife and I got into driving the school bus to improve cash-flow. We graduated from school-bus driving to teaching. So I got certified to be an agriculture teacher, and my wife was already a certified teacher from college. We’ve recently been in the business of substitute teaching and it’s really interesting. It’s a great way to have some income to pay the bills. If farmers need a source of off-season income, I certainly recommend considering substitute teaching. Someday I may actually find a job teaching agriculture. I’ve spent a lot of time at the local schools, and I did part of my internship learning the teaching trade at our local high school ag shop. I’ve worked with the kids and fixed a lot of their equipment and just had a great time.
Everytime I get into a farm or ag shop, I really enjoy working with the kids, it’s fun. I learn tremendous amounts from the students. It’s changing now, but if you used to [4 or 5 years ago] look on the website of the National Associate of Ag Educators, you would see that the ag association was owned by the chemical people. And it’s still quite common…the school agriculture programs are pretty much chemically-oriented for conventional agriculture. In fact, they are strongly biased in that way.
Q: Is your farm profitable of self-sustaining?
Bill Razey: In theory, it should make a good living, but in reality it seems like an expensive hobby. There’s nothing “hobby” about farming though – it’s real work, but we’ve had quite a few years of frost and other complications. So I would say that presently, we’re breaking even. We strive every year to cut our costs and equip ourselves better and as inexpensively as we can. Between the farmers markets, the teaching and the cost reduction – learning every year to do a better job of growing – we believe that we will get our profits in.
Q: Will your son be a fifth-generation farmer?
He’s farming with us now. We’ve advised him to do the same as we’ve done: have a back-up plan. He’s presently in nursing school.
Q: What challenges does the farm face?
Bill Razey: One challenge that we haven’t had to deal with yet is this particular fruit fly. There’s a lot of different names for it, one is the cherry vinegar fly. This is a ravenous fruit fly that has ten generations a year. We know it’s in the valley, but for whatever reason it hasn’t been established and it’s going to be difficult to control. That particular fly is probably going to affect the whole nation because it eats all kinds of fruits, anything with a relatively thin skin. It wouldn’t bother apples and maybe doesn’t bother pears, but it bothers berries and most of your fair-skinned fruits. There’s another bug called the marmorated stink bug, and we don’t yet know what the effect of it is going to be.
We don’t have a lot of labor, sometimes we do most of it ourselves, but I think that’s going to be a big challenge. There’s all kinds of things. If you don’t farm, you just don’t realize what’s out there. It just never ends, but that’s just part of it. It’s not like farmers are alone in that.
Q: What are your future goals for the farm?
Bill Razey: To produce the very best fruit that we can. Other goals are to continue pursuing sustainability – to make ourselves less dependent on all the farm inputs, because we just can’t afford them. However we can service things ourselves, however we can simplify it – so sustainability is a big thing, just for survival.