Vermont-based Organic Farmer Finds Profit by Understanding and Meeting Market Demand
July 25, 2012 | Noelle Swan
Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens grew up on a homestead in northern Vermont. He says his family always grew more than enough food to feed the family and sold their surplus produce at a makeshift farm stand by the side of the road. As a child, Johnson spent much of his free time in the garden and even tried out a few commercial ventures. In 1997, he leased a bit of his parents’ homestead, put up a couple of greenhouses, and started growing micro greens. Since, Johnson has grown his business into a diversified, four-season, organic farm with 20 employees.
Pete’s Greens grows baby greens, storage crops, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, and ginger. Johnson markets his produce through a 500-person winter CSA and 350-person summer CSA, a farm stand, 70 different stores and restaurants, a farmer’s market, and the web based Farmers to You – something of a virtual farmers market that delivers Vermont-grown produce to drop-off locations in Boston.
Johnson shares his thoughts on four-season farming in New England, the complicated questions that accompany organic and sustainable farming, managing a farm as a successful-and profitable-business.
Q: How did you get into farming?
Pete Johnson: I’d always gardened. I even had commercial ventures as a kid. In college, I started playing around with growing greens in winter and I got to know a couple established farmers who were doing that. Then I moved back to my parents place after college and I put up a greenhouse or two. I started tiny with no capital and a quarter acre of land and it just kind of mushroomed from there.
Q: Growing year round in Vermont must have its challenges. Do you have astronomical energy bills?
Pete Johnson: We only heat a small portion of our green houses. Most of them are unheated and we do all we can with that. When you start heating greenhouses to grow crops through the winter in this climate it doesn’t really work out very well financially. But a single or double layer of plastic and a metal frame really gain you a lot and that’s relatively cheap and doesn’t have long-term significant costs. So probably 7/8 of our greenhouse space is unheated or very minimally heated and the remaining 1/8is significantly heated. In the heated space we’ll start crops to be transplanted into our unheated space. Really early tomatoes and cucumbers need a lot of heat. Putting heat in a small space really jumpstarts the rest of [our] production.
Q: Are you certified organic?
Pete Johnson: We are. We haven’t’ really ever had any particular reasons not to be. Our pest issues are not real significant. We rotate crops a lot. Now we’re rotating around not just this farm but to different farms. A couple years ago we had a really bad onion disease so we moved our onions four miles away and haven’t had diseases since. They were at that different farm for two years and now they are at a totally different farm. Also, the climate up here is pretty extreme in the winter, so a lot of pests that may be common in Boston or further south, we either don’t have or we don’t have till late in the year.
The biggest challenge to most organic vegetable farmers is weeds and we’re focused on really really being good at weed control. We’ve got lots of specific equipment for that now. How many weeds are in the soil is all related to what’s happened in previous years. A single weed might drop 40,000 seeds that some of which are programmed to germinate right away and some of them are programmed to hang out and wait for five years. It’s pretty amazing. So, basically anytime you do a good job, it gets better the next year. Anytime you do a bad job you basically set yourself up for five more years of weeding. We have lots of different tractors that are equipped with different tools that kill weeds both before we plant and also after we plant. [We are] in a humid climate where it’s raining a lot. Unlike an arid climate in California when they just apply water with drip tape wherever they want it, here we have water applied everywhere and the weeds kind of always start to grow. We have to be really really good at cultivation.
Q: You mentioned that you rotate crops to plots on other farms. What is the relationship between you and the farms where you lease additional plots of land?
Pete Johnson: We have three different farms that we lease from right now. Most of them are 20-30 acre chunks. They are all about 4-6 miles from our home farm. They are all leased from friends, although that isn’t a necessary criteria. Some are farmers themselves, some are not. We pay 50-100 per year per acre. We don’t have access to all the land we want nearby our home farm. I spent time in California studying how they do things and they farm tracts of land that are hundreds of miles away so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me to farm a plot four miles away.
Q: What kinds of sustainability considerations have you made along the way?
Pete Johnson: [Sustainability] is a tough word. It’s a difficult thing to discuss. [For instance,] we use a black, plastic mulch, a very thin plastic that you put right on the soil surface that you grow crops in. It’s generally not considered a great practice from a sustainability perspective. But when you study it more closely, it’s not so straightforward. We grow onions in this black plastic mulch. It’s very thin; it’s like 1mm thick, but it’s still only used for one season and then it’s thrown away and we can’t currently recycle it in this area. So there is a certain amount of oil embodied in that plastic. But the other alternative for controlling the weeds in our onions is quite a few passes with a tractor and/or a whole lot of people doing hand weeding or weeding with hoes. So I did the math on what it costs in gas just for the people to drive to the field to do the handwork and that by far seems like the worst option. The tractor ends up using not a lot of fuel, but a reasonable amount of fuel doing this. So the option that looks the most authentic as sustainable, which is people out in the field with hoes is probably using the most fossil fuels to get the job done out of all three options. Should we be using plastic at all to grow our food? Perhaps not and we should all be eating potatoes and carrots all winter like we used to.
You really have to look at things in full detail to be sure what you are talking about. There’s all different kinds of sustainability. Are you talking about economic sustainability for the area? Are you talking about the environment? What part of the environment? We try to as efficiently and using as few resources as possible, grow a whole lot of food really well…It’s really hard to discuss and it leads to some really interesting details and discussions.
Q: You mention that you started out with no capital. How have you been able to purchase land and grow the farm?
Pete Johnson: It’s all funded by vegetables and our profits. We had a fire a year and a half ago and it burned down our barn that had all of our storage crops and our processing facility and a bunch of our supplies and equipment in it. We were only about one third insured, so we borrowed a bunch of money after that. We were out of debt, we were all free and clear, and now we have about $600,000 in debt but we also have a really awesome building that’s going to take us through the next 5-10 years. So that debt load is fine for what we are doing. Basically from day one the philosophy was that we needed to be profitable or there’s no sense of working so hard. We always priced things in a way that we made money… It’s been very gratifying to have a financially viable, successful business that’s able to sustain it’s own growth for the most part.
Q: What have been some of the big major challenges that the farm has faced?
Pete Johnson: Staffing is always the largest one. It’s just hard to find and keep a good enough group of people to excel to the level you want to. We have a good group of folks and we’ve done well there, but, probably like most businesses, there’s frequently an issue with somebody in the organization. And we can pay reasonably well and we have health insurance now, but we can’t pay really well. That’s just been difficult. Oftentimes we get talented young folk who want to have their own farm. So they’ll be here for a year or two. We’re actually trying to get away from that because it’s not the best thing for our farm. But most people in this line of work who are really gung ho and good at it do eventually want to have their own thing, so that’s the single biggest challenge that we have.
Q: Do you have any advice for future farmers?
Pete Johnson: Not really. What to do is so dependent upon where you are and what your market seems like it is. I think my biggest piece of advice is to pinpoint your market and go for it. We started out with just greens for four years… and since we’ve diversified all over the map. But that might not work for somebody else. Somebody else might start growing everything right off the bat. But it’s really important to understand your market and grow for your market to have roughly the right amount of food for what your market wants. I think if you do that and you get dialed in with a particular market, you can oftentimes do a lot more business than you thought you could. People sort of gather around a business that’s doing well and doing a good job. I’ve seen it time and time again where things really go well if you’re really focused and do a good job and people catch wind of it and talk to each other. Before you know it, your little roadside stand is a lot more than you thought it could ever be.