A Fruitless Search for Organic Produce Prompts Tennessee Couple to Grow Their Own
September 25, 2012 | Brian Jeffiers
When Ralph and Kimberlie Cole began seeking a source for organic produce in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, they had no idea that they would become a source. In 1996, spurred by dissatisfaction with the conventionally grown food options in their area, the couple, both environmental scientists, started down the path toward home food production.
“We wanted to be more sustainable and actually produce what we consumed,” Kimberlie recalled.
Neither had any agricultural experience, but they soon made the decision to buy a farm—a “fixer-upper,” as Kimberlie generously describes it—and set about growing organic produce and meat in a sustainable manner.
Their goals were simple: “To produce healthy food in a system that maintains soil and water quality, employs humane animal husbandry, and protects wildlife and forests, all while respecting diversity and the strength of community.”
Through friends and word of mouth, news spread about the farm and the Cole’s home food project gradually evolved into a larger business opportunity. “The business grew from people’s interest in what we were doing and our products,” says Kimberlie.
They called their new business venture West Wind Farms, and took on six full-time employees and a variety of contractors handling specialized or seasonal tasks.
Ironically, the farm’s untouched condition facilitated one of West Wind’s major business objectives, that of achieving USDA organic certification. The farm had stood fallow for three years prior to their purchase, putting them well on the way to meeting the USDA organic benchmark for no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
The organic certification standards didn’t even exist under USDA until five years into the couple’s venture, but they had already been operating within its guidelines when the final national organic standards rule was activated in 2001. “We were doing what we thought was necessary, or important to us,” she says, and they found themselves learning alongside the USDA employees, who themselves were just beginning to learn the process for certification.
Successful completion of organic certification opened up new markets for the farm, and 10 years after starting out as a part-time venture, the enterprise turned its first profit in 2006. This success prompted Ralph and Kimberlie to leave their jobs at the Department of Energy to run West Wind Farms full-time.
The challenges of running an economically viable farming enterprise, though, were not yet behind them. Kimberlie points to weeds, spiny amaranth in particular, as one of the great challenges to their production system. Mechanical control couldn’t keep up, and livestock turned up their noses at the pest. The battle continues.
Turning out quality organic milk has also proven difficult as maintaining satisfactory bacterial levels is much tougher in a system that excludes antibiotics.
But the couple has pressed ahead with novel products, such as pasture-farrowed hogs, grass-fed beef, and pastured chickens. They have studied pests and learned to prevent and circumvent rather than simply identify and treat. According to the Cole’s, pasture rotation and other site management strategies keep many parasites at bay, and disease vectors like rats find themselves at the mercy of an effective barnyard cat. Careful livestock selection is done to favor parasite resistance, allowing the maximum genetic defense. Other sustainability measures include the farm’s 30kW solar array (3000 square feet of solar panels) that provides for all of the farm’s electricity needs and even generates excess power to sell back to the grid.
Today, the farm features retail meats and processed items like sausages and jerky. Also available are herbs, fruits, vegetables, poultry, and dairy products, and for those thinking of the diet of a four-legged friend, the farm even features organic pet food. West Wind is also the only farm in Tennessee that produces certified organic meats and poultry
Beyond production, the ever-present challenge for any specialized product is finding a market, and Kimberlie says the company uses a variety of strategies to make that vital link from the inquisitive consumer (like she once was) to the ideal producer.
West Wind sells at a variety of farmers’ markets and utilizes Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to sell a substantial quantity of its produce as well. The farm is located roughly halfway between Nashville and Knoxville, within reach of an urban market with an ample supply of buyers hungering for organic produce.
But beyond their revenues from local farmers’ markets, the lion’s share of sales are done through their web site, where consumers can browse the full range of available products and complete their grocery trip online.
As West Wind eyes further expansion into new regional markets, Kimberlie shows the determination that brought her from seeking the source to being the source. West Wind currently sells throughout Tennessee and other southeastern states. “We want to strengthen those surrounding state markets,” she says.