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Meet Organic Farmer Nigel Walker
Most city dwellers and suburbanites don't personally know the farmers who grow their food but Nigel Walker thinks they should. Walker is co-owner with his wife, Frances Andrews, of Eatwell Farm, a 70-acre organic farm in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California. Every week, one of his employees drives to the Bay Area in a truck fueled by recycled vegetable oil to deliver boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to more than 450 members of their community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. He also sells produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and through three grocery stores.
Born and raised in England, Walker studied agriculture at Writtle Agricultural College in Essex. Though the school taught conventional production farming with chemicals, Walker interned at an organic farm in Kent, England. He moved to California in 1992 and he and his wife bought a three-acre farm the following year. In 2000, after leasing land for a number of years, they bought a 65-acre farm near Dixon, Calif. They also operate a 5-acre orchard a few miles away.
Eatwell Farm started practicing community supported agriculture in 1996. Members sustain the farm by paying for weekly deliveries of whatever's being harvested that week. In the spring that might mean strawberries, green garlic, grapefruit, sugar snap peas, fava beans, asparagus and lettuce; a winter box might include beets, carrots, rutabagas, broccoli, chard and sun-dried tomatoes from the previous summer.
Q.: What have been the most significant changes you've seen in organic farming since you started?
WALKER: I've seen it become a lot easier to farm organically. Some of the major obstacles have been alleviated. For example, we have a lot more organic seed available. We have more of what I would call sustainable compost sources. We use food waste compost from the Bay Area. And we have more materials now to control really difficult pests.
In terms of the customer, the organic marketplace is much bigger. It used to be that maybe 20 percent of farmers selling at farmers markets were growing organically; now there are markets that just want to have organic farmers. There's real pressure on farmers to become organic; they're being forced by the customers to go in an organic direction.
Q.: What do you think about Wal-Mart's recent announcement that it plans to sell much more organic food?
WALKER: I'm torn. I want there to be more availability of organic food and that it be priced so everyone can afford it. In one way, I support Wal-Mart doing that. But it won't be long before all the food is produced in Mexico. Yes, it'll be cheap but what's the environmental cost? When you're shipping food all over the country, there are huge environmental costs in terms of transportation, refrigeration and storage. Yes, I support them going organic, but I don't think their system of distribution is sustainable.
Q.: Why is organic food more expensive?
WALKER: Inherently, it's expensive to do things on a small scale. We have all the added costs any small business has. That's why Costco can sell you food so cheap. They buy things in huge quantities. This country is designed for corporations -- and big corporations. It's not designed for small mom- and-pop businesses.
There's also a lot more hand labor. Applying compost is a lot more time consuming than pouring some chemical from a bag into the water.
Q.: What do you see as the major differences between buying organic food in a grocery store and buying directly from farmers?
WALKER: I think people should know where their food is coming from. When I was supplying Safeway stores in England no one knew the food was coming from my farm. When you shop at a farmers market you can meet the farmer and ask questions. The next level, which is the most rewarding, is when you commit to a farm and become a member of a CSA. You get a weekly newsletter. You get a chance to come to the farm. You can walk on the ground where your food is grown.
We just had our strawberry festival, two weekends where people could eat strawberries from the field. They could pick sugar snap peas and go through the orchard and see the trees they help pay for. It's especially great for young families. They tell the kids, "This is your farm. This is where your food comes from."
Q.: What about the freshness of food straight from a farm, versus food sold in a store?
WALKER: If you're picking for a big chain you can't pick things ripe. It will go into a truck and then to a distribution center and then to a depot and then to a store. You're lucky if it makes it on the shelf that day. Maybe it's two days. And it may be another 48 hours until it's sold.
When pick I strawberries they are good for 48 hours. I'm not going to deliver a strawberry that I can deliver on Wednesday that will still be good on Sunday. I'm in the business of getting strawberries to you as fast as I can and as ripe as I dare.
Q.: Any other tips for consumers?
WALKER: The first priority is to eat local and to get to know who is supplying your food. Then look for people who are farming organically or trying to use a minimum of pesticides. There are a lot of farmers out there who are doing things right but they don't want to go to the trouble of getting certified organic. Don't rule them out just because they don't have the organic symbol.