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A Costly Trip From Farm to Market

July 19, 2008

By Sean Rose, Seattle Times

Jul. 19–MABTON, Yakima County —

A portable floodlight replaced the sun as workers at Alvarez Farms threw boxes of potatoes and green beans onto their shoulders and loaded a delivery truck.

The day’s 94-degree heat had receded, and laborers took advantage, loading the shipment in the relative cool of the first hours of a Yakima Valley night.

Inside a large refrigerator, a dusty and sweaty Eddie Alvarez, 28, stacked boxes of produce to be hauled to the truck.

“There’s no hour to clock out until we get done,” he said.

Loading the truck was the last task of the day in readying the food for its 180-mile journey to Seattle farmers markets — a drive that has become an increasing burden because of record fuel costs.

But it is an expense necessary for the farm’s survival.

Gasoline and diesel are Alvarez’s largest expenses on his family’s 80-acre organic farm. He spends at least $600 to $700 a week on trips to Seattle, up from $400 a year ago. The farm will make 15 percent less this year than last, a cut somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000, he estimates. Gas prices are partly to blame, but Alvarez doesn’t want to raise his prices and risk losing his customers.

Even though a gallon of unleaded gas in Washington averages $4.33 — diesel is almost $5 — fuel prices don’t affect all farmers equally. Large conventional farms are often fully mechanized, meaning one person can work thousands of acres with machinery. But that also means those farms consume more fuel.

Alvarez has found a way to make a living in the niche market of organic produce.

But that means the Alvarezes must follow demand, and the demand is three hours west.

“I just have to travel those 300 miles to make this worthwhile,” Alvarez said. “It’s just the way it is, and it’s just the way it’s going to be in the future.”

The farm grows potatoes, tomatoes, melons, corn, squash, beans, peanuts, onions and more than 150 varieties of peppers. The family plants some crops twice a year, an early and a late season, stretching seeding and harvesting over much of the summer and essentially expanding their acreage.

If Alvarez worked exclusively with wholesalers — 40 percent of his crop goes to them now — he would just break even, he said. The money is made from farmers markets.

Growing in popularity

More consumers have turned to farmers markets and organic foods in recent years. Chris Curtis, director of Seattle’s Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, said there were 250,000 shoppers in 2007 at the seven farmers markets the Alliance manages, up 20,000 from the previous year.

Quality and safety of food is a chief reason for the growth, Curtis said. When buying from a grocery store, she said, there are many questions surrounding food: Where did it come from, how was it produced, how was it shipped and how far?

Farmers commute an average of 57 miles each way to Seattle, Curtis said, about 120 miles fewer than what the Alvarezes travel twice a week.

Many farmers have found ways to cut their fuel costs. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are one solution. When customers sign up for a farm’s CSA, they pay in advance for their produce, often a season’s worth. The farm typically delivers the customer’s order to a central location every week.

Getting the food to the consumer is a larger problem than paying for gas on the farm, and CSAs have helped, said John McPherson, co-owner of Tiny’s Organic, a family-operated farm in Wenatchee. The business has 350 CSA subscribers at a weekly cost of $51 each. Before CSAs, the farm made door-to-door deliveries.

Larry Lesher, co-owner of Local Roots Farm in Carnation, is trying to conserve fuel, riding his bike from his home to the farm when he can, buying fuel in bulk and using as many on-farm resources as possible, such as fertilizing with horse manure. Lesher, along with most growers who sell at local farmers markets, has raised prices because of rising costs.

“Fuel’s always been an issue, and this is a reality check,” Lesher said.

Conventional farmers have a tougher time adjusting.

Steve Appel grows 1,900 acres of wheat and barley in Dusty, about 75 miles south of Spokane. Each day that he runs his tractor costs him $500 to $600 in diesel, and that doesn’t include maintenance or the initial investment of $250,000 to buy one. And conventional fertilizer is a petroleum product, so prices have escalated with fuel.

Appel, like many grain farmers, is still turning a profit. Although he is at the mercy of commodity buyers, natural disasters in grain-growing parts of the world have pushed up prices.

“It’s a big benefit to us in the grain industry, but as soon as that happened, we saw the spiraling fuel costs,” said Appel, 56, who is also president of the Washington Farm Bureau.

When the world’s surplus of grain rises again, its price will fall, he said. If fuel costs remain high, “You’re going to see a lot of farmers go out of business because they simply won’t be able to pay the bills.

“That’s what makes us all real nervous,” he said.

“We’re all kind of gritting our teeth not knowing when this will happen or how far it will drop.”

Produce is Seattle-bound

Time could be the largest cost of running Alvarez Farms.

Leaving Mabton shortly after dawn one Wednesday, four men squeezed into the two-seat delivery truck bound for Seattle: three in the front with one of those sitting in a collapsible camp chair, and then the fourth sitting in the back with the stacked produce.

When the men arrive in Seattle at 8:30 a.m., they unload a portion of their cargo at a Pike Place Market stall and a van leaves for Tacoma markets. Then the workers unload at the markets running in Seattle that day, splitting up if needed.

At the end of the day, they gather leftover food and store it in a cooler at Pike Place Market and retire to a rented town house in Columbia City. The process repeats each day until it’s time to go home Sunday afternoon, when workers will rest, collect a paycheck Monday and harvest and reload in time to drive back to Seattle the next Wednesday.

There aren’t many options to reduce fuel consumption at the farm, Alvarez said. In addition to the Wednesday team of workers, Alvarez drives a refrigerated diesel truck to Seattle on Saturdays to finish out the marathon of markets. And it doesn’t help that the family’s 80 acres are divided among five plots over a square mile.

Because the farm grows organic crops, much of its daily labor is done by hand, adding 40 workers at the height of the season.

If fuel prices absolutely forced him to, Alvarez would consider raising prices, but he’s not there yet.

At the Lake City farmers market one recent Thursday, Jose Granados gave a customer tips on how to prepare squash. Now in his second season with the farm, he jumps to the back of the delivery truck to sort leftover produce and stack empty boxes.

The farm took in $1,089 from the market, the lower end of what Alvarez calls a good day.

“It’s all worth it,” Granados said. “It pays off all in the end. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”

The workers hustled through their final tasks, sweeping up peas and dirt from their stall. Then they hopped into the cramped truck cab to pick up another seller on Queen Anne Hill.

Three days to go before they head home, to work.

Sean Rose: 206-464-2292 or srose@seattletimes.com

Soaring costs

HOW FUEL PRICES are affecting expenses for Alvarez Farms:

$600-$700

Current weekly fuel expenses for trips to Seattle, up from $400 a week a year ago.

$60,000-

$80,000

Cut in profits the farm likely will take this year compared with last year.

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