Organic farm diversifies market channels
Philomath, Ore. — John Eveland’s farming venture started modestly enough: He wanted a source of fresh produce for his sister’s vegetarian restaurant.
Eveland had helped run Nearly Normal’s in Corvallis, Ore., since it was launched in 1979, but he was often disappointed with the quality of the vegetables he obtained from wholesalers.
After “dabbling” with growing tomatoes and other crops, Eveland and his wife, Sally Brewer, decided to start a farm in 1987.
“We had no concept of what this would look like,” said Eveland.
“Still don’t,” joked Brewer.
That first year, they joined with three other people to farm 20 leased acres.
The group did not function well together due to other job obligations and a lack of coordination among the partners.
“It was just a disaster,” said Eveland.
Undeterred, Eveland and Brewer struck out on their own and scaled back to five acres and a “hand-to-mouth” existence.
Their Gathering Together Farm grew along with the demand for organic food, which has experienced a tremendous surge in the past 25 years.
The couple now farms 60 acres of vegetables near Philomath, Ore., with their operation selling more than $2.5 million worth of produce through multiple market channels. At peak season, the firm employs more than 100 people.
“It’s not a small business anymore,” said Eveland.
While the farm’s name and philosophy is reminiscent of “late ’70s hippies,” the company actually operates like a sophisticated machine, said Larry Lev, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University.
“It’s an excellent example of a different way to be a successful farmer,” said Lev.
The company derives its revenues from farmers’ markets, wholesale buyers, a farm stand, restaurant accounts, a community supported agriculture program and a joint venture seed business.
That diversity helps insulate Gathering Together Farm from downturns in any one market channel, said Lev.
“They can ride out the ups and downs,” he said. “It allows them to be very resilient.”
Eveland and Brewer did not initially envision such a complex sales model — it evolved naturally over time.
In addition to their original customer, Nearly Normal’s restaurant, they began selling produce through farmers’ markets.
The CSA program, through which buyers pre-pay for a portion of the farm’s crops, helped stabilize the company financially.
“For the first time, we had money in the spring we could spend on inputs,” said Eveland.
The couple also became early shareholders in the Organically Grown Co., which over time developed into a major wholesale distributor of organic goods.
Another opportunity arose when nearby farmers Frank and Karen Morton needed more land to expand their seed company, Wild Garden Seed.
As part of the joint venture, the Mortons produce their organic seed on the Gathering Together Farm property.
The arrangement provides a source of revenue and seed, but the succession of different flowering crops also has agronomic benefits.
“We have a healthier army of beneficial insects,” said Eveland.
Then there’s the company’s “farm stand,” which acts as its public face and is actually much more elaborate than the name implies.
The structure serves as a miniature grocery store for the farm’s vegetables and a porchfront restaurant for meals made from its produce.
“We wanted to utilize our cosmetically challenged vegetables,” said Brewer of the idea to serve meals.
What started out as a simple offering of soups and salads has now progressed to gourmet cuisine, with a chef serving such fare as “tagliatelle with Italian kale and pork ragu.”
The farm stand’s out-of-the-way location has managed to attract skilled chefs because they’re largely able to run the restaurant as their own business, said Brewer.
“We come in and drop product on him, tell him this is interesting, this is good,” said Eveland.
Delegating authority is instrumental to the farm’s business model, as trusted employees are charged with overseeing the company’s different components.
“It’s also their drive and their desire, it’s not just coming from us,” said Brewer.
John Eveland and Sally Brewer
Occupation: Owners, Gathering Together Farm
Hometown: Philomath, Ore.
Family: Married, three grown daughters
Ages: John is 65, Sally is 55
Education: John Eveland obtained a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Iowa State University in 1971 and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Oregon in 1978. Sally Brewer obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental education from the University of New Hampshire in 1987 and a master’s degree in education from Oregon State University in 1988.