Organic suppliers see increasing demand
Operations respond to consumers' specific choices
By STEVE BROWN
Organic farming ranges from the backyard gardener to the sprawling farm, orchard or livestock operation. That same variety of scale is reflected in organic suppliers.
"No one dominates," said Michele Catalano, chairwoman of the Organic Advisory Board, which was established in 1987 to advise the Washington State Department of Agriculture concerning the implementation of the WSDA Organic Food Program.
Among seed suppliers, she said, "Some companies specialize in organics, like Territorial (in Oregon) and Peaceful Valley (in California). Larger companies, like Osborne (in Washington) and Johnny's (in Maine) will have some organic seed."
Catalano said organic growers can refer to two major resources for selecting supplies: WSDA's Brand Names Materials List and the Organic Materials Review Institute list. These extensive lists include such materials as seeds, fertilizers, minerals and pesticides.
"Growers large and small often pick and choose among the suppliers," she said. "In buying seed, for instance, they choose based on traits they like."
With two co-owners and two employees, Yelm Earth Worms and Castings has extended its market from its plant about 25 miles south of Tacoma into Oregon and California. Now, co-owner Hunt McLean said, the company is shipping to Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, with buyers in Texas showing interest.
Yelm Earth's product line revolves around its earthworms -- red wigglers, to be specific. Other products available through its website include worm depots, harvesters, castings, soils, potting mixes, amendments, compost tea and complete vermicomposting systems.
"We've got 30,000 square feet of enclosed production space," co-owner Kelan Moynagh said. "We sell a lot of our product in bulk for the local buyers. We sold 500 yards last year. At 800 pounds a yard, that makes 200 tons."
McLean said each of the 10 production bays holds two windrows. Each windrow -- which takes about nine months to completely process -- yields two semi-truck loads.
"We feed the worms dairy waste that has had the salts washed and pressed out," he said.
Moynagh said Yelm Earth sells retail, wholesale and online. "We've seen an uptick in demand, though locally it fell off this year because of the weather. A lot of gardens collapsed after that false start, and gardeners didn't want to reseed."
Wilbur-Ellis, known for its variety of feed products and its international network of specialists in crop protection, nutrition and seed technology, has also branched into organics.
"Organic products are not a significant part (of our business volume) overall," said John Leman, marketing and sales manager for branded products. "But we have focused on organics, especially in the tree fruit group. Several of our organics experts are up to speed on products and pesticides."
Leman said demand, which had been steadily growing, has slowed in the past two years.
At Black Lake Organic in Olympia, Wash., owner and manager Gary Kline produces and sells self-formulated minerals and fertilizers to homeowners and small farmers. It's a local, one-man operation, which last year sold 16 tons of products.
Thirty years ago the now-retired biologist started selling organic fertilizers out of his garage. Now his shelves are stacked with packages of individual minerals as well as 10 blends specifically designed for particular classes of plants.
His specialty, he said, is "getting minerals in the right proportion based on a soil test. ... Too many organic growers and gardeners lack fully balanced soil fertility and fail to incorporate natural earth minerals along with the organic matter, manures and unfortified compost that they typically supply in abundance."
Kline said his small operation allows him to provide personalized expertise alongside his products.