Alvarez Farms broadens its offerings each year to grow interest
By ELENA OLMSTEAD
For the Capital Press
MABTON, Wash. -- When Hilario Alvarez started his small farming operation in 1988 he tended 20 acres along Mabton's Murray Road, where he planted four tomato varieties along with a few different zucchini and garlic plants.
Now, 21 years later, Alvarez oversees a 70-acre organic farm that grows more than 300 vegetable varieties that are sold at 14 farmers' markets around the state.
Alvarez, owner of Alvarez Farms, is proud of what he has accomplished over the past two decades, and if you ask him what the driving force has been behind his success, the answer is easy -- family.
"Since I started farming I've been growing food, increasing sales and providing for my family," Alvarez said.
The Alvarez clan is a large one. Alvarez and his wife, Maria Soledad, have nine grown children. Alvarez said they were his motivation to find ways to make his farm more profitable. Now that they're grown, his children have become the key to his success. Every week they help drive produce to the various farmers' markets they support.
Alvarez started working on farms when he was a boy growing up in Michoacan, Mexico. In 1976 he moved to Wapato, Wash., where he worked as a farm laborer for seven years. Alvarez said it was during this time that he and his wife started their family, and with each passing year came a new mouth to feed.
Alvarez said he was getting frustrated, because as a farm laborer he didn't feel he was earning enough money to keep his young family afloat. That's what made him decide to take charge. He started leasing and farming his own property on the Yakama Indian Reservation in 1981.
He did that for another seven years, but gave up the lease in 1988 when he found property outside Mabton that he could buy for about the same price he was leasing the land in Wapato.
Alvarez said his operation has always focused on vegetables. He said it's what he planted in Mexico and it's what he's found success with in the United States.
While buying the Mabton property proved to be a good move for Alvarez, things haven't always looked bright for the farm. He said when he first started he planted only a few varieties and found that people passed over his produce because he was offering fairly mundane vegetables.
In the early years, Alvarez's saving grace was his idea to string together his ill-selling peppers to form pepper wreaths and ropes. Alvarez said as soon as he did that his sales skyrocketed. To this day Alvarez said people will buy pepper wreaths from him every week at the farmers' markets.
Selling at farmers' markets was also born of necessity. Alvarez said he found early on that selling directly to consumers meant that he received a better return on his produce.
It also gave him a chance to talk directly with customers and learn what they were looking for in vegetables. That's what led him to greatly expand his operation. He now grows 150 varieties of peppers, 50 varieties of tomatoes, 10 varieties each of green beans, cucumbers, potatoes and lettuce and nearly 75 more varieties of everything from carrots and eggplants to okra and peanuts.
Customers were also one of the reasons Alvarez chose to grow organically. He said from the beginning he'd farmed without the use of heavy chemicals but learned he could get a higher return by becoming organic. In 1992 his farm was certified organic, a step he is still proud of.
Mike Somerville, manager of the Pasco, Wash., Farmers Market, is happy to have Alvarez Farms' produce at the market.
Somerville said he likes the variety of produce, everything from fresh peanuts to squash blossoms. He said customers also enjoy what the farm has to offer.
"They're organic. Their quality is exceptional, and they have a large variety of different things," Somerville said. "(Customers) think it's phenomenal."
In the winter, Alvarez can typically be found making plans for his farm. He flips through catalogs looking for new varieties to add to his ever-growing repertoire. In the spring is when the real work begins, as he and his family prepare the soil and plant. Alvarez said he then spends June through December coordinating, with the help of his five daughters.
"It gets very, very busy," Alvarez said. "Sometimes we're working until midnight to load the trucks and get everything ready."
But what Alvarez really looks forward to every year are the notes he gets from customers.
"Every year I get a lot of postcards from customers saying how much they appreciate our organic vegetables," Alvarez said. "That makes me happy and keeps me growing organic."
Job: Owner, Alvarez Farms.
Education: Farming for more than three decades.
Family: Wife, Maria Soledad, nine grown children.