OPN recently caught up with Vernon Peterson, President of Peterson Family and Founder of Abundant Harvest Organics.
The Peterson Family is the corporate name for the farm and Abundant Harvest is an alliance of organic farmers.
OPN Connect: Your signature line reads: “Simply bringing you the family farmer since 1893” Tell us about the history of your organic farm.
Our family has grown stone fruit and raised chickens in Kingsburg since 1893. We are fifth generation now and have a son, daughter and son-in-law involved.
My great grandfather came from Sweden because of the potato famine. At that time, about 30-40 percent of the Swedes left in a two year period and after a couple years in Minnesota, many of them continued west to Kingsburg which had a majority Swedish population through the 1950’s. But even though our family’s been here quite a while, each generation has had to reinvent itself.
My dad died in 1978. I was 21 at the time and I took over the farm, and in 1985 went broke as many did in the Ag community. Started over in 1989, we focused on providing service -----packing fruit for neighbors and raising chickens-----while still growing stone fruit. Then, between 1998 and 2010—because of retail consolidation--two thirds of the stone fruit players disappeared; growers, packers, cold storages and brokers, big, small…
My son Erik and I transitioned our entire farm to organic--cold turkey--in 2002 and were fully certified organic in 2005. We switched the chickens to organic about 2006. With permanent orchards, that meant farming organically while being paid conventionally for three years during a very difficult time in our industry; it was quite a ride. Today, we pack fruit for about 50 of our neighbors and employ 100 people year round.
OPN Connect: What is the concept behind Abundant Harvest Organics? It seems to be more than just a regular CSA.
Abundant Harvest is an alliance of organic farmers that just started its 11th year. We service 140 communities and 4000 families. We have three 18-wheelers delivering organic food from Fresno to San Diego.
This is unlike a regular CSA where you pay at the beginning of the year. Our customers can cancel at any time. We like to call it an ASC; “Agriculture Supported Community” instead of a CSA because we are bringing urbanites together around great organic food.
We began with the concept that no grower can be good at everything, so we brought together an alliance of farmers to produce a seasonal box of produce each week. Over the years we have enabled several farmers to begin farming and be successful; we have helped struggling existing farmers become prosperous; and we have helped some just figure out they didn’t want to farm.
OPN Connect: You seem to be an innovator at heart, what’s new for Abundant Harvest Organics?
If you don’t like change, you were born in the wrong century. Originally, we were able to skate in and give people a tremendous value with the Alliance, but things keep changing. So we started a kitchen in our original packing shed. People in select zip codes can get a box of fruit, vegetables and ready-made meals that are all organic and ready to eat via UPS delivery.
You can never say it’s good enough. You have to keep changing and growing and innovating. Next generation solutions seldom come from the present generation, so I’m so grateful to have not only our family, but a really sharp team of young agricultural professionals guiding the next steps. I’m just so proud of each of them.
This CSA has been the most fun of anything in my career! Organic has been our salvation, we wouldn’t be here without organic- neither would our growers. They trusted us enough to untie from the dock and come along with us!
OPN Connect: You seem very active in the organic community. What all do you do and why is it important to be involved?
I believe you shouldn’t bitch about what’s screwed up if you aren’t trying to fix it.
We are super involved in our local community. We pack fruit for about 50 of our neighbors: pomegranates, persimmons, citrus, and lots of stone fruit.
I was asked to be the Fresno Tulare Chapter Rep for CCOF. That led to being its treasurer.
When Blake Alexander--one of our Alliance growers--timed off the COPAC board his wife Stephanie asked me to apply. So I signed up but really didn’t know much about it. But I came to represent the farmers and help the State Organic Program become more efficient and effective. That entire board has come together to eliminate most of the redundant and burdensome paperwork. I believe the State staff are energized as well. They really want to facilitate our industry’s success but just needed a better producer guided framework to help from.
I believe I come from a pure heart; trying to make things better for all farmers.
OPN Connect: What are the opportunities you see for organic producers in the future?
Join an alliance with an honest, well-connected, vertically integrated production and marketing company. Or you must find a way to farm and personally market direct to a consumer who values what you do.
CCOF’s vision statement is: “We envision a world where organic is the norm.” If that’s correct, the norm in Agriculture is a few produce a lot. Organics’ growing up in this way is a major departure from the organic of just a few years ago. It’s simultaneously scary (for us small producers) and beautiful for consumers who are finding organically produced food in greater variety and value. The challenge is to maintain the integrity, maintain our consumer’s confidence that this food is trustworthy.
A $15 minimum wage equals an effective $22 per hour to our LOWEST paid workers in California. Realistically, there will be many crops we just won’t be able to grow here anymore. We are going to have to maximize each employee’s effort. We are going to have to retain the very best. Here, whether they are on a ladder or the line they have matching 401K, medical, dental, vision and year round employment. You will only have the employees tomorrow you take care of today.
The future is bright for organic farms but it won’t be the same. Trust God. Stay nimble; use your wit instead of your wallet. Ask consumers what they want that they can’t get? What would they pay for it? And figure out if you can do it for less than that; not really rocket science. No different in concept than