“Our mission is to make the world better in lots of ways” - Vernon Peterson
This year, partners CCOF and Organic Produce Network (OPN) came together to honor CCOF Treasurer Vernon Peterson of Peterson Family Farm and Abundant Harvest Organics as Grower of the Year. The selection was based on the demonstration of several important qualities, including:
- Excellence in organic production
- Industry leadership
If you read our September “In Their Words” on Vernon, you might remember how well he embodies these qualities. We invite you to read that story for more of the details…But there’s more to the story of this exemplary, committed servant leader.
Vernon took over the family tree fruit farm at the age of 21 in 1978, when his father died. With the devastating market in 1985, they went broke and he went to work for another company to support the family. In 1989, Peterson Family Farm started over as a service provider – packing fruit for neighbors and raising chickens, while also growing some stone fruit. Rebuilding, they were they were working with other growers and building the strong community that has fed his work over the years.
Service expresses itself in many aspects of Vernon’s life and work. Right about that same time, Vernon was part of a group that started Kingsburg Community Assistance Program, to help people elevate themselves in some of the region’s impoverished rural communities. They run thrift stores that both give the residents the opportunity to buy clean, gently-used clothes for less and also fund services like counseling, English classes, a food pantry and energy bill assistance. He has served on the board of this nonprofit for 30 years.
In 2002, Vernon and his son Erik began the three-year transition to organic certification of their farm. Initially, it was primarily a business decision. The three-year transition period, when they were investing the additional expense of farming organically but selling the fruit as conventional, was challenging. But they knew they had to try something new to keep the farm viable economically.
“I wouldn’t have given you even money that we’d have made it,” said Vernon. “Back when we decided to go organic, we didn’t do it to save the planet. We did it to save the family farm.” But like so many who might have been attracted to organic for the opportunity, Vernon quickly became a passionate organic advocate and dedicated pillar of the community.
Paired with his strong organic commitment is Vernon’s commitment to the farmer’s economic viability. “Our mission is to make the world better in lots of ways,” said Vernon. “We’ve been commissioned to do this by our customers and our creator. But if there’s no margin, there’s no mission.”
“Vernon Peterson never hesitates to tell it like it is,” said CCOF’s Executive Director/CEO Cathy Calfo. “He is all about organic and what organic means to the success of his family farm and to California agriculture. Farming — and organic — are better because we have Vern on our side.”
More than 10 years ago Vernon started Abundant Harvest Organics, which is a community supported agriculture (CSA) program with a far-ranging community: they have 4000 subscribers in 140 communities from Fresno to San Diego. To build this program, they brought together an alliance of organic farmers. All the produce is brought to Vernon’s packing house, sorted into boxes and delivered out to pick-up locations via three 18-wheelers. Always keeping an eye on what the consumer wants, they’ve also begun putting together ready-made meals.
“We’ve been able to help so many little guys get going and keep going,” said Vernon. “That’s really gratifying. And our CSA customers love us to death. The real challenge is how do we connect to the consumer and help them understand the value of what we do and the food we grow when most of what we sell is not going directly to the consumer.”
We asked Vernon if he could help consumers understand one thing about organic farming, what would it be? “How the interconnectedness of what we eat affects everything,” he said, the intensity clear in his voice. “It’s not just about the nutritional value of the organic potato. It’s also about the way the people who work on the farm were compensated, how they were treated, and the way the land where the potato was grown was singing with a lively ecosystem. There’s immense power in that organic potato for your health and the health of the land.”