ROYAL CITY - For more than 35 years, Jim Baird has been a large scale commodities farmer in the Royal City and Ephrata areas.
But five years ago he had the notion to plant a different sort of farm - a smaller operation focused on growing organic vegetables to be sold not to wide-spread world markets, but directly to the residents of the Columbia Basin.
"It actually started with a couple that came to me wanting to get some farming experience," Baird said. "I gave them the opportunity on some of my land and I had such a good time gardening and developing this with them that I started inviting more and more people to visit."
He says he discovered dozens of people from all over the country who were eager to try their hand at farming, and he opened Cloudview Ecofarms near Royal City as an experiential, educational working farm.
"I'm from the 60s, and I call it a second back to the land movement. It's tied into the health movement as well, but I think it has to do with having a sense of purpose and meaningful work," he said. "Through Cloudview, I thought I could achieve two things: I can help educate people who want to learn about gardening or small scale farming, and I can get good, local, organic produce to the people of central Washington."
One person who shared Baird's early vision is James McGreevy, who was raised on a small, northwest Washington farm and studied organic agriculture for several years before coming to Cloudview in 2009. He's now the farm's co-op production manager - or "focalizer" in Cloudview parlance - helping oversee field management and crop production.
When McGreevy arrived, Baird's fledgling operation was about three acres in size and had been dabbling with sales at area farmer's markets. It has since stretched to nine acres, with about a dozen full time and seasonal employees who harvest more than 50 varieties of vegetables sold at farmer's markets in Moses Lake, Ephrata and Ellensburg.
In 2010, the budding farm added a new sales concept to the mix - Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Customers register in advance to receive an assortment of seasonal produce delivered weekly to drop sites around Grant County from late May to early October. Members can purchase family share, couples share or budget share boxes, which range in price from $18 to $35 per week. People can sign up at any time for a prorated fee.
McGreevy says the CSA has proven itself as an excellent tool for generating early season income at the farm, helping pay for seed, equipment repairs and other necessities.
"Instead of waiting to have an actual crop to sell, we're able to plan ahead with the money from the shares coming in relatively early," he said, adding the program also helps in planning. "Rather than planting the diversity of crops we do and going to the market with what we have, we're able to tailor our planting to CSA distribution. We know we'll need a certain amount of each item, and it cuts down on expenses and labor all around."
Customers, meanwhile, get to supplement their weekly grocery intake with a mid-week pickup of local, seasonal produce, much of which is harvested the same day it's dropped off at sites in Moses Lake, Soap Lake, Ephrata, Ellensburg and Royal City.
Baird says the variety and freshness of the boxes are a wholesome novelty for many people he's spoken with.
"It's exciting for customers," he said. "Somebody came up to me and said they'd tried for years to eat healthier and maybe lose some weight. He said, 'Once I signed up for your CSA it really helped me stay on track with healthy eating choices because I wanted to make sure I ate up my box. Nothing had worked before in terms of diets.'"
As with the rest of the farm's operation, the CSA program includes an educational component, Baird said. An electronic newsletter is distributed to CSA members including news of the farm, recipes and information on how to cook new or unusual veggies that might be in each week's box.
The program has been gaining speed since its inception, and Baird said the program has more than 80 members so far this year.
"I was a little afraid to start it at first because what if people had signed up, given me their money and we couldn't produce enough?" he said. "But we've grown together, which is good. We didn't want to start with too many people, but as we get better at doing it and more people hear about it, it's steadily growing."
The CSA is just one aspect of Cloudview's entire operation, which also includes the farmer's markets, raising animals and a seed saving program, and McGreevy said they'll probably limit the number of CSA members to around 100 for the time being.
"We could get bigger, but we're more hands-on and not as mechanized as many farms, so I wouldn't want us to grow exponentially and then find out we're putting out bad product," he said. "We haven't hit our peak yet. Our presence is still new in the Basin, which hasn't seen a CSA before, so we're all sort of growing up together."
For more on Cloudview Ecofarms, or to sign up for the CSA program, visit www.cloudviewecofarms.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 509-398-4624.
Also offering a CSA program this year is Dune Lakes Farm, located south of Moses Lake off Potato Hill Road. Because their program is new this year, the farm is limiting the number of memberships available, according to their website. Details are available at www.dunelakesflowerfarm.org or by calling 509-793-4448.
Cloudview workers take a break after harvesting potatoes. The farm offers a wide variety of produce at farmer's markets and through its Community Supported Agriculture program.