Our Heroes: Sue Ujcic of Helsing Junction Farm

photo from Sue Ujcic

For Sue Ujcic, a journey that began in suburban New Jersey where her 
grandmother, a first-generation Croatian immigrant, taught her to tend soil and save seeds, led her to Independence Valley (about 20 miles from Olympia, Washington), where with co-owner Anna Salafsky, she would build one of the largest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs in the state -- and probably the country -- at Helsing Junction Farm. The road was not without its bumps – back in the 1980’s, tremendous growth in the organic sector initially treated HJF well, but when Big Ag dipped a Big Toe in to test the waters, it literally flooded the fledgling market, leaving small-scale wholesalers like Sue to scramble to stay afloat.

Spring may be a farmer’s busiest season, but Sue graciously joined me on Skype last week to tell her story in her own words. Below, a taste of our talk. Click on the audio player under Sue’s portrait to listen to the entire interview, or download it free from iTunes, or download a transcript (PDF).

Q: Could you tell our listeners about the CSA model and how you learned about it and when and why you switched to it?

We started doing the Community Supported Agricultural model back in the late ‘80s. We actually were doing a lot of wholesaling in farmers markets. And our wholesale markets basically were not secure, and the pricing was not secure. Back when we started in the ‘80s there weren’t very many organic farms actually wholesaling around the country. We were one of a few and we actually started a big wholesale cooperative. But then, as organic food became more popular, a lot of the big growers in Southern California just started putting in test plots of things and then the prices started to really get impacted for us. And since we have such a small margin and we were a small farm, we were pretty much priced out of that. We had some really bad years, two years in a row, and then we almost lost the farm. But then we saw an article about Community Supported Agriculture in Japan actually, which is where it originated. Some farmers in Japan started just, in their own village, the villagers were like: “Let’s just pay you to grow our food.” They didn’t want to have to travel or make the food travel. So that’s originally where it started.

And then the first one in the United States was, I believe in Massachusetts. We read about that and we decided to launch it the next year, and it was great. It actually saved us from losing our farm. Mainly Community Supported Agriculture enables a farmer to create a secure income for themselves. Members prepay for their food and so we are pretty much clear on how much money we're going to make, so we can base the entire year’s production on the amount of members we get. So we could just fill everything in in that way. So it’s really great for a farm, and then, of course, for the CSA member, the Community Supported Agriculture member, they get a great deal, we give a really fair price and then we also give discounts by giving extra produce.

So we've been doing this, it will be our 19th season this year, we're having our 20th anniversary next year, and we have members that have been in it from the beginning, and now have their children joining as adults. It’s really great and we have about a 60 percent rectitude rate and people are really committed to us. And within this bad economy the last few years, we really haven’t had a dip. Generally speaking, most people, if they are committed to eating this kind of food and this way, they are committed. So we have not had a dip. And actually, we do a little wholesaling on the side and that will actually...it was really impacted in terms of volume and price. So we are really lucky to have the CSA. It’s just been a great farming career, just because it’s so community oriented. So for us, we feel really supported by our members.

Q: Women make up the largest group of newcomers to agriculture and tend to be more likely to start up small scale and sustainable operations, how have you seen the field change for women over time?

When I started farming there were very few women and the only—and it was interesting, because when we started out whole, wholesale co-operative that was in the late ‘80s we had women brokers, which was highly unusual. I mean, they were some of the only women brokers actually in the produce industry. So that was really the beginning of sort of the breakthrough. And it only makes sense, in my mind, that women would take on sustainable agriculture just because generally speaking, you know, somewhat more nurturing and then possibly even maybe able to multitask a little better than men.

And I don’t want to sound like I'm sexist about that, I think that women have proven and shown that that can be the case and doing something like a small sustainable diversified vegetable garden, there are a lot of details to manage, no matter what scale you are on.

I started farming because I didn’t want to put my children in daycare. I decided I wanted to work at home, and that’s really what motivated me ultimately to start farming, I had a young son and I didn’t want to be driving him to a daycare and dropping him off, I wanted him to be around even if I was working. So that worked out really well. But yes, it has changed dramatically and it’s very encouraging, and the more conferences I go to, the more I see, not only women, but men under the age of 30 at these conferences and that’s very hopeful for us older farmers.

Q: I know that you value your workers greatly and that they bring a lot of agricultural knowledge to the job, can you talk about your labor force?

A: Yes, we have an amazing crew of people working here, and most of them have been here at least 10 years. Every year we hire a few new people, but generally speaking, we have a solid crew that’s been here for years and so our goal is to keep them here. And so we do that by just giving them raises, paying them more and giving them as many benefits as the farm could possible give them. And they are right, some of the finest farmers I know, and it’s insulting when I hear ICE or Immigration, or our whole culture call farm workers someone who would be an unskilled laborer; it’s absolutely insulting. We grow 100 varieties of vegetables here. They have to know exactly what they look like when they come up, all the spacing that they need, all the care for all those different plants, the watering, all of it. There’s just so much to know, over the course of years, they have just fallen into their roles and everybody works really well together and everyone is fairly autonomous and everyone feels really invested.

And then because we are limited in terms of what we can pay – we're at the top of the pay scale for any kind of agriculture anywhere in the United States – so in order to keep them here and entice them to keep working and invest themselves in our farm, we've actually let them start their own businesses via the farm. So we have their own CSA, many of them are originally from Mexico and are Latino so they have their own Latino-based cuisine CSA now. And then they also deliver to some local Mexican restaurants and stuff. So it’s given them an opportunity to make a little bit more money, and also grow things that they like to grow that people in the United States don’t really like to eat. And they seem to like that. And we have every intention of trying to help them grow their business. I think it’s only natural for them to eventually take over at some point; that would be our hope, that they could succeed us somehow.

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