Washington farmers and food processors contribute more than $50 billion to the state’s economy, or about 12 percent of the economic activity overall. Eastern Washington is famous for crops such as apples, wheat and hops, that are exported all over the world. But nearly half of the state’s farms are smaller operations, located west of the Cascades.
More than a thousand of them make their livelihoods working the fertile soil of the Skagit Valley, where a river of the same name provides water and nutrients that first attracted farmers more than a century ago.
Located about half way between Bellingham and Everett, the area is famous for the tulip fields that draw tourists when they bloom every spring. It also has large numbers of seed farmers and vegetable growers.
Among them is Ray DeVries, a farmer with a bushy beard and a folksy manner. He describes his operation as he stands between rows of green kale. It’s a sunny day in mid-October and Mount Baker looms in the background.
“Our farm is Ralph’s Greenhouse. I’m not Ralph; Ralph was my Dad,” he says. “This was his retirement hobby that kind of got out of hand.”
Leeks are his biggest cash crop, which is how DeVries got the nickname, “The Leek King.” He sells them to grocers all over the U.S., along with a huge variety of vegetables — pretty much anything he can cultivate here.
“Cold weather crops, because we have no heat. So we grow lots of leeks and some carrots and some beets and some chard and some kale — some fennel, a handful of fingerling potatoes, spinach, parsnips in the winter — those are our basic crops,” he says.
An ‘Accidental’ Pioneer
It’s a busy time on the farm. Trucks come and go picking up boxes of produce. Everything sold here is grown organically, though DeVries says that kind of happened by accident. That’s just the way his Dad did it, when he retired from dairy farming and started that hobby garden a few decades ago. They moved to Washington when Ray was seven.
“We came from Europe with our European mindset on farming, we got to the U.S. and we simply kept farming the way that things were done in the Netherlands. And as American agriculture progressed and advanced, we simply got left behind. And so what we did was we just skipped the chemical revolution that was supposed to be so good for us,” DeVries says.
Devries jokes that they were organic before organic was organic. He was certified in 1988, the first year Washington state began its program. His farm has grown with the demand for it, from three acres 35 years ago to more than 250 now. He says it just works really well.
“The soil knows how to do this. All you have to do is make sure that you’re not killing all the beneficial bugs and all the beneficial microbes that make your soil your soil,” he says. “And so it’s not rocket science. Even a guy like me could figure it out – a little compost, a little manure, allow nature to do what nature does and pretty soon you’re farming organic.”
He even sells some of his organically grown leeks without that label, in conventional packaging and at conventional prices, because the demand is there and it pencils out for him that way. He’s an independent thinker. And that’s also his core politically.
“I vote for which ever candidate I think is best, regardless of party affiliation. To me at the moment, I don’t want to be a Democrat, because Democrats don’t know how to manage money. I don’t want to be a Republican, because at the moment they’re having a significant identity crisis. So I’m an independent voter. I pick the best candidates that I feel are appropriate for the job, and then vote that way,” he says.
His priority is taking care of his workforce.
“People are what make the farm go round. All I am, as the farmer – I’m the event coordinator,” DeVries says. “The people that work with us, those are the people that do the moving and the shaking and that really make things happen.”
He now has 56 full-time employees who work with him year round. And he’s always looking for new ways to provide more work in the winter.
Over the years, he’s managed to stretch the growing season by staggering his planting of leeks and parsnips, so they can be harvested nearly 10 months a year. More recently, he started breeding a handful of goats his son brought home. They’re now a flock of 150. He’s building a farm and processing facility for specialty dairy products that he hopes to have up and running soon.
“Goats are really fun and enjoyable, but the whole thing with the goat farm is we need jobs from Super Bowl to Memorial Day. That’s our slow time on the farm,” DeVries says. “And so that’s the thinking behind the goats. It’s about making jobs. People need jobs,” he says.
He wants to provide stability for his workforce and help people take root in the local community. And that means electing a president and a Congress that will make immigration reform a priority.
“Our policies are really lousy. We don’t have a way in the United States to get the people that are needed and wanted here,” DeVries says.
He says all the talk about securing borders lately has made it much harder. Some years, he’s had to keep his people working 12 to 14 hours a day to get the work done on his farm.
“There’s no way that I can vote for Trump on immigration reform, because he doesn’t have a policy, other than sending everybody back. And that’s just unrealistic,” he says.
Another issue that puts him in Secretary Clinton’s camp is raising the federal minimum wage. Washington currently has the highest minimum wage in the country. DeVries says that puts Washington farmers at a disadvantage. He says the state initiative to raise it to $13 per hour would be a mistake – especially when right next door, Idaho is still at less than $7.50.
“When you as a consumer go into the grocery store, the bag of potatoes that’s produced in Idaho is going to be less money than the bag of potatoes that’s in Washington,” DeVries says. “The government’s job is to level the playing field. And right now the playing field isn’t level. And the minimum wage needs to go up across the country, so that the playing field is at least a little more level.”
Perhaps his biggest headache at the moment has to do with the Affordable Care Act. DeVries says in principle, he wants health care for everyone. But right now, the premiums are not affordable enough for his people or for him. And because he has 56 employees, he’s just over the threshold of 50 that requires him to comply.
“There’s been other farms that have laid off people until they get to 49 so they don’t have to deal with this,” he says. He has tried to make it work, but with employee contributions at $100 and his portion at $300, it’s too expensive for the majority on his farm.
“What corners are we going to cut to make this work? The quicker this affordable healthcare thing gets changed into something that’s usable, the better off all of us will be.”
He surveyed his workers and says about 20 percent agreed to sign up for insurance, but he can’t find a company to take them on.
“And so we have no option but to take the penalty,” he says. “This needs to be fixed and it needs to be fixed very soon.”
Even though Trump says throwing out Obamacare is one of the first things he would do, Devries says he feels like he doesn’t have an option.
Earlier in the race, the Republican presidential candidate that most interested him was Ohio governor John Kasich. He’s also keeping a close eye on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. But he’s voting for Clinton.
As an independent, he says he can only hope that if she wins, she’ll include a bunch of Republicans in her cabinet and bring more bipartisanship into making sure federal programs such as the Affordable Care Act work better for small businesses like his.
He says finding that balance will allow farmers like him to continue as stewards of the rich Skagit soil he’s so fond of.
“We need to take good care of it and appreciate it and we need to pass it on to future generations. Because farming is a long-term proposition,” he says. ”Each generation gets to build on what the last one left them.”