Published: Thursday, November 15, 2012, 7:44 p.m.
EVERETT — Colin and Karen Archipley bought an avocado farm just because they loved its location in the north of California's San Diego County.
Out of sheer necessity, they ended up becoming farmers with a profitable, organic vegetable and herb operation that sells to mainstream grocers, including Whole Foods.
They also launched Archi's Acres, which teaches combat veterans how to start their own small-scale organic agriculture business.
The Archipleys were keynote speakers at the ninth Focus on Farming Conference held Nov. 15 at Comcast Arena in Everett.
The conference drew roughly 600 people interested in the latest sustainable farm techniques and ideas, including farmers in blue jeans, agriculture academics in suits and dozens of Future Farmers of America kids dressed in royal blue jackets.
Colin Archipley served three tours in Iraq in the Marine Corps. He was serving overseas when his family first moved to the avocado farm in 2007. His wife didn't want to bother him when the farm's first month's water bill came in at $849. But he found out about it anyway and became determined to make the farm work without losing his shirt.
Rather than just sell avocadoes, the couple built a greenhouse and started growing herbs and other vegetables using hydroponics. That saved a tremendous amount of water. The couple also tapped into a niche need for local, organic products, particularly those grown off-season in a greenhouse like theirs.
The experience taught them that farmers need to be “price makers” not “price takers.” In traditional agriculture, a farmer might grow a crop and then sell it to a distributor for a fixed price. Even if demand for that product increases, the farmer might not share in any extra profits since those are controlled by the distributor he sells to. Instead, Archipley suggested farmers find ways to directly sell to customers.
The couple also learned that emotion plays a powerful role in consumer choice. Farmers need to own their stories and share them with customers.
“It's about being where you want to be and telling people what you do,” Karen Archipley said.
Agriculture is a good choice for many veterans, who as a group have higher unemployment rates than the general public, despite the leadership and other skills they acquire in the service, Colin Archipley said.
“Take a grunt like myself who has been wearing camo paint and crawling in the dirt,” he said. “Ask me to put on a suit and sell something in a store. We'd rather sweat and work with our hands.”
The Archipleys are working on a “turn key” model for veterans to set up a similar business to theirs by building an organic greenhouse on leased land.
In addition to speakers, the conference offered participants a chance to learn directly from the experts in a series of breakout sessions on topics such as small-farm lending, specialty crops and tractor maintenance.
People could peruse a trade show with equipment — including a shiny apple red tractor — samples and demonstrations. Lunchtime featured a chance to taste local products prepared by chefs.
Farming remains an important part of the Snohomish County economy, even if the business has changed dramatically and the last few decades, said County Executive Aaron Reardon.
When he was a kid, dairy farming was king. Not too long ago, the thought of first-generation farmers in the county seemed unlikely, he said. Now, it's looking like a reality thanks to new techniques, willing investors and farmers who are reimagining the business.
Jake Nolte said he came to the conference because he'd like to turn his north Everett yard into an urban micro farm. He's already torn out the lawn and put in a series of raised beds, where he'd like to grow greens to sell at the new indoor farmer's market being built in downtown Everett at the corner of Grand Avenue and Wall Street.
Nolte and his wife pay the bills now with other jobs, including writing and photography. But they'd like to make small-scale production on their city land profitable. He's also considering beekeeping.
The very fact Snohomish County is hosting a farming conference demonstrates local leaders are supportive of farming, Nolte said. Everett is more receptive to homeowners like him who want to, for instance, plant spinach in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street. He'd like to see more aggressive and creative use of unused spaces for farming.
Faith Martian of Stanwood is involved in the Slow Food movement, which encourages eating and raising local plants and animals. She came to learn for herself and to take ideas back for two local groups she's involved with.
The mother of three and self-described “city girl” isn't a farmer but she is trying to expand the amount of food she grows for her own family. Someday, she'd like to grow enough to sell locally.
“People should be eating healthier and eating locally,” she said. “We need to take control of our own food supply.”
For more information about Colin and Karen Archipley's farm operation, go to archisacres.com