Most people wouldn’t want to talk about work from a beach in Hawaii, but for Joel Huesby, organic farming is more than just work. It’s his passion, and it’s his life’s commitment. Between snorkeling with his family and facilitating workshops for Hawaiian farmers on organic livestock production, Joel enthusiastically shared his story with me.
Tell us about yourself.
My great-grandfather founded our family farm in Walla Walla in 1908, and our kids are now the 5th generation. We’ve been growing organic food here since 1994, and became officially certified in 2000.
I care about food security and food self-sufficiency. As a farmer, I’m handy, thrifty, and inventive. If other people can’t do it, I’ll find a way to do it myself. And I always have my farmer hat on. Wherever I go, I’m farmer Joel.
Right now, my wife Cynthia and I are growing a variety of organic crops on our 399 acres, 172 of which have been conserved by the Farmland Trust. We’ve got sweet peas, squash, pumpkins, non-GMO heirloom black popcorn, hay for dairy cows, buckwheat, malting barley, and a variety of other organic wheats.
I’m not sure my farm would be as economically viable as it is today if it wasn’t for PCC Farmland Trust.
Please tell us why sustainable farming and food is of interest to you.
After serving as president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and receiving an award for outstanding service, I had an epiphany. It made me realize what I’m not going to do with my life — and that is be a “normal” commodity farmer. I learned how detrimental farming can be if you don’t work with the land.
With organic farming, you have no recourse if you screw things up. That’s why you have to honor nature’s rules. For me, it’s about prevention, soil health, and plant diversity. It’s about listening to the land and making sure the bees and all the other puzzle pieces fit. For a while there, I was ready to give up on organic. But because of the Farmland Trust and our stewardship planning, I was encouraged to make it work as a business, and I’m so grateful for that.
When you farm this way, the rewards are amazing. Not just ecologically, but financially. It certainly hasn’t been easy, but my kids now see that it’s possible to live a fruitful life as a farmer. For me, successful farming isn’t about getting bigger, it’s about getting better. It’s about serving the health needs of your community, and building something that the next generation can take on.
What is your vision/hope for farming and food production in Washington?
I’d love to figure out a way to wean farmers off of the government. There is a dangerous culture of dependence there. The ag economy should be market-driven, rather than government subsidized. I want to know, “Who are my customers? What do they want?”
And no more commodity corn and wheat! That’s the stuff that makes us sick. If we start early with healthy food, we can really go places.
If money were no object, what would you like to see PCC Farmland Trust accomplish?
I’d love to see you continue to preserve farmland in South Puget Sound, but also to protect more land on the east side of the mountains. There is a volume of organic food here, but I know we can do more.
A healthy food system relies on the stability of farmers who will steward the land for the long haul. I think PCC Farmland Trust can play a big role in finding and connecting those folks to the land.
What are your favorite books about farming/sustainable agriculture?
One of my favorite books on sustainable farming is Gene Logsdon’s Contrary Farmer. He shares a personal account of how his family used sustainable agriculture to achieve a happy and ecologically healthy way of life.
What is your favorite thing to grow?
Right now, I’d have to say the black popcorn and the malting barley. The heirloom popcorn varieties are really special. They don’t cross-pollinate with GMO corn, and have the most complex flavors.
And the barley is a fairly new interest of mine. There are thousands of barley varieties out there, and the big breweries only use about 6 of them. I’ve been experimenting with local flavors, and it’s been a lot of fun. If it tastes good at room temperature, you know it’s a darn good beer.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Be passionate about what you do. I’m passionate about what I do, and I believe from my heart that this is the right way to be. This is the right way to treat the earth.
We’ve got to make do with what we already have in front of us. If everyone had that understanding, it would be huge. For us, and for the environment.