Clayton Burrows comes from a family of farmers and ranchers who raised cattle and grew wheat, barley, and soybeans on the plains of Colorado.
“They think what I’m doing is gardening,” he says with a smile.
His garden is big and getting bigger. Burrows is founder and executive director of Growing Washington, a major regional producer of organic food with 11 parcels of land that total about 100 acres, mostly in Whatcom County.
Since its launch in 2007, Growing Washington has expanded its operation to include chickens, turkeys, ducks, quail, rabbits, and pigs, along with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, about 250 products in all.
Half of the labor is producing food, and half is selling it. Clayton Burrows, Growing Washington
During the peak of the growing season last year, more than 70 people were on Growing Washington’s payroll, Burrows says.
Growing organic crops means lots of hand labor for irrigating, weeding, cultivating, and erecting temporary tunnel structures using sheets of clear plastic to keep raspberries and other crops warm and dry enough to thrive in Northwest Washington conditions. Getting those crops to market takes many hands as well.
“Half of the labor is producing food, and half is selling it,” Burrows says.
Growing Washington’s products are sold at 20 farmers’ markets each week. That includes the markets in Bellingham and Fairhaven, with the rest in the Seattle area. If a market in Seattle opens at 9 a.m., employees need to be there by 7 a.m. to set up the stalls, and that means leaving the farm with a truckload of produce before 5 a.m.
Market stalls are only part of the picture. Growing Washington also offers discriminating eaters the chance to buy a weekly share of the produce, packed into a box and dropped off for convenient pickup.
Besides its own produce, customers of Growing Washington can order products from such food producers as Twin Brook Creamery and Bellingham Pasta Co.
Subscribers to the 20-week service can get a weekly box for a total price of about $350 to $1,000, depending on size and selection. A “farmer’s choice” box is cheaper, but there is also a customized choice box, allowing customers to log into Growing Washington’s website to select the items they want for the week.
Besides products from Growing Washington’s own fields, customers can also order products from other participating local food producers and processors, such as Twin Brook Creamery, Bellingham Pasta Co., and seafood producers.
Advance payments for the weekly shares are literal “seed money” for Growing Washington, Burrows says. About 1,500 households sign up for the service between Whatcom County and Seattle.
Putting the boxes on peoples’ doorsteps would be too costly, so customers can choose convenient pickup sites. Large numbers of the boxes are dropped off each week at major employers in the Seattle area, among them Microsoft, Seattle City Light, and the Seattle Seahawks.
“People lead such hectic lives,” Burrows says. “It’s one less stop on the way home. We bring it right to the workplace.”
Growing Washington also sells wholesale to restaurants and grocery stories.
While the demand for organic, locally grown food has increased sharply in recent years, Burrows doesn’t think the demand has peaked.
“There’s a strong food culture,” he says. “People can call us to ask a question. They can come to the farm and see it. People are looking for community.”