Constant improvement in harmony with nature
By Alex Smith
The Japanese language has a concept called “Kaizen”. This roughly translates as “continuous improvement.” It’s a concept often used in business to describe ways of making processes more efficient. Companies like Toyota have used this principle to reduce costs and create better products that they can bring to market for a lower cost. Kaizen is just one aspect of a broader concept of “Lean manufacturing” where companies identify wasted energy and work to eliminate it in every phase.
Not surprisingly, this philosophy applies to agriculture. Growing food requires a lot of input. Equipment, soil amendments, and labor are not cheap. And that’s only the first few of many costs a farmer incurs. So naturally, it makes sense to reduce these costs as much as possible without sacrificing quality.
A great example of this continuous improvement is Sauk Farm, located in Eastern Skagit County near Concrete. Using a combination of science, technology, natural systems, and a wealth of knowledge, Sauk Farm produces superior quality, certified organic grapes and apples. People often say that it’s impossible to do this West of the Cascades, but Sauk Farm is clear proof that it’s not only possible – it’s happening.
Griffin Berger studied Integrated Plant Sciences at WSU and has been interested in fruit ever since his childhood. He was running a fruit stand in Seattle and one year the family peach tree died. He had to figure out what went wrong. Fast forward several years, and now he’s ensuring that his trees are as healthy as can be.
A visit to the farm reveals an almost obsessive level of order. Trees are planted in perfectly straight rows, immaculately weeded, and almost entirely free of any sign of disease. Griffin invites me to check out the office. “Sorry, we just finished building this office so it’s a bit of a mess,” he says. Aside from a slightly askew pile of a few papers on the file cabinet, I have no clue what he’s referring to.
Digging a bit deeper, it’s clear that everything is set up to produce the best quality fruit. A large poster on the wall of the office details exactly what each block of plants needs and when. The irrigation system feeds nutrients at the exact level needed based on the most recent soil tests. As we tour the field, Griffin talks at length about soil science, biology, and fruit quality while I do my best to take it all in.
We often think of farmers as people who have learned from experience and use intuition to make decisions. Griffin is not that person. “The plants don’t care what you think,” he says describing his scientific approach to farming. Of course, there’s an element of guesswork, but in the spirit of science he keeps detailed records and uses massive spreadsheets to catalog past performance.
I don’t want to give the impression of a mad scientist doing experiments on your food. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Above all, Griffin is committed to growing food in an ecologically responsible manner. The practice of reducing fertilizers and sprays is as much about reducing cost as it is about reducing fossil fuel usage. And there are strips throughout the farm that don’t get mowed, instead providing a space for over 60 flowering plants that provide habitat for 30 or more beneficial insects. Reducing waste is more than a business decision – it’s a value. “We’re on the path to true sustainability,” he says. “It makes no sense to waste anything, whether it’s resources, crops, or time.”
The soil used to grow the trees is also built on principles of sustainability. Sauk Farm applies compost annually to keep the soil extremely fertile and provide habitat for the beneficial insects and microorganisms that work with the plants’ root structure to build healthy plants from the ground up. The soil is rich and dark, the result of years of labor. Between the trees is a mix of cover crop intended to capture and hold in the nutrients needed for productive growth.
Sauk Farm sells their best apples to retailers like the Community Food Co-op, Haggen, and the Seattle Central Co-op. Apples and grapes are also processed into cider that’s available at retail locations. The most unique product, though, is an apple powder that can be combined with almond flour for baking tasty gluten-free treats.
As I get ready to leave the pristine farm, mountains rising up from the valley floor, I ask Griffin what we can do as consumers. “Buy from and support local, organic farms,” he says. “Learn about the practices they’re using. Think about where your food comes from. If you eat out or shop at the grocery store, encourage them to find local products.”
With Griffin and Spot, the farm dog, in the rear view mirror, I have a chance to digest all the information (and apples and grapes) that I’ve just taken in. Sauk Farm is committed to continuous improvement, kaizen. This applies to quality of the product as well as environmental impact. The concept is baked into the business model. Griffin will be the first to admit that it’s not perfect, but it gets better every year. This practice is something we can all learn from. Maybe you’re not a farmer, but by making constant small changes in how we eat, we can make real changes to the status quo.