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Ralph’s Greenhouse: An interview with Ray de Vries

Jan 3rd, 2015 | Category: Community

Growing a legacy of leeks and more

by Jessamyn Tuttle

It might seem confusing at first that Ralph’s Greenhouse, a large vegetable farm on the Skagit flats outside Mount Vernon, only has one greenhouse and is owned by a guy named Ray, but it all makes sense if you go back a few decades.

Ray de Vries in his leek field. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Ray de Vries in his leek field. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

Ray de Vries’ father, Ralph, was a dairy farmer in the Netherlands when Ray was born. The family immigrated first to east Los Angeles in 1958, then to Skagit County in 1960, where they ran a dairy farm for 20 years. Despite growing up on farms, Ray had no intention of taking on the family business.

“I was never interested in farming,” he said. “I got a real job.”

He taught high school shop until his father asked him to come home to help with the farm, but after two months they both realized that Ray had no affinity for cows. Ralph decided to retire from the dairy business and start a hobby vegetable garden, while Ray went on to a job in construction. When the garden began producing more than the family could eat, Ralph began selling vegetables under the name Ralph’s Greenhouse. At the request of a produce vendor in Seattle he started growing leeks as a specialty crop. But as a retirement project it soon got out of hand, and he asked Ray again if he wanted to come help out.

Ray thought it sounded like an easy job. “In the morning I’ll help my dad on the farm,” he thought, “and do whatever I want all afternoon.”

It didn’t quite work out that way, of course. From three acres of leeks the farm gradually grew larger and larger, despite the occasional setback. “After our five year deal I was too broke to quit,” Ray said. “Twenty-six years later I’m still farming.”

He now farms a couple hundred acres of leeks, carrots, beets, chard and kale, crops that do well in the Skagit climate and can be harvested all winter long. Leeks are what they’re best known for, and they sell them all over the country.

“We have the ideal climate for growing leeks,” said Ray, pointing out that they do extremely well in home gardens in Western Washington. “If you’re a gardener you need to grow leeks.”

There are plenty of opportunities out there for farmers, he said, if you can find the right niche crop. “You just have to reach for it, then stick with it until it flies.”

Continuing what his father started, Ray farms using organic methods, building up the naturally rich soil with manure from a neighboring dairy farm. He doesn’t see any point in growing any other way. “Organic works really well for us. Why not do it?”

Ray takes little credit for his farm’s success, and claims that he’s not really a plant person. “What I really enjoy is the people who work with us,” he said. There are at least 30 people working on the farm at any given time, and some have been with the farm for over 20 years.

He attributes much of the farm’s success to his wife Becky de Vries, who manages the finances for the farm. “Without a Becky there would be no Ralph’s Greenhouse,” he said.

Recently Ray and Becky were presented with Tilth Producers’ Farmer of the Year award. It was a surprise as much as an honor,  Ray said. “I’m just an event coordinator. It’s the people who work with us who make the farm go around.”

Tilth Producers said the DeVries’ were chosen because they have helped and mentored farms and farmers over the years, and have taught classes for beginning farmers on everything from greenhouse construction to labor management to food safety.

Ralph’s Greenhouse is located at 16942 Calhoun Road in Mount Vernon and can be reached at (360) 424-5398.

Published in the January 2015 issue of Grow Northwest

One Comment to “Ralph’s Greenhouse: An interview with Ray de Vries”

  1. Hi Ray..just made a pot of leek and potato soup MMM good!! As the organic leeks came from so far away and certainly were very fresh I would like to say thank you for your hard work.Take care and God Bless

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