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The Dirt Q&A: An interview with Sunseed Farm

Mar 9th, 2011 | Category: Features

For Nick Guilford, growing is good. Owner and operator of Sunseed Farm, Guilford has gone from growing a few large gardens to producing approximately 175 different crops – from fruits and veggies, to herbs and starts – on acreage in the beautiful South Fork Valley. He reflects on life on the farm, his family, food production, and why 100 percent organic methods should be the only way, the natural way.

Nick Guilford, owner and operator of Sunseed Farm. PHOTO BY DIANE PADYS PHOTOGRAPHY (www.padyseye.com)

Tell us about Sunseed Farm. How did you get started and where do you get your inspiration from? Did you always want to be a 100 percent organic farmer?
Sunseed Farm is located along the South Fork of the Nooksack river, near Acme. I started out growing big gardens in town, and then worked on an organic farm, The Growing Garden, with Brent Harrison for a few years. Brent was very generous with his knowledge, and even let us use some ground to start up Sunseed before we had our own property. This experience was really instrumental in our start up, and we have tried to pay it forward by helping some more new farms get started at our place. 2011 is our 15th year in business now, and it feels good to be more stable, finally, with some systems in place, and relationships established with local stores and the public. Although it took a few years to actually certify as organic, we have used organic techniques since the beginning, and have never contemplated any other way.

Sprouting in the greenhouse. PHOTO BY DIANE PADYS PHOTOGRAPHY (www.padyseye.com)

Tell us about the South Fork Valley, which is home to several organic and sustainable small farms. How did you come to choose this area as your home and growing grounds?
We love the South Fork Valley! It feels much more like a neighborhood to me than many parts of the county where the roads are laid out on a big grid. There are lots of farms – big, small, organic, and conventional, and plenty of sun – as long as you’re not up against the hill. There are lots of great people, the Acme Store and Everybody’s Store, a little post office, the Josh Vander Yacht park, Van Zandt Hall, the volunteer fire department, a river. What more do you need?  All of those reasons led to us locating here, plus the land is more affordable. Luckily we were able to get a loan for some bare land back before prices really exploded, and after several years were able to build a solar powered home on the property.

You grow starts, as well as lots of vegetables, herbs and fruits. How many varieties total do you offer? What are your favorites to grow and eat?
We grow about 175 different crops. Some of those are only as garden starts, and others we grow all the way out to harvest. It’s hard to keep the list down, because so many things grow well around here. Our favorites includes basil, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, and kale. We’re especially fond of storage crops and winter veggies that are around when we have more time to cook.

Spring is on the way and you’re busy. What’s new for 2011?

This year we are trialing a new project with our garden starts of offering some “limited edition” varieties. These are varieties that are a little more unusual, and some of our home garden favorites. Throughout the season we will be rotating through a list of these items each 2-3 weeks to make sure there’s always something new to check out on the plant rack. The first three for the year are “ailsa craig” sweet onion, “sylvetta” wild arugula, and “flashy butter oak” lettuce.
Another thing that we are very happy about is that we are finally able to provide all the starts in recycled and/or reused pots for the first time. This goes a long way towards helping to have a more sustainable farm, and we will also be offering opportunities for for people to recycle their old pots later in the summer. People can check in with our website for info on when and where those collections will be happening.
We’ve also continued to improve our potting mix by inoculating it with beneficial microbes.
Last, but not least, we are finally entering the 21st century by having a Twitter account for the farm (twitter.com/sunseedfarm). It should be a great way to let people know when new varieties are ready to plant, about sales on our plants at stores, and little bit about work on the farm. We’ll also likely be running some “twitter coupon” sales at the farmers’ market that are only put out to the twitter feed.

What easy-to-grow vegetables do you recommend for beginner home gardeners?

Lettuce, zucchini, peas, and swiss chard are all great crops to start out with. Of course, everyone wants to grow tomatoes,which can be a bit trickier in this climate, so we recommend Siletz, Oregon Spring, and Sungold as the most reliable varieties, and we encourage people to check out our website for good tomato growing tips.

What transplanting advice would you give home gardeners?

Plant soon:  In order for your new plants to stay healthy, they need to grow, and in order to grow they’re going to need more room.  Starts should generally be transplanted into the garden, or at least a bigger pot, within one week of purchase.  If they can’t be transplanted immediately, keeping them moist and between 55-65 degrees F will help them to hold  healthfully.
Prepare the soil:  Ideally, soil preparation begins well before planting time.  This is a large subject covered well in some of the books listed above.  In brief, the soil should be forked, shoveled or tilled to break up clods and work in compost, manure, minerals, etc., at least two weeks prior to planting.  If your garden is already relatively weeded and fertile–lucky you.  Uncomposted manure is best applied the previous fall to assure it has plenty of time to break down.  Amending the soil is crucial to the health of the garden.  Think of the garden soil itself as a long term crop you’re tending.
Space them out:  Make sure to take different crops space needs into account.  Most plants should have some info on the tag about spacing.  If not, feel free to email us, or ask your favorite garden center worker.  Deciding on spacing can be tricky because, while we should be wary of overcrowding things, we all know that the slugs may find one or two tasty morsels.  Many of our starts are a bit over seeded, and should be thinned at the time of planting.  Again, tags should give some guidance here.  One possibility is to plant them out unthinned, and then, once they have made it through their smallest most vulnerable days, thin them out later if the sluggos didn’t do it for you.
Tuck them in:  When planting, make sure to get the entire root ball and even the top of the block of potting mix thoroughly covered with garden soil. Put your hands to each side of the plant and give it a good firming into place. These two steps are very important in helping your plants get established in their new home. The warmer and drier it is out, the more important these steps are.
Keep an eye on them: Make sure they stay moist, but not soggy.  Dusk, dawn and rainy days are the best time to scout for slugs. Your garden will repay you many times over for all the love you’re putting in.

Why is it important to you to have 100 percent organic operations and how do you feel these methods increase the health and quality of the food and environment?
Having a 100 percent organic operation just feels like a given to me.  Entire books are written about the benefits of organics, or the problems with the chemical based agriculture industry, etc., but when there are higher than normal rates of leukemia in our own county linked to ethylene dibromide in the ground water, it seems like it is past time for a change. When it comes down to it, I think most people know intuitively that there is no need to feed chemicals to what winds up feeding us and our kids. The issue really becomes, how do you go beyond the organic regulations to make room for other plants and animals to coexist on the farm, and how do you reduce the ecological impact of what you’re doing every year. Being certified is important because, in addition to preventing the occasional outright fraud that occurs, it helps the public to know that there has been an independent third party that has checked the operation out. Most of the time when you have someone selling non-organic product as organic, it’s not because they mean any harm, but rather that they just don’t understand the issues involved. They may assume that something is allowed in organic production when it isn’t. It’s always best to look for the certification, in my opinion, rather than an informal assurance that something is “natural”, “sustainable”, or “better than organic.”

Where are your starts, veggies and fruits available locally?
The Bellingham Farmers’ Market, The Skagit Co-op, both Bellingham Co-ops, Terra Organica, Christianson’s Nursery.  We’re always open to working with any garden center that would like to provide organic garden starts for their customers.

How has fatherhood changed you? Does your young son have any interest in your farm work?
I eat way more oatmeal than I used to, which is good. More substantially though, it has given me a lot of joy, and the amazing experience of being able to contribute to another being’s joy so often. I think most people know how it feels good to do something that contributes to someone else’s happiness. With adults, it’s not always so easy to do, but with kids there are so many opportunities every day to do that in simple ways like picking them up, or reading a book. It is a gift to have him in my life right now.
As to the farming, so far Asa is is most exited about playing with hoses, pointing out greenhouse fans, sniffing the herbs, and eating the harvest. It’s a big job, but he’ll have some help with it when his little sister arrives this summer.

What are the best things, and the worst things, about being a farmer?

The best includes being in creative/troubleshooting mode so often. It’s never boring, and you get to spend lots of time with the good folks at Hardware Sales. Being outside so often is great, and people love their gardens, so it’s fun to be able to support that. People come into the market booth and they are excited about their project, and happy to get some healthy starts, so it’s just a positive experience.
The worst parts are usually related to weather. Being at the farmers’ market in the snow, or being outside at three in the morning when it’s 10 degrees trying to fix a generator because the power is out and the greenhouses are freezing up. It’s those times that you long for a 9-5 gig indoors somewhere. Of course, the schedule is rough, especially in the spring, and it can make having a normal home life a challenge.

Let’s say you get a day off. What’s your idea of a perfect Northwest day?
If it can be a few days off, then I would say going out to the La Push area with Yarrow and Asa to backpack on the beach. Also, stopping in to Waterfront Pizza in Port Townsend on the way there and back, while managing to be the last car to fit on the last ferry of the day.

Are there any vegetables you do not eat?
I’m not a big fan of okra, but I’ve only tried it a couple times. Luckily, it doesn’t grow well around here, so I don’t have to put much energy into avoiding it.

Five words that best describe you?
Easy-going, driven, reserved, friendly, paradoxic

Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

We’re really excited about how many people are digging up their yards, putting in gardens, and really getting serious about food production. The best part about coming to town is going through a neighborhood and seeing trellises in someone’s front yard, or winter squash rambling across the sidewalk.  We feel really lucky to be able to be a small part of it.

For more information about Sunseed Farm, visit www.sunseedfarm.com

Interview by Becca Schwarz Cole

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2 Comments to “The Dirt Q&A: An interview with Sunseed Farm”

  1. MichaelaJames says:

    I buy all my garden starts from their stand at the Bellingham Farmers Market. Everything grows so big!

  2. Jennifer Hopkins says:

    I agree!

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