In honor of FRESHFARM Markets 15th Anniversary, we are doing a series of interviews with the “Inaugural Farmers” of FRESHFARM Markets. These farmers and producers helped us launch the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM market in 1997 and remain vital, productive members of the FRESHFARM family today. They too were pioneers of the local food movement and have been an invaluable part of changing and shaping how Washingtonians shop and think about the food on their plates.
Our first interview is with Jim Crawford, owner of New Morning Farm in Hustontown, Pennsylvania. Jim, and his wife Moie, have managed their 95 acre certified-organic vegetable farm for over 40 years! Today, you can still find their farm’s fresh produce at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM market.
What inspired you to start your farm over 40 years ago?
Forty years ago I was living in Washington, D.C., and really knew that I liked to garden and grow vegetables. I had done that during my childhood. I was involved in some political things and environmental stuff, and was very interested in food, food quality, the environment, and agriculture that didn’t harm the environment. The interest in food and the desire to do gardening in a serious way was what got me started.
I would say entrepreneurship was also really appealing to me. Being our own boss, starting our own business, and producing something of value that we could market and be independent – have our own source of income that was based on our own efforts, our own farm, our own home and family. The reason that people do family farming is basically the reason we’re doing it.
What was your first day at FRESHFARM Markets like, and how has it changed over the past 15 years?
It was certainly fun, the first day. I can remember it, I was there myself. Since then my wife Moie took it over after the second or third week. She was convinced that it was going to be fun so she started doing it and she took it over. I was there for the first two weeks myself but with some help, and it was quite exciting being new and we didn’t know exactly what to expect. But of course, a lot of people came out the first time, and we had very good sales. We were very pleased that people were very responsive, and they seemed to be very appreciative. I remember selling almost everything – nearly 99% of what we brought.
Since then it has evolved and grown a lot, and we have also evolved over time. We grow a bigger range of things so that we can have a more impressive offering at the market. Now we bring probably three times as many different items as we did then. The demand seems to just grow steadily and be very strong, and we have a lot of good relationships and friendships there now.
Now it’s more sophisticated, and we have a larger set up. We are a little more established and familiar with it, but it’s a very positive market for us, and we didn’t think at the beginning it would turn out as well as it did. We didn’t think it was going to be bad, but we know how expensive it is to go to market, we’d been doing it for 20 years, and we knew the costs and expenses of doing a market like that. We knew that it was going to have to be good strong sales to justify all those expenses, but it was very soon after the beginning that it was obvious that it was going to be strong enough sales. Since then the sales have grown so much that it’s no question that it’s very good for our business and very profitable for us. In general it’s very good for our farm.
What do you want people to know about being a farmer?
Well, there are a lot of misunderstandings amongst city people about what this is like. First of all, there are a lot fewer farms like us around the eastern U.S. than people realize. As an industry it shrunk a lot decades ago and many, many farms, particularly vegetable farms, disappeared from the eastern U.S.– from the mid-Atlantic area. The vast majority of them actually disappeared because when transportation got cheaper and cheaper in the 1940s and 1950s, produce was concentrated in California and a few other parts of the country. Transportation was so cheap that the produce could be shipped long distances, so it became harder and harder to make a living growing vegetables in the mid-Atlantic. That’s why most of the vegetable growers in this part of the country went out of business in the ’40s and ’50s.
The climate is really challenging compared to California. The labor situation is very different when you don’t have the migrant labor sources that they have in California. The work crews are much larger and everything is much bigger in scale. Things become more efficient. There are a lot of reasons why a lot of production moved out to California and why so many left the eastern U.S. Most people who, for instance, live out in the city, don’t have an idea of how tiny a sector of agriculture this really is. It is small because it’s so economically challenging – it’s hard to make a living.
Some people don’t understand why prices are so high at farmers markets. They think it should be cheaper than stuff that has to be shipped from California. It can’t be as cheap because our costs of production are much higher because of climate, labor, and economies of scale. Things grown in this part of the country are more expensive to produce. That’s why you don’t see big savings at farmers markets, where everything is locally grown. What you do get is better quality because it is so much fresher, and it gets more personal attention because the farms are smaller. The scale is so much smaller.
What is unique about your farm?
Every farm like this is different and unique. When you go to California, all of the farms are the same – you look across the road and you see miles and miles of strawberry fields. All of the strawberry farms are the same because they’re all high tech, all large scale, and they all follow the same model. What you see out here, in the east, is every farm is different and unique, every farm is the function of the family, or the couple, or the person who started it at the onset. So every farm is really amazingly different from every other one. When I go and talk to the other farmers at the market in Dupont Circle, I am always surprised at how different we all are from one another. We all sort of adapt to our own particular circumstances and experiences. That’s why when you walk around the market you see so many different things there and see different sizes and colors and a lot more variety than you see in the supermarkets. That’s because each of these farms is so different from every other one.
What makes us different is that we are certified organic, and only a few farms at market are certified organic. And we’re different in what we like to grow, what we like to eat, what we like to sell, and what we are good at with our particular soils.
We are good at the things we sell there. We don’t sell some things there because we aren’t good at it, so for instance, we don’t sell melons – we don’t have the right conditions on this farm to sell melons. We don’t sell tree fruits here, like peaches and pears, and apples because we don’t have the right conditions. We do have a very large selection of your basic garden vegetables, berries, and a whole range of vegetables from corn to tomatoes.
Why are farmers markets important to your farm?
It’s what makes our whole system viable and lets us make a living because we’re getting the retail price. We don’t have to pay Whole Foods to have a 300% mark up on what they are buying from us or pay Union Pacific to ship it across country on a train. So, the fact that we’re there at the farmers market dealing directly with the consumers and getting the retail price – that’s what makes us viable and make a living and support our farm.
We do three different markets in Washington, and all put together, they give us the final retail price, which most farmers never see. They see a small fraction of that retail price. That’s what makes the whole thing work for us. The farmers market is really the only thing that keeps our farm going. If we didn’t have farmers markets, we would not be doing this.