Jerry Pipitone has been at the forefront of organic farming for over forty years. As a dedicated organic farmer, Jerry was honored with the Tilth Farmer of the Year award in at the Tilth Conference in Wenatchee in November.
How did you get started in farming? What was your main motive?
I’ve told this story a lot in the last few years. I knew I wanted to garden then I read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. That was my “ah-ha!” moment, and it woke a lot of people up to what was going on. I started thinking about pesticides and how they were affecting my small part of the world. I wanted change.
They say, “Don’t turn your hobby into a job because you won’t have a hobby or a job.” I did just that. I moved to Wenatchee in 1974 and by 1979 I was officially farming. Though, let’s not romanticize this completely, I have almost always had a full time job, even while I was farming. In 1978, I grew a couple hundred pounds of garlic for sale. I mark 1979 as the year I became a real farmer.
The real transition to “farmer” came when I was looking for more ways to sell my food, and one day I walked into the mayor’s office. Someone pointed me in the direction and said to find Fran Taber, a Wenatchee businesswoman. Shortly thereafter, we had ourselves a farmers market. In fact, Wenatchee Farmers Market is registered as the 7th official market in the state.
You’ve been involved with the Neighborhood Farmers Markets for a long time. What’s your favorite memory?
I don’t think there’s just one favorite memory. It’s been a lifetime involvement with these people – consumers, farmers and associations. I’ve been selling at those Seattle markets for about 16 years. I even remember the first Tilth Harvest Fair back in 1998. Fran Taber and I started a Tilth chapter in Wenatchee that lasted two or three years, too.
If I had to say, I would tell you that my favorite market is the U-District market. I served on their board and pal around with those farmers. I think it’s the connections I’ve made as a farmer that I love most about this work. I still go to the U-District market on Saturday and West Seattle on Sunday for 5 weeks (between June and July) to sell apricots and peaches. My plan is to do the best again next year.
You grew up in Seattle. What inspired you to leave the city?
I was born in Beloit, Wisconsin. My family moved here in 1948 when I was 8 years old. In fact, here’s a little fun fact… I was shopping at Pike Place Market the next day! (Inserted by author: Jerry later became an integral farmer involved in the market.) We lived in West Seattle, and I went on to become a merchant seaman. Eventually though, I was settled in the city with kids and knew I needed to get out of the city.
It was the 70’s; things were changing in Seattle and I knew it was time for me to go. Plus, I wanted to dive into more land. I had some friends in Wenatchee and it made sense to put down roots there. It’s a conservative part of the state, but it’s a community of close-knit people.
What advice would you give a beginning farmer?
I won’t throw you a softball here. The truth is that farming is ultimately about sales. You need to plan your marketing in advance. You need to have some good idea about where your product is going to be sold. And it’s not the most glamorous part, but it’s critical to making your business succeed. Have a good idea of your marketplace – and plan it out because you need to have outlets. I’m no exception to this rule, but most farmers have other jobs while they’re doing this work. But success is based on how much of your food you can sell.
As you sit on the cusp of retirement, what do you see for the future of organic and sustainable agriculture?
There is growth in the organic industry, and there’s now no question about demand in this market. The biggest challenge is for small organic farmers to succeed versus really large organic farms. Small farms must find their niche to prosper in the market. We also must maintain the quality and standard of the organic brand. Small farmers must continue to fight for stringent standards because that’s where we differentiate ourselves in this market.
In that same vein, as long time members of the Tilth community, what do you see as Tilth’s role in educating the next generation of farmers?
I’ve been involved with Tilth for a long time, and the merger of these great organizations marks a turn in this organization. This new organization represents a breadth of constituents, and it’s going to be a lot of programming to address everyone.
Facilitation of education and networking is what farmers need, and I think that it’s important that Tilth keeps filling that role.
What remains on your bucket list, farming or otherwise?
I am bound and determined to reduce the 80-hour farming weeks into “gentleman farming.” We’re starting to scale back the farm in a way that preserves more of our time, and allows me to do some other things. It’s important that I stay involved to some extent. I think farmers in my age range are all asking, “How can I do this while making some money and working less?”
The farm at its peak was 4.5 acres of fruit and mixed vegetable production. Now we’re looking at about an acre, acre and a half in production. The day after I was given the Farmer of the Year Award, about 2/3 our land was cleared. That was a heartbreaking moment, and took me from a high high to a low low.
But it’s working for me now, and I’ll keep trying to get better at that. It’s time for me to start traveling more. I’ve always loved it. I took my first real long vacation in 2016, just last month! It was a road trip through the Midwest and Washington. It was great to get away and spend some time with the people I love.
I’m also president of a fraternal organization called Sons of Italy. We get together to play bocce ball and make pizza. In my orchard, there’s a full-size bocce court, and there’s a brick pizza oven. We know how to have a good time! I think, mostly, that I want to see friends and family and enjoy this time with them.
What’s your favorite Tilth story?
I often think back to that first Harvest Fair back in 1998. It was pouring rain. You just have to picture it. And we didn’t have canopies back then. It was just pouring buckets of rain. We had tarps, people were in ponchos, and folks were just clamoring for it all. It was a moment that I realize people in this city were driving change.
I think I’ve been to about 15 Tilth Conferences over the years. I spent a lot of great times at those conferences talking, learning and networking with this community. It’s the connections that make this community so vibrant.