Member Highlight: Clayton Burrows, Director – Growing Washington

clayton-on-micIn the spirit of strengthening our region’s food community the Puget Sound Food Network newsletter shines a spotlight on a different member each month. It’s important to know your neighbors and we want to learn what makes you tick in the coming months. Everyone has a story and we want to hear about it!  Please contact Lucy Norris at lucy@agbizcenter.org if you are interested in being featured.


PSFN: Tell us about your business and role within organization.

Clayton Burrows: Growing Washington is a collaborative of new generation and Latino farmers organized together as a 501(c)(3).  We operate several farms in Western Washington, and help dozens of other farmers by creating new markets or increasing their access to existing markets.  We routinely sell at up to 20 or so farmers markets a week, maintain 3 CSA programs, sell to dozens of top restaurants and grocery stores, and have one of the most active farm to school programs in the nation.  We use our on-the-ground activities in agriculture—mainly the growing of food and the support of our customers—to support all of our charitable and programmatic activities.  We operate a farm that gives every single thing it produces to food banks.  We grew or coordinated the growth and gleaning of over 180,000 pounds of food this year for those in need.  We have grown and delivered over 10 tons of food for schools in the last two months.  We have trained nearly three dozen farmers in the last 24 months.  We have one of the most progressive Latino-powered farms in the country.  We have helped over 45 farms move their products into new markets through such projects as our Growing Whatcom Multiple Farm CSA, our Local Choice Food Box, our Online Farm Store and Delivery Program, our Local Food Exchange farm stand in downtown Bellingham, our Farms to Food Bank Program, and our Just Food Charitable CSA Program.

At the most basic level, the mission in agriculture for Growing Washington’s farmers is to raise, move, represent and grow food and farmers in Washington State. Internally, one of Growing Washington’s main purposes is to help people (specifically young, energetic farmers) do whatever it is that they are passionate about doing.  Whether it is helping someone on the team start a bee and honey business, a culinary herb business, implement alternative energy systems, raise hogs, or make booze, Growing Washington’s team approach has allowed many to accomplish things that they would never have attempted, let alone implemented, on their own.

Tell me about how you got started in your line of work?

I am an eighth generation farmer with long and strong roots to rural Colorado.  My father’s side of the family is dominated by dry land cattle ranchers in the rugged country of SE Colorado, and my mother’s side of the family is comprised of large-scale conventional farmers, mainly growing sections of things like wheat, barley, corn, sunflowers, sugar beets, etc.  My family is filled with feedlot owners, county commissioners, crop dusters, rodeo queens and bull riders.  Growing up I wanted nothing to do with agriculture, though I was the 4-H poultry king of Fremont County, Colorado for four or five years running.  While my sister routinely had like five horses, six sheep, three goats, two dogs, and a smattering of other critters, I was more interested in sports, the outdoors, and being obnoxious with my friends.  After graduating high school I went to college at Colorado State University to prepare for law school.  I moved to Portland, Oregon shortly after my undergraduate studies in environmental policy and English and ended up being very good at working with criminals and quickly moved up the ranks and was working on murder cases and the like at the state’s largest criminal defense firm.  Secretly, though, the tug of agriculture was creeping up on me.  I started to grow plants everywhere around my house, including a small greenhouse I used to start vegetables and then sell them at small, struggling farmers markets.  I must have had like 600 tomato plants in my small city lot one year.  Instead of attending law school I moved to Juneau, Alaska with my outlaw friends and went to graduate school for rural public policy (MPA), focusing on non-profit theory and practice.  I worked for a couple of law firms and the Alaska Court System, but still had a longing for more tangible work.  I became the director of the region’s largest watershed partnership, and became quite interested in the overlap between environmental policy (specifically salmon restoration) and agriculture.  Growing Washington and Growing Montana were my final projects in graduate school (I actually incorporated the non-profits while still in Alaska—before I knew exactly where I was going to move) and shortly after I completed school I decided to move to Bellingham to farm.  I started farming in Washington almost right after moving here.  Growing Washington started small, and has had continual growth since my arrival.  What started out as an expensive hobby has turned into something that seems to keep, well…growing.

In addition to my work at Growing Washington I worked four years or so with the Small Farms Program at Washington State University, which was a great experience.  I taught quite a few courses for WSU and also helped to coordinate the statewide Cultivating Success Program.  I have also served as a lead farmer on several legislative pushes in Olympia, and have traveled to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of family farmers.

Since my arrival here five years ago I have served on a number of boards and committees, including the board of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, the Sustainable Agriculture Committee for the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, the board of the Cascade Harvest Coalition, and also serve as an advisor to the Puget Sound Food Network.

What do you like most about your job?

Oh, probably the long hours and the poor pay.  Aside from my robust compensation package, probably the most likeable aspects of my job are being outside everyday working with exceptional individuals, working on tangible projects (like growing food) that are very real and ever-changing, and feeling a strong sense of self-worth when I realize just how much energy and commitment it takes to farm the way that we do to the extent that we do.  Sometimes when I take a step back and see the amazing accomplishments of our young and Latino farmers—and to think that we are not only supporting ourselves, but are also feeding thousands of people in need—I am at once amazed and truly blessed to be among such fine company.

What do you like best about living in the NW?

I have always loved the amazing forests, the beautiful salmon/steelhead rivers, and the lush valleys that define the coastal areas of Oregon and Washington.  There is definitely a reason that the people risked their lives to follow the Oregon Trail to this area—this is a spectacular place.  Yeah, the rain can suck, but the nice thing about where we live is that sun, snow, ocean, rainforest, bears—they are all within a couple hours.

Why did you become a member of PSFN?  What do you like about the PSFN concept? What do you hope to gain?

I am definitely a participant in, but not necessarily always a fan of, traditional commerce.  Walking into a Wal-Mart and buying every single thing I need (or, more typically, want) just isn’t satisfactory. If farming has taught me anything, it is that a person almost always gets what he pays for, whether that payment be through cash or sweat.  I like concepts like the PSFN because they seek to humanize commerce, seek to increase communication among community members, and generally try to facilitate open, transparent, fair exchanges.  I also like that the PSFN is not relying wholly upon technology, and that it’s staffing is its centerpiece.  While farmers and consumers certainly can—and do—benefit from technology, at the end of the day there is just no way to replace in-person human interaction.

In your opinion, why should we all care about local food?

While there are obvious benefits to local food systems, things like increasing local economic benefits, eating food at its freshest, maintaining viable farms, keeping community control of the means of food production, making a conscious effort as a community to be better environmental stewards, etc., I think that the bigger issue is that people have become so disconnected with one another, even people living in the same house, that we are all longing for more real, more tangible connections to one another.  And, food is something that is easy to rally around (we all eat it, we all center much of our lives around it already).  There is no doubt that people want to stay connected—just stand on a street corner and watch as nearly every passerby is are either talking or texting on a cell phone.  They may not be talking to the person next to them on the bus stop anymore, but they are definitely communicating with someone.  For local food and local agriculture to have real staying power (and this could be said for environmental stewardship as well) we have to figure out a way to at once improve our lives with technology without distancing ourselves too far away from real connections to each other and to the rural and natural world—the operating farms, the operating ecosystems–that we become completely desensitized to the disappearance of the family farmer and a thriving, intact natural environment.  I think that both local food and the PSFN have great potential to pull people closer to one another and simultaneously increase their engagement in the world beyond the screen, outside the cube, off the pavement, in the elements, in tune with a living earth.

At the same time as local food should be a strong focus, unless we simply don’t care about people less fortunate than us in our world—which happens to be just about everyone—it is insane to become so locally focused that we play out of sight, out of mind with the rest of humanity.  We don’t live in a vacuum, and there is a fine line between going local and being elite.  Right now only 1-2% of our population is farmers.  There are more people spending time in prison in the United States than there are people growing food.  These farmers are tasked with the incredible task of helping to feed the world, and while I certainly think that Washington farmers ought to be feeding Washington folks, I also think that our bounty should be shared with the world until everyone has everything he or she needs.

Do you have any exciting plans for business for 2010?

Oh yes.  2010 ought to be a great year.  We have a lot of ways to improve.  We hope to increase production on all fronts, secure more land, start a restaurant supported agriculture program, increase the geographic area and membership base of our CSAs, move more units for more farms, create a value-added line, increase the visibility and reach of our New Farmer Hatchery, get into distilling, increase our livestock operations, maybe get into some E. Washington grain farming, and maybe start a restaurant if we run into a bunch of cash.  I anticipate selling to more schools, and I look forward to expanding our emerging Farm to U. program.  I think that we’ll get over 200,000 pounds of food to those that need it next year, and I anticipate having a real talented and ambitious group of farmers this year, who are liable to knock my socks off with their accomplishments on the farms and in the community.  I have a whole bunch of field experiments I am interested in trying, and I also want to work on mastering season extension.  If none of this works out my mom said I could stay with her.

What is your favorite food (or beverage) and how do you like it served?

My favorite food, hands down, is beef jerky, followed closely by ice cream, followed closely by popcorn.  I like to eat bratwursts off the barbecue with my hands, and then wipe my charred, greasy hands on my dirty jeans.  I think that I ate a cheeseburger everyday for three months in my early twenties.  On the farm my favorite thing to eat varies by the season.  In the spring I like to pull a couple white turnips, wipe them off on my jeans, and eat them in the field (this is a poor man’s ice cream cone in Colorado).  I also enjoy grabbing a handful of arugula topped with a radish to wake up in the mornings.  Sometimes I will break off an asparagus spear and rotate it over my cigarette lighter for a couple seconds—superb!  In the summer there is nothing better than salvaging a cracked tomato by devouring the whole thing, getting sick off of summer raspberries, or eating a fresh green bean off the vine.  In the fall I like to pull carrots, wipe them on my jeans (there is a theme here), and eat them.  I love fresh hazelnuts.  After the first frost I love eating Brussels sprouts off the stalk, handfuls of winterbor kale, or side shoots from broccoli plants.  I also love anything with truffle oil; I would pay big money for a truffle finding pig.

Do you have words that describe your outlook on your life or work?

I really like the Mark Twain quote: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

I also like Winston Churchill’s quote, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

Connect with Growing Washington by visiting their member profile.

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