Hobby Blooms Into Business

Jim Maxwell says he’s been gardening since he was a kid wandering around in his grandparents’ large garden, but he started taking it more seriously when he was out of work and wanted to expand a hobby garden to make a living off of it.  He recently finished University of Idaho Master Gardener program and sat through six months of classes on pest management, composting, and organic pesticides while beginning to expand his own garden plots.  He was able to do the work mostly online, just commuting to Clarkston for once-a-week lectures and occasional field trips.  After reading about small farms in the Northwest, he says it didn’t make sense to not go organic.  As part of completing his volunteer hours for the program, he helped establish a new community garden and plant clinic in Lapwai.  He recently finished the program and became a certified Master Gardener.


Jim started with land in his backyard and then expanded to include the additional 2.5 acres he currently farms, which includes land he’s leased from the Nez Perce tribe; he already had a connection with the tribe as he was donating produce to the Lapwai Commodity Foods Program, the U.S.D.A. food and nutrition program for the reservation.  He says about donating his extra food to the Lapwai Commodity Foods Program, “It just worked out.”  He adds that it’s nice to keep the produce in the community.  “It’s a way to give back to your community, folks that need it.”  He expands by saying it’s not just about the food but the hope that the consumers of the produce will gain awareness about organic, sustainable farms.  In exchange for using the tribe’s land, he continues to contribute 50 pounds of produce a month to the program and 50 pounds to Lapwai senior citizens.


Through keeping a farming journal and relying on memory, he keeps track of what he planted when so he can have a steady supply of most vegetables through the summer.  Last year, he planted several varieties of cucumber, summer squash, corn, pumpkins, zucchini, melon, peppers, etc.  For example, he planted nine varieties of tomatoes for a total of 2,000 plants.  He says if anyone bought a tomato at the co-op last summer, there’s a good chance it was one of his.


In the first year, he set up a booth at the Moscow Farmer’s Market, installed a greenhouse, contributed to the Lapwai Commodity Foods Program, worked with Backyard Harvest to provide 3,269 pounds of fresh vegetables to low-income families, and sold from his roadside produce stand.  “I pulled weeds, picked squash bugs,” he says of his first year, although he admits that friends and family in the area helped.  Without the money to pay any employees, he tried to streamline the process as best he could.  “There’s a lot of folks that just pitched in.  They really want to see you succeed.”


He dealt with the squash bugs in a variety of ways, first, by picking them off the plants, and later through taking a flame thrower to the rows.  “I burned every damn one of ‘em,” he says.  Although the squash bugs have been his biggest challenge, he also experienced less anticipated challenges: “I was taking up melons that were 35 lb.”  Although a triumph, nobody wants to take home a 35 lb. watermelon.  He explains that the co-op started cutting them in half to make them sell.  He relates how he ordered sweet potato seeds, but the company ran out before they could ship any to him.  “It’s the little things that screw up your season,” he says.  Days in the hundreds when he was out picking by himself he confessed he entertained the thought of giving up, but instead he’s brainstormed what this year might look like.


He has plans to increase his soil quality, get rid of the morning glory problem, and expand his chicken coop.  “We’ve had to evolve,” he says, referring to his first couple of farmer’s markets where one person would walk by every half an hour.  The Moscow Farmer’s Market has proven more profitable.  He aspires to farm 15-20 acres, which he guesses might be easier as it will allow for more or better crop rotation and more mechanization.  He plans to hire a couple of employees with hopes to expand the stand, continue to sell to the co-op, and offer community supported agriculture shares to 10 low-income individuals and families.  This year, he’ll also be selling produce at the Lewiston Farmer’s Market.  He also hopes to possibly expand to markets and restaurants in Coeur D’Alene or Bonner’s Ferry.


While Jim is slow to agree that he has a growing customer base, he relates there are people who drop by the stand and say, “I bought your stuff up in Moscow.” Alternatively, someone might choose his produce at the co-op and then come over to the market and see his booth.  “A lot of people are unfamiliar with where we’re at.  They want to know where you’re growing this stuff,” he says.


Jim has recently become Certified Naturally Grown, a label primarily meant for small farms that is an alternative to the USDA certified organic label.  He says other local farmers visit the farm and assess crop rotation practices and other sustainability measurements, ultimately recommending if this is a place where they would purchase food.  Jim says, “small farmers are harder on each other.”


He brings out one of his own creations, something too precious to sell: a cross between a Krenshaw and an Athena melon.  He takes a knife, slices it in half and cuts out some of the fruit.  Its flesh is orange and sweet smelling.  This year he’ll begin growing enough for the following that will surely develop.  Without a doubt, Jim says his biggest reward is “the ability to give to a family that wouldn’t normally get it.”  He continues, “It’s not about the money.  It’s about hungry folks.”

— Andrea Clark Mason

Originally appeared in The Ruralite, May2011

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