California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Organic Produce Network (OPN) will honor longtime organic grower Vernon Peterson of Peterson Family Farm and Abundant Harvest Organics as the inaugural recipient of the of Organic Grower Summit’s Grower of the Year.
Peterson was selected based on his commitment and dedication to excellence in organic production and organic industry leadership and innovation. The award, sponsored by AGCO, will be presented to Peterson next month at the first-ever Organic Grower Summit in Monterey, CA.
“We are honored to present the inaugural Grower of the Year award to Vernon Peterson. Vernon exemplifies what a hardworking, passionate organic farmer is all about,” said Greg Milstead, Director of Sales, Southwest Region, for AGCO.
Peterson began his career in 1978 by taking over the family tree fruit farm in Kingsburg, CA, when his father died. In the aftermath of devastating market conditions in 1985, the family farm went under and Peterson went to work for another company to support the family. In 1989, Peterson Family Farm started over as a service provider — packing fruit for neighbors, raising chickens, and also growing some stone fruit.
During that time, Peterson was part of a group that started Kingsburg Community Assistance Program, helping people in some of the region’s impoverished rural communities. The program, now nearly 30 years old, runs thrift stores providing residents the opportunity to buy gently used clothes and also funds services including counseling, English classes, a food pantry, and energy bill assistance. Peterson has served on the board since its inception.
In 2002, Peterson and his son Erik began the three-year transition to organic certification of their farm. What started as a business decision to grow organic fruits has proven to be the foundation of Peterson’s commitment to organic fresh fruit production. While not an easy road — the three-year transition period and additional expenses of farming organically while selling produce as conventionally grown — Peterson and his son understood they needed to approach production in a different manner to keep the farm economically viable.
“I wouldn’t have given you even money that we’d have made it,” Peterson said. “Back when we decided to go organic, we didn’t do it to save the planet. We did it to save the family farm.”
Paired with his passion for organic farming is Peterson’s commitment to the farmer’s economic viability.
“Our mission is to make the world better in lots of ways,” Peterson said. “We’ve been commissioned to do this by our customers and our creator. But if there’s no margin, there’s no mission.”
Peterson’s dedication and commitment to organics and service to the community has not gone unnoticed by leaders of the organic industry.
“Vernon Peterson never hesitates to tell it like it is,” CCOF Executive Director/CEO Cathy Calfo said. “He is all about organic and what organic means to the success of his family farm and to California agriculture. Farming — and organic — are better because we have Vern on our side.”
More than 10 years ago, Peterson started Abundant Harvest Organics, a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Today the CSA has 4,000 subscribers in 140 communities from Fresno to San Diego.
To build the program, Peterson brought together an alliance of organic farmers, who bring produce to his packing house, sort into boxes and deliver to pick-up locations throughout the state. With an eye to the growing value-added, direct-to-consumer movement, Abundant Harvest Organics has also begun putting together ready-made meals.
“We’ve been able to help so many little guys get going and keep going,” Peterson said. “That’s really gratifying. And our CSA customers love us to death. The real challenge is how do we connect to the consumer and help them understand the value of what we do and the food we grow when most of what we sell is not going directly to the consumer.”
As a vocal proponent of organic farming, Peterson believes educating consumers remains one of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — for the industry.
“We need to talk about how the interconnectedness of what we eat affects everything,” he said. “It’s not just about the nutritional value of the organic potato. It’s also about the way the people who work on the farm were compensated, how they were treated, and the way the land where the potato was grown was singing with a lively ecosystem. There’s immense power in that organic potato for your health and the health of the land.”