Healthy Grown Grower Feature: Okray Family Farms
Rarely, if ever, is there truly a dull moment in the world of farming. From figuring out what Mother Nature has in store every year to the market and keeping an eye on storage sheds throughout the shipping season, farmers definitely have their work cut out for them.
Its work that is visible to everyone around. Like Jim Okray of Okray Family Farms in Plover says, “Ag is unique in that what we do is seen by the public every day. There is no hiding.”
It was for this reason, along with some others, that lead Okray Family Farms to join WPVGA’s Healthy Grown program in the mid-90’s. At the time, Okray says the farm was also looking for a way to “increase prices and returns with a brand unique to the potato industry;” a brand that offered an alternative to organics. Furthermore, the program had partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to showcase the program’s “green” concepts and attract customers with that mindset.
It’s this eco-friendly aspect of the program Okray says has been highly beneficial. “For me, participating in the eco-environmental part of the program has been great. I think it gives farmers a chance to see beyond the fields and crops, and look at what else is on our farms. I would bet that a lot of farmers don’t realize what lies beyond the rows so to speak,” Okray continues. I think it deepens our connection to the environment around us.
It’s a connection to the environment that is worth the time spent, which Okray says isn’t as much as one might think. “Record keeping is required for other food safety audits, so we already do this. I guess the extra time is mostly spent attending Healthy Grown meeting a few times each year.”
This said, the program isn’t without its challenges. While Okray says it hasn’t been difficult being a Healthy Grown grower, he says the program’s biggest challenge is the program itself. “Getting Healthy Grown out into the marketplace more is the challenge,” Okray states. “It take a lot of money to build a brand, and we don’t have that.” This said, he believes expanding the program to other vegetables and fruit would help with that, but would also be difficult to show value others outside of the program.
“Most changes I have seen are customer/consumer driven,” he says. “If they start asking for us to grow food more sustainably, we can say we already are with Healthy Grown. That may boost participation/acceptance of Healthy Grown, which will survive as long as there is funding for it.”
And given the sometimes hostile environment today’s farmers with members of the public, Okray says strength in numbers, more participation in the Healthy Grown program and additions to the program’s requirement may not be a bad thing. “Too many people think negatively of farmers and how we grow their food. This isn’t going away. Perhaps the addition of water management in the program will shed some light on how farmers manage this resource. Water is becoming a lightning rod and maybe Healthy Grown can be used to help our image as good stewards of the land.”
Finally, if you’re on the fence about whether or not to join the program, Okray says to give it a try. “Don’t be afraid of any extra work, or an inability to grow potatoes mostly how you do already. I spoke with a chemical dealer who still thought Healthy Grown was done the old way with toxicity unit reduction and bans on numerous products. I explained how [the program] is done now, and he was surprised how it had changed. H works with growers and needs to share this with them. I think there are a lot of farmers that don’t understand how Healthy Grown is run today, and how much easier it is to be a Healthy Grown grower.