For most people a potato is just a potato.
For Steve and Margaret Ann Walser of Willow Wind Farms, it’s a symbol of international trade.
The Walsers produce organic red, yellow and russet potatoes on 320 acres nestled into a hillside near Ford. They’ve planted the tubers for 18 years, and thrived by selling them to distributors throughout the country.
But lately thriving hasn’t been so easy. With potato-growing organic farms sprouting across the country, the Walsers can no longer get a premium price for their fresh potatoes. Also, fewer distributors are interested in shipping their produce from Washington to the East Coast.
The Walsers have had to adapt. Happily, they found a new outlet: Japan, where organic eating is chic and American-grown products are fast filling grocery store shelves.
This year almost all 6,000 tons of Willow Wind Organic Farms Inc.’s potatoes will be shipped to Japan as hash browns, potato flakes and french fries.
Though an international businessman, Steve Walser is not the typical pin-striped, pan-Pacific peddler. Dressed in cowboy boots and black jeans with his long hair resting on the shoulders of his screamingly bright Hawaiian shirt, Walser stepped out of his fields to meet a tour group of scientists and agronomists recently.
They came to study his techniques of composting a mixture of chicken manure and used bedding straw from the nearby Playfair Race Course. His soil is a rich soft earth that he keeps fertile with the compost and soil-enriching crops of peas, sudan grass and corn.
“He’s one of the ‘granola hippies’ who started the organic movement,” Nancy Taylor, organic inspector for the United States Department of Agriculture, told the tour group that eagerly wandered into the fields to feel and smell the soil.
Walser chuckled at the description but didn’t deny it. “I guess we are one of the pioneers in the region,” he said. “When we first started, we didn’t have a lot in the way of competition.”
They didn’t have a lot of anything. With half an acre, almost no capital, a borrowed tractor and a vision, Walser started farming. He had been driving through the Northwest and stopping at farms to buy fruit and vegetables for an organic produce distributor. After seeing the ugly brown-spotted organic potatoes the farmers had to offer, the potato pioneer found his mission.
“I thought, ‘Wow, these things are really funky. I bet I could do better than this,”’ he said. “I had no idea how to do it. I just asked a lot of questions and wandered around (to farms) a lot.”
He also built a traditional cave-like root cellar where, under the glow of a bare light bulb, he spent a winter sitting on a milk crate, hand-washing his first crop of potatoes and weighing them on a baby scale.
“I think we grossed $3,200 that first year,” he said. It wasn’t enough to break even.
He tried again the next year. Though he still didn’t see a profit, he did see places to improve. By the third year, the farm had grown to 35 acres and the Walsers started making money. They named their business Willow Wind Farms because their children loved to play in the backyard willow and were in the midst of bedtime readings of “Wind in the Willows.”
Since then, the Walsers have reaped both success and savvy. Other organic farmers consult with them on raising crops, fighting pests, caring for the soil and finding customers.
Six years ago Walser became aware of the growing Japanese market for organic produce. Dealing with distributors sporadically at first, he now sells almost exclusively to a U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company and can’t supply enough potato products for his customers across the Pacific.
“Japan is of itself kind of an interesting market,” said Henry Michael, administrator of the Washington State Potato Commission, a Moses Lake-based promoter of potato sales and research. “We enjoy a huge processed potato market to Japan. They’re a big buyer.”
The westernization of Japanese eating habits is causing fast-food outlets to pop up in Japan and other parts of the Pacific Rim.
“That means french fries,” Michael said. “It’s a good trend.” In a time when potato prices are sinking, potato sales in Asia help Washington farmers stay afloat, he said.
Asian sales are also helping organic farmers.
“In the last year or so the Japanese market (for organic food) started growing really rapidly,” said Hiroshi Osaki, production manager for Grandview-based Shonan U.S.A. Inc., which exports organic vegetable juice to Japan. “People have started to be more health-conscious.”
Walser’s new Japanese customers have joined the ranks of the agronomists and other organic farmers and now stop regularly to observe and take pictures of the Willow Winds Farm.
“They come in all the time,” Walser said. “If they really want to be involved in it, they’re involved in it.”
Walser welcomes the attention. He’s always ready to give a tour, though he doesn’t go to great lengths to prepare: “I usually put on a clean T-shirt for them.”
Sharing information and showing the farm is Walser’s way of ensuring the organic trend will last. , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
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