The folks at Gabriel Valley Farms in Central Texas are pioneers in organic certified wholesale nursery production. Cathy and Sam Slaughter have been serving Central Texas retail garden centers, landscape companies, and farmers with certified organic plants since 1989. In 2007, they began the process of becoming a certified organic nursery. They received their certification through the Texas Department of Agriculture in 2008. We asked them to share their thoughts about organic production and certification.
The first question we had for them was ‘Why go certified organic?’
Cathy: “We noticed that the public was keenly interested in knowing how their plants were raised and if we used conventional pesticides. With our emphasis on growing edible plants, being certified organic just seemed like the logical direction to go. We believe in organic growing practices and wanted to assure our customers that they were purchasing a healthy, natural product from us. At the time, no organic or natural options were available.”
How did you deal with paving the road as the first certified organic nursery in Texas and meeting all the requirements?
Cathy: “When we got started, our biggest problem was finding a soil mix as good as the conventional one we were using. We also needed a fertilizer. Once we figured out those parts with the help of our supplier, we worked on the application through Texas Department of Agriculture.”
Why didn’t you just make your own soil mix?
Cathy: “You know we did look into making our own soil mix using information from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA-NCAT). At our volume of use, we were making soil all the time. So we sent off for some samples and did some trials but it wasn’t the same. Our supplier talked with the professor who was making the conventional mix we had such success with and we finally had our soil.”
Getting started is often harder but you have saved other farmers a lot by sharing your story. Did you find support during your switch to certified organic?
Cathy: “We actually enjoyed networking and getting advice at the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Conference (TOFGA). It is still overwhelming to fill out the annual report. But we get great help from the sessions on certification at the TOFGA conference. Certification application requires numerous hours to complete. We now have various employees keep daily logs for propagation, fertilizing, pesticide spraying, and production, as it pertains to their specific job.”
What problems did you encounter in the certification process?
Cathy: “The application is geared more towards in-ground produce growers. Greenhouse-nursery growing is a completely different process and it is hard to supply data on the forms that reflects that. We don’t rotate crops, grow cover crops, or grow a specific square footage of a crop. Our operation is continuous throughout the year, not per season.”
The Slaughters admit they also spend time finding new sources for plant stock and seed as well as companies that supply approved pesticides, fertilizers, and other soil amendments. Recording the transactions with suppliers also takes time.
At the beginning of the certification process, Cathy and Sam had no idea there would be so much record keeping and documentation required. The other challenges they mentioned were learning and adapting to the changes that arose with the National Organics Program standards.
So we have to ask, ‘How do you keep up with changes in the National Organics Program standards and find most of your technical information?’
Cathy: “Organic Materials Review Institute, National Organics Program, California Certified Organic Farmers & general internet searches.”
How has the market changed since you first began?
Cathy: “Well, there’s a lot more organic options out there and that’s nice. It has been easy to find places to sell our products and people who buy them will call us. Marketing ourselves has been a big lesson. Our logo and certified organic label is really important to consumers. We enjoy hearing from folks because we don’t get much feed back from wholesale buyers.”
What is one thing you do different now from when you started?
Cathy: “We would have not planned to have a split operation…we are no longer a split operation. Ninety-nine percent of what we grow is fully certified organic. The remainder is ‘naturally grown’ – the original plant stock we order was not certified organic, but when we get it, we grow it the same as the certified organic plants.”
If you would like to learn more about or visit Gabriel Valley Farms, call or email ahead. http://www.gabrielvalleyfarms.com/.