Living Organically: Peach Mountain Organic Farm

 
By Bryn Mooth
Photographs by Julie Kramer
Edible Ohio Valley
Summer 2012

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Above: Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia stand in front of the barn on today’s Peach Mountain Farm. The Silo is covered in Virginia Creeper, a vine that creeps into their barn and prep area. Below: Leslie Garcia shows us one of the last strawberries of the season. Doug Seibert inspects beneficial insects in a cover crop of flowering cilantro that is roughly four feet high. He is conscious of not seeing bare ground on his land and cover crops grow in any row that is not currently in production.

An easy-to-miss driveway juts off a county road north of Spring Valley, Ohio. The gravel lane leads to a modest house tucked in amid tall shade trees. Across the yard stands a barn that’s seemingly held together by its contents: old machine parts, stacks of plastic nursery pots, seed packets, bags of soil amendment. A stooped yet graceful white-haired woman pushes a walker slowly down the pebbly drive, taking in the cool morning air.

This 17-acre Greene County spread is home to Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia (along with Garcia’s 93-year-old mother and a big ol’ farm dog). On seven acres, the pair —business and life partners since 1991 — cultivate a huge variety of vegetables and cut flowers under the Peach Mountain Organics banner. Their farm, certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA), produces enough for Seibert and Garcia to create a simple, sustainable lifestyle on the land.

The farm’s bounty also graces dining tables throughout Montgomery and Greene counties: Seibert and Garcia sell to restaurants in nearby towns, including the popular Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs and The Meadowlark in Dayton. Their ever-changing salad mix is a must-buy at the Saturday morning Yellow Springs farmers’ market; Peach Mountain sells out of its offerings in an hour or two. “I once saw a woman in high heels running across the parking lot to get the last bag of our salad mix before we sold out,” Seibert says, laughing.

Peach Mountain is surprisingly productive: last season, they harvested just under a ton of salad mix. More than a thousand bunches of kale (“we did kale before kale was cool,” Garcia says). More than 4,000 pounds of tomatoes came out of just one greenhouse. Last fall, they planted 1,000 pounds of garlic, which this summer will yield perhaps five times that. Squash, greens of all kinds, onions, strawberries, herbs, potatoes … the list goes on. Organic certification requires detailed record-keeping of every input (seed, soil amendments, pest control, planting dates) and output.

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The Business of Farming
Think about the business model for a moment: About 22 tillable acres (Garcia and Seibert have a nearby property with 15 acres under cultivation). The expenses of organic seed, soil amendments and pest management. Two highly limited sales channels: a single farmers’ market stand and a handful of restaurant accounts. A seasonal production cycle.

How in the world can anyone make even a bare-bones living raising vegetables organically? The secret, says Seibert: no debt.

By purchasing their land outright (the latest parcel at auction for a favorable price), buying used equipment and a secondhand greenhouse (deconstructed, moved and rebuilt by Doug), and keeping their staff to a minimum (two full-time summer employees), Seibert and Garcia have withstood the variability of weather and the volatility of expenses. They haven’t raised their market prices since 1991.

To be sure, the couple have a huge “soft” investment in the farm — namely, in their own labor. Farming, organically or not, is a 24/7 venture pretty much year-round. The couple seems content to take no more than they need, maintaining a simple lifestyle, and even managing to put away a bit of money to buy a small farm property in Washington State near Seibert’s grown son. They have a tidy nest egg; what’s left of any profit is reinvested in the farm. “We’ve never had a losing season,” Garcia says. “Our worst season, we each got about $365.” “It’s never been about the money,” Seibert says.

What it is about, though, is satisfying customers and being good stewards of the land. Standing in an open field behind a large triple greenhouse, her salt-and-pepper hair in two braids, Garcia says she and Seibert never for a minute considered farming conventionally. “I read ‘Silent Spring,’” she says. “I saw what happened in Bhopal, India. How many clues do people need?”

At 59, she’s a veteran of organic agriculture. Wary of the dangers of agri-chemicals and dismayed by the conventional teachings of the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, where she spent a year, Garcia began organically farming a few acres in Adams County in her early 20s. That farm was near Peach Mountain, reputed to be Ohio’s second or third largest peak, depending on you you ask, and it lent its name to the current operation.

Neither Garcia nor Seibert come from farm families; Seibert, 62, is a Cincinnati native who attended Wilmington College, where he lived off-campus in a “shack” with a big garden. His early career as a machinist comes in handy; someone’s gotta build the hoop houses and keep the tractor running.

In a large greenhouse and several smaller structures, Seibert and Garcia start nearly all their crops from seed, then transplant directly into the ground in hoop houses or open beds. In addition to the salad mix and Garcia’s gladiolus, which Peach Mountain is well-regarded for, and a whole host of organic produce, the farm sells vegetable and herb plants. Until a few years ago, Garcia also grew bedding plants for retail sale; while that was profitable business, the work was exhausting and the two decided to scale back.

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Fooling Mother Nature
On a cool May morning, rows of healthy tomato plants reach nearly four feet high in a greenhouse. The farm uses a clever rope-and-pulley system to corral the vines: As the tomato plants grow taller, the rope is lowered so the heavy bottom stems coil on the ground, containing the plants and keeping the tomatoes in easy reach for harvesting. Growing tomatoes under cover is expensive, Seibert says, because the close conditions are heaven for aphids, which must be controlled by introducing insects that feed on them.

In a creekside field near the main farm, Garcia picks flowers to arrange for a weekend wedding. Rows and rows of hardneck garlic, planted by hand in the fall, are already sprouting their springtime curlicue scapes. Seibert walks past a patch of cilantro that he let go to seed as a bee pasture; the tall, spindly plants are recognizable only by their strong scent, and they’re humming with insects. Seibert and Garcia use plants like clover, vetch, and field peas for all-season cover, to add nutrients to the soil. “I don’t like bare ground,” Seibert says. “You want that microbiology going on in the soil all the time.”

Organic farming is a carefully managed ecosystem — and while it tries to work within the natural order of things, it’s also a constant battle against nature. They tried raising chickens a couple of years ago, Garcia says, but the raccoons systematically picked off the flock. She points to a bed of lettuce that’s speckled with maple sproutlings, thanks to the huge trees that frame the farm. “Mother Nature wants to take over all the time,” she says. “We try to have a lot of crop diversity, but in the end, farming isn’t all that compatible with nature.”

Trial-and-error and sharing knowledge help Seibert and Garcia in this constant struggle to both sustain and control natural forces. Their success with the former and generosity with the latter have earned the two recognition and admiration from their fellow farmers. In February, OEFFA awarded them the Stewardship Award, its highest honor. Growers throughout the region cite Seibert as a mentor. “People ask me questions all the time, and I’m always happy to share what we’ve learned,” Seibert says.

Market Ecosystem
On a warming Saturday morning, there’s a line at the Peach Mountain Organics booth at the Yellow Springs farmers’ market. Seibert has pulled up a panel truck full of produce; customers snatch up salad mix and other seasonal goodies.

This single market pulls in three-fifths of Peach Mountain Organics’ annual revenue. “When we first started, farmers’ markets were at the bottom of a downward trend,” Seibert says. They’ve taken a calculated risk by investing in a single retail venue rather than participating in multiple markets or launching a CSA program, which they feel would compete with their Yellow Springs presence. “We do one market, and we do a big deal,” he says. “We spend two days getting ready for Saturday.”

Customers are loyal to Peach Mountain because of their organic, high-quality product. Like the environment, a farmers’ market is its own ecosystem, with vendors working in concert to draw big crowds that benefit everyone. Too few farmers and customers don’t come; too little variety and the farmers compete. Seibert and Garcia are always evaluating what to grow, in what quantity, and how much to bring to market. They raise cost-intensive crops like herbs and greenhouse tomatoes because they know demand is high. “A farmer can’t stand there all day and sell $100 worth of produce,” Doug says. “We want to sell out. It’s a fragile balance.” 

Bryn Mooth is an independent journalist and copywriter focused on food, wellness, and creativity, and she shares recipes on her amazing, consistent, and timely blog Writes4food.com. Cultivators is her standing column in Edible Ohio Valley, where she brings you the stories, in words and pictures, of the growers, producers, bakers, cooks, and vendors who bring great local food to our Ohio Valley tables.