What is the business strategy of the Jones Family Farm on Lopez Island?

The following interview with Nick Jones from the Jones family farm on Lopez Island was transcribed from an audio interview occurring in December 2008.

Please give us an introduction into how the Jones family farm came to be.

The Jones family farm consists of Sarah and I and our two boys. Right now we have three other people working for us more or less full time and we produce mainly protein products. Originally we started off commercial fishing... that was my life and dream. Then I met Sarah who spent her life farming so we segued into farming which was a good complement to the fishing in early years because the seasons were complementary to each other. Combining something like farming which is steady and low profit with commercial fishing which is extremely erratic but can be quite high profit. The two of these occupations worked well for many years. During the fishing season we provided fresh fish and off-season we provided smoked fish to a variety of venues throughout the year. Then we got into farming and raising grass fed beef cattle. We then expanded into hogs, goats, and poultry. As all of this was developing and we started to do better we ended up buying a shellfish farm here on Lopez Island which had been inactive for a little while but still had valid permits which is very important in that sphere.

We bought the shellfish farm approximately 4 years ago now... then we started having children. At this point the fishery started to fall apart. Commercial fishing has its ups and downs and I have no prediction on how long the present down spell will last. When we first got into fishing we rode a really nice cycle of increased abundance and the state was being very accommodating and there were not that many people fishing so we were able to move large volumes of fresh fish. There was still very much a culture of fish preservation and smoking and freezing. A combination of us having children and the fishery business declining starting started to push us out of that. We saw a major change in the way people were buying fish. When we started people would come and buy 10 fish and then put them in the freezer or can them. When we look back now a lot of the folks that we dealt with are gone now. Or they are elderly and they cannot handle that amount of fish. That demographic was made up of people who had grown up fishing themselves or had fishermen in the family and they grew up learning how to deal with large amounts of fish. And now that culture is gone and is being replaced by more of a convenience consumer. All of this is to say that the market has changed and our lives have changed so we are now in the process of getting out of fishing and getting into the farming.

We are now producing the largest amount of grass fed Beef in the county and we do significant amounts of hogs and meat goats and we are getting more into poultry and a little bit of produce. Again as the family grows we are getting into more of that kind of stuff. This brings us to our shellfish farm which is just in the early phases of development and is supplying about twenty restaurants and stores in the county with oysters and clams. And we are very proud to do so. I guess our main motivation extends from the obvious of needing to make a living and wanting a life that we can share with our family to feeling very strongly about the honesty and integrity of producing food as a way of life. We also both for any number of reasons believe very strongly in the historical and community importance of maintaining a functional resource-based economy here. And as developments in the recent months have shown farming as a way of life is starting to look a little better. We are very proud of what we have achieved and we are proud of the participation that we have in the community and the place we have in the community. It has been a fun ride and we are looking forward to doing more. We have been at it for eight years and look at where we are and we are just barely getting started. We are just barely starting to figure out what we are doing. If you talk to folks who have been farming for 40 years they will say the same thing. And that is part of the appeal of it all. So that is our operation in a nutshell.

How much off island business do you do?

An increasing amount, we are working on doing more throughout the winter to even out our cash flow because we all know this county goes through wild swings and we have reached the point where we want to keep our helpers here year-round. We don't want to throttle way back in the winter and then scramble to catch up in the spring. So we have been doing an increasing amount of business off Island and are looking forward to developing that in the years to come. There is a shellfish farm on Orcas that specializes in island sales in the summer and off island sales in the winter. And I think that is a pretty exciting model to pursue.

What new segments in the islands would you like to grow? Would you say it is more the restaurants or the end consumers?

Probably both however more so the restaurants. However with regards to San Juan Island we would prefer to have our products flow through restaurants rather than deal with the consumers directly.

So as far as getting the local hotels and bed and breakfasts buying through you... would you say that is a significant target for your business?

Dealing with smaller local providers has to be a very clear and conscious decision for island businesses. The fit takes extra effort so both sides have to be committed to it. We really pride ourselves in the way that we deal with our customers and the relationships that we have built with our wholesale customers. I think that is largely reflective of the people that we deal with philosophically came around to the idea of working with local providers. It does not make any sense to pursue markets that are not interested in extending themselves to work with a local provider. Once they do make that decision we are here. And we try to let people know that. So I guess in answer to your question, it is our general feeling that the folks that we are not yet dealing with already have local providers or just have not made the conscious decision to start dealing with local providers. So at this point we are focusing more on the off Island markets.

We do sell wholesale in very small volumes. Most restaurant managers are very busy people who have thin margins. Things are very tough in their world and I don't envy them at all. It is not a volume thing for us... it is the question of is that restaurant going to be committed to making one extra call per week. For those folks to call up Sysco or FSA it is so easy for them to have anything delivered. And we cannot begin to compete with that on price or variety. We can certainly compete on quality.

How difficult is it to be a supplier for Sysco or FSA?

That is not viable. The structure is antithetical to atomized systems. What we are trying to build is a countywide atomized distribution network that coordinates with other Island producers and distributors who are circulating to move stuff cheaply and efficiently. One thing that we have done is to commit to hard and fast delivery times to make it easier for the wholesale accounts to deal with us. But I don't think there's any realistic prospect of moving Island grown products through a major distributor anytime in the foreseeable future... it is too complicated and the cultures are just too different.

How much do you work with the farmers markets?

We do the Lopez Island Farmer's market as well as he Orcas Island Farmer's market. It has been a cornerstone of our business less so moving forward. We love the public but the problem with the Farmers market is it is so time consuming. Farming in itself takes every available minute we have. We are in the process of putting in a farm store on Lopez. We also have some very good friends on Orcas... the Harlow's are building a farm store and we will be selling our products there as well. So we are probably going to phase-out of the farmers market. I just realized that for all of the business talk we have not discussed how we produce things. We are essentially grass farmers however we do do some cropping and some forage cropping. We lease about 220 acres of farmland on Lopez Island. We try to focus consciously on restoring the land at the same time as we farm it. Restoring the infrastructure and fertility. We do a multi-species grazing program with cattle, hogs, and goats and we are experimenting with poultry. We try to minimize the amount of fuel that gets burnt and maximize the fertility of the soil and the quality of the grass and the aesthetic resource for Lopez Island as well. We are really proud to be a part of the Lopez tradition of farmers and landscape managers. Then we have our shellfish farm... we are experimenting with various cultivation farms we have a really unique site in the heart of which is a 3 1/2 acre salt water lagoon that is spring fed. So we get this rapid growth that is very rich in plankton. The flavor is totally unique and distinct compared with other shellfish farms in the county and night and day between other shellfish farms in the world. That is another process and product that we are proud of. Shellfish farming cleans the water, provides wildlife habitat, builds beach structure, and it has a wonderful multiplier effect ecologically, economically and culinarily for the county.

Nick, thank you very much for the interview... let's talk again soon.

Sounds good, thank you.

The Jones Family Farm is located at 111 Gallanger Place, Lopez Island, Washington State, 98261. Their phone number is 360-468-0533.

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