I had to talk with Nash Huber when I found out he’d been a research chemist before taking up organic farming on the Olympic Peninsula.
There are a couple of reasons for my interest. One is that I enjoy eating and have grown increasingly interested in food I can trust to be wholesome. The other reason is that my son is three months away from graduating with a degree in chemistry and is constantly telling my wife and me what’s in our food that ought not to be.
Huber knows all about the chemical angle, which is why he grows organic. “If it doesn’t have the organic certification on it, you probably shouldn’t be eating it,” he said.
You may have eaten some of his vegetables if you shop at PCC or one of the several farmers markets where he sells, including Ballard and the University District in Seattle.
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He’s well known for his advocacy of independent organic farming, using the winter months to attend various agricultural conferences and spread the word. Last month he participated in a large gathering in California and was one of the “agrarian elders” featured in a New York Times story about the event, which was largely about how they might pass their knowledge to a new generation.
Huber is 72, a pioneer, who said he started the first year-round farmers market in Washington. He’s concerned that it may be too expensive for young people to get into farming the way he did and that not many people have the knowledge it takes anyway.
He was born into a farming family in Illinois, the eldest of seven children. He said young Americans were already leaving farms for city life when he was growing up. “The expectation in the ’50s and ’60s was that everybody was supposed to go to college,” he said Wednesday.
Huber got a degree in organic chemistry and went to work for a corn and soybean processor in the analytical research division. He worked across the hall from the grocery product division, so he’d pop in to see what they were cooking up. He was put off by what they were putting into the pie.
He tried some cherry pie. It looked like pie he’d eaten on the farm, but it sure didn’t taste like it. “You wouldn’t want to know what was in it,” he said.
The turmoil of the 1960s was causing him to re-evaluate a lot of things, including the ways in which farming was changing. It was becoming more industrial and chemical-dependent. He read and was influenced by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” which opened the curtain on the damage pesticides were doing to the environment.
Huber had been in the lab about six years, loved the work and had earned praise for his research, but farming was calling to him. He moved west, fell in love with the Sequim Valley, rented a small farm in 1968 and started growing vegetables.
In the 1970s he moved to Dungeness. The town was drying up, he said, so he started farming a bunch of vacant lots, and he’s been at it since. Now he farms 800 acres with the help of 45 employees. There are 100 acres of vegetables, and the bulk of the land is for wheat, hay, barley and vegetable seed.
He hates that four or five multinational companies control most of the vegetable seeds farmers need.
And he said, “access to land is a huge issue because the housing industry and the development industry has skewed the price of land,” making it too expensive for farming.
Huber helped start the PCC Farmland Trust, which preserves land for future farmers, and sold the trust one of his farms.
When we spoke he’d just gotten back from a gathering at the University of Oregon. He said more than 1,000 people attended, many of them people in their 30s who want to farm. Most of those young people grew up in the suburbs and don’t really know about farming. “Growing up on a farm, you learn a lot by osmosis,” he said.
Still, he’s dedicated to getting more people into farming and doing it in a way that’s good for the environment, for the consumer and for the grower.
Maybe you’ll pick up some of his carrots when they’re in season starting in July. “The varieties we grow are a little different from those California orange sticks,” Huber said. “Those are designed to be hauled down the road. We try to raise something people will enjoy eating.”
His formula is one people really can live with.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com