Jim Gerritsen came to Bridgewater, Maine, from the West Coast in 1976 for practical reasons. “The research showed it was the best soil for the best price.”
Forty years later, after growing the Wood Prairie Farm into a successful organic seed business and fighting the likes of Monsanto, Jim and Meg Gerritsen are stepping back a bit and starting the process of passing on the farm to their four children.
“We’re going to still be around, so we’re going to be helping them,” Gerritsen, 61, said. “But what I’ve learned as a parent is you’ve got to give your kids freedom.”
Of two daughters and two sons, 22-year-old Caleb, the second oldest, is taking on a leading role in the 80-acre farm, while Amy and Sarah remain in school and Peter, the oldest, works in carpentry in southern Maine. For now, Caleb is aiming to continue the path of his parents in the organic seed market, which is growing as more gardeners and small farmers seek diverse, quality crops.
Caleb and the family started with a “Barnraiser” crowdfunding campaign that sought to raise $15,000 and secured pledges for $18,730. Most of it is slated to update Wood Prairie Farm’s website, which handles a lot of their seed sales but isn’t smartphone-compatible.
The family also is hoping to raise as much as $50,000 more to pay for fiber-optic Internet, a new barn building and equipment repairs — such as on the 45-year-old tractor that prefers to maintain instead of replace.
“New tractors are boring: They cost a lot of money, and you can’t fix them,” said Caleb, who has a degree in diesel hydraulics.
Jim Gerritsen was drawn to organic farming in the 1970s, just as what he calls “Big Ag” was coming to the fore, with family farms consolidating, growing expansive plots of a few commodity crops and using more synthetic, sometimes toxic fertilizers and pesticides. “Get big or get out” was the philosophy of President Nixon’s agriculture secretary Earl Butz.
Gerritsen grew up in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, where his father and grandfather made a living growing apples, but he knew he wanted to chart his own farming path.
“A lot of us were impacted by Rachel Carson,” he said, mentioning “Silent Spring,” which chronicled the harms of the insecticide DDT. “I read it in high school and concluded that everything is connected to everything else. Then looking at post-World War II experiments to grow foods, it increased yields, but it put poisons into the foods. I thought there had to be a better way.”
Gerritsen dropped out of college in California and came to Bridgewater, where he bought 40 acres and later another 40, and pursued organic farming, then a new concept based on old knowledge and practices — diverse crops, rotations, natural fertilizers and non-toxic pest management, all fueling an agricultural ecosystem with “dynamic resilience,” as Gerritsen put it.
At the new farm, a few miles west of Route 1, Gerritsen planted vegetables, beans, grains, herbs, potatoes and strawberries. Many things grew well, he found, but that didn’t mean he could sell it. Then as now, “The County was a bit of a challenge to market locally in,” he said.
Toward the late 1970s, he realized he could sell to likeminded organic gardeners and farmers anywhere through mail-order sales — the same approach L.L. Bean and other retailers used so successfully. “The beauty of mail-order marketing is that you can be isolated, and that’s a good thing for growing seed.”
In 1984, Jim met Meg, a native of New York’s Dairy Belt who was working on an organic farm in Washington County. The next year they married and started growing the seed business and raising a family. They also took on one of the most powerful agriculture companies in the world and the controversial practice of genetically modified seed production.
As president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Gerritsen helped lead a lawsuit against Monsanto over the issue of GMO seed cross-pollination with organic seed. Organic farmers have long feared GMO seeds will contaminate their seeds and expose them to patent infringement claims from Monsanto, which limits the uses of its seeds.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the group’s full argument but gave what Gerritsen saw as a partial victory, leaving in place an appeal court’s determination that Monsanto abide by assurances not to pursue patent infringement cases against farmers whose seed is cross-pollinated with GMO crops in trace amounts.
With that behind them, the Gerritsens are looking forward, as elders passing on the farm and advocating for the next generation of organic farming.
While there aren’t plans for major changes or new products, Gerritsen said he has some words of advice to his children as the farm evolves.
“Does it taste good and is it suitable for organic?” Those are the two criteria for new varieties and crops. And, work-wise, the question is: “What do you love to do and what is there a market demand for?”
Among other things, Caleb loves to work with machines, his hands and his brain — outdoors and in all seasons.
“It’s the best lifestyle anywhere,” Caleb said. “Farming is all about getting it as good as you can. You’re never going to get it perfect.”