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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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This organic radish went to the farmers market ...

Seattle Times staff reporter

MONROE — Songbirds warble as Mayra Lamiña tugs rosy radishes from the ground. Brett Blair strides past misty fields of crops with his clipboard. Salomon Encarnacion's scissors snip through green stems of baby bok choy in the cool morning air.

It's 7:30 a.m. on a sunny Friday, and that means there's less than 24 hours before nearly a ton of produce packed neatly in plastic bins will leave Willie Green's Organic Farm, bound for a weekend of urban farmers markets.

For city dwellers, a visit to an open-air market is a leisurely experience. For farmers and their staffs, a day at the market is the culmination of hours of work the day before — harvesting, bunching, cleaning, packing, moving and, finally, selling the fruits of their labor.

They say life on the farm has yet to get truly crazy. Still, many hours remain this June day before the farm's organic bounty is ready to end up on someone's dinner table.

The crew of about a dozen is harvesting to fill a salad order from wholesaler Charlie's Produce, to pack boxes for subscribers to a weekly produce-buying program and to prepare for five weekend farmers markets: Broadway, University District, Magnolia, West Seattle and Lake Forest Park.

Farm interns Lamiña, Erasmo Vasquez and Anil Godara are crouched low, bundling radishes together with blue bands. They hail from Ecuador, Peru and India, respectively, and are living on the farm this year to study organic agriculture.

Encarnacion, from Mexico, gathers baby bok choy to add to his neat pile nearby. Around the farm, workers pluck sugar snap peas from vines, pull up baby carrots and cut rhubarb.

Overseeing everyone is Blair, the farm manager. It's his sixth year at Willie Green's, working for family friend and owner Jeff Miller. Blair, 24, graduated from high school in Monroe on a Thursday and began work at the farm the following Monday, wanting to see the world. And he has: Winters off have meant trips to Costa Rica, Europe and Asia.

On the job, he's always in motion: fueling a cutting machine in a shed; taking orders from a produce wholesaler on his cellphone; conferring with staff about the day's harvest; helping to rinse huge buckets of salad and place them in a gigantic salad spinner to dry.

All day he calculates how many heads of lettuce they'll need to pick, which rows of arugula and spinach are ready for cutting, when customers can expect strawberries, sunchokes and plums. On this day he eyes a cluster of clouds warily. A hailstorm last spring wiped out three weeks of the farm's harvest, he said. Now he can spot the difference between a cloud that carries heavy rain and one that bears ice.

He rarely gets to the markets to witness the delight on customer's faces when they spot the season's first strawberries — there's too much to do. His sisters go instead.

Around 9 a.m., Blair starts up a cutting machine that shears the tops of mizuna, red Russian kale, tatsoi and other greens. The bright leaves ride up a conveyor belt and cascade into a big plastic bin as the cutter rumbles along the rows.

When the bins fill, Blair hauls them to a large shed where they ride up another conveyor belt and through a rinsing machine. Then, it's into an industrial-size salad spinner and a chiller for the big bins of leaves, where fans help evaporate even more moisture, leaving them crisp for customers.

It's noon now and time for a quick lunch from home. And soon after, workers begin hauling in carrots, baby bok choy and other vegetables to rinse off lingering dirt in big metal tubs.

In the hours to come, the floor of the shed is lined with cardboard boxes and plastic bins with lids. The crew arranges and packs the vegetables, fruit and greens precisely. Blair and assistant farm manager Arturo Lopez wash even more greens, and then Blair and the trio of interns dash out for another round of cutting (in a sudden downpour) to fill that salad order. The crew finally call it a night around 6 p.m. — more than 10 hours after the day began.

When there's no farmers market the following day they weed and fertilize the fields, build trellises for tomatoes, transplant starts from greenhouses to the fields and seed new crops.

Long days grow longer

By July, the height of the season, Lamiña, Blair, Encarnacion and the rest of the farm crew will begin work nearly two hours earlier, heading with the sun into the fields of the Tualco Valley to pick, wash and pack berries, beans, baby carrots and the farm's popular organic salad greens, turning in after sunset.

July and August are the crazy months, with no days off, unless it's absolutely pouring rain. And then there's always work to be done in the greenhouses.

Farming, Blair says, is a lot of problem solving.

"There's so many things you just do because you know they have to be done. You have to know what to cut, when to plant, when it's ready. Or that it's definitely going to be worth weeding now."

A recent Saturday turns out to be a cool, bright morning. Workers drift onto the farm by 6:30 a.m. to load dozens of green, red, yellow and gray plastic bins into a pair of trucks bound for the U-District and Magnolia. In mid-summer, the crew will double in size to handle the bounty.

Owner Jeff Miller has farmed in the Northwest for 20 years, after working in San Francisco as a chef. He began raising organic produce on a few acres of leased land, then expanded over the years as demand grew. He now has about 40 acres in cultivation, spread over three spots in Monroe.

The boom in organic produce has meant four profitable years for Miller, who, like many farmers, appreciates the higher profit margins of selling direct to consumers. But next year he plans to also hold special events and weddings at the farm, to diversify his business.

At the market

The U-District market already is a flurry of activity when Miller, family friend Kate Henrich and Godara, one of the interns, pull up a white truck around 7:45 a.m. Out come bins, tables, baskets. The tents are popped up, tablecloths matched, the sign in front hung just-so.

"It's got to stand out. We don't want to look like everybody else's table," Miller says.

Miller directs the placement of each container — carrots here, arugula there — for easy access when things run out during the day.

And run out they do. Miller has sold at this market for about 14 years. Shoppers make a beeline for his stand with its bright, striped tablecloths and neat baskets, especially when they spot organic strawberries and sugar snap peas, among the most coveted produce of the day.

"They've got the best sugar snap peas this side of the planet," says Paul Rogers of Seattle. He fills a plastic bag and stands at the cash box, waiting for sales to begin at 9 a.m.

A line begins snaking out of the tent. It doesn't lag until after 10 a.m., when customers ebb and flow like waves. The strawberries are gone. The peas are gone. Henrich and Godara hustle to refill empty baskets with bags of salad mix and broccoli, trying never to let a basket empty.

The market ends at 2 p.m., and most everything is sold. But several hours of work remain for Miller and his crew. Though they've been stacking empty bins in the truck all day there are tents to collapse, baskets to gather, records to keep, produce to stash. They must wait to leave even on hot summer days when they sell out early, just so they can ease the truck through the crowd of stands around them.

They make it home to Monroe several hours later. The next morning, they'll do it all again.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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