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This week, we sat down to get to know Art Heinemann, the earthy mastermind behind Edible Acres, a nearly 11-acre farm out in Washington State’s Okanogan County.
While during the early 20th century, his lot of land provided nearby miners with vegetables, it eventually evolved into a cattle ranch, and in the late 70's it became an alfalfa field. Today, Art’s Certified Organic farm incorporates techniques like biodynamics and permaculture, and produces an impressive annual array of heirloom produce.
Barn2Door: What’s an average day like for you?
Art: There are phases of work, you know? There’s a rhythm of the seasons. I don’t have an army of people to help me, so I take a long time to plant my field. I start in mid-May with my hot-weather plants, and I’m prepared to protect them if necessary. So, at the beginning of summer I’m still planting. And with planting, I don’t just go and sow a seed. It’s all layered in stages. Most of my things that I plan out are done with transplants (from 'starts') - especially the early stuff.
B2D: Have you always been a farmer?
A: No. Back in the early 60s, I was a track nut. I loved long-distance running. I wanted to improve my performance, and I saw natural foods as a way to do so. I was interested in the natural foods movement before it was popular! I started shopping at the University Avenue co-op in Berkley, in 1963…and it was not the cool thing to do. My friends thought I was crazy, because it wasn’t mainstream.
This current farm is my first and my only farm. I started buying it in 1979, and living on it in 1982. I was actually living in Canada at the time. Which is another experience that gave me insight into farmers, since up there I was dealing with farmers. Before that, it had never occurred to me that you could make money farming. And in Canada, there was a group of people I knew that said you could buy fruit in B.C., and then drive it 1,000 miles, and sell it. And make money! And I thought that was pretty interesting. So I tried it. And that was the first time I made money at anything. I had worked at lower-level jobs, like I was a herdsman on a dairy farm, and other things like that. But when I discovered fruit pedaling, that gave me the desire to actually do it myself. So I came to Washington, and started buying my farm.
But there was a turning point. I was on one of my pedaling trips, and I stopped at this small town, and met a man who said he grew seven acres of watermelons, and that he made $100,000.00 doing it. That sounded like a lot of money to me, so I said “Wow! I didn’t know you could do that.” And he said ‘I’ll sell you my secrets for $500.” And I thought, well I’ll just find them out for myself. I’ll learn it my own way.
B2D: How did you choose your farm name?
A: That’s an interesting question. In my pedaling adventures, I encountered a Russian man who lived in B.C. And he sold the most wonderful tree fruit. And he would tell me about his trips to Vancouver Island, about this place called Edible Island. And that’s where I got my idea for Edible Acres. I thought that sounds neat. I have 10.5 acres.
B2D: Do you have one thing you grow that’s your specialty?
A: It depends who you ask I think. I’m known for growing Petite Gris Melons, and Ha'Ogen Melons and heirloom tomatoes. I was actually Whole Foods’ sole supplier 2003-2004. They dumped their other suppliers and bought my tomatoes exclusively. Unfortunately, the next year, the deer discovered me. And the next few years were just miserable. I didn’t have a fence. In 2008 we put up a fence, and things went back to normal.
B2D: How many varieties of melons do you have?
A: Of fancy melons, or things I’d consider being fancy melons: Petite Gris, Charentais, Ha'Ogen, Orange Honeydew. Those are pretty exciting melons. Outside of those four I also grow Green Honeydews, and Crenshaw melons. And I have a lot of Crane this year.
Also, I have Casabas, Canary Melons, American Cantaloupes, Hales Best Jumbo, Hearts of Gold, Golden Gopher Melon and Schoon's Hardshell. That’s all I can think of off-hand. I had been growing a wider variety of big watermelons, but those became increasingly difficult for me to sell, especially late in the season. So the only big watermelons I’m growing this year are right now, and they’re not going to be on for very long. And the ones following are all smaller. Mickey Lee, Small Shining Light and Golden Honey Cream.
B2D: What three things do you love most about farming?
A: The lifestyle. The peace and quiet. Country living. I’m kind of a back-to-nature type, so that all fits my temperament.
B2D: How do you tell if a melon is ripe? Any tips?
A: It’s usually more difficult early in the year. When the main part of the crop comes in, you get into a rhythm of checking the different signs of maturity. There are quite a few of them actually. Sometimes, you’ll get a false sign if you just rely on one thing. And I don’t claim to always have it right. Sometimes I get a little shy. One thing you can’t do, for example, with a Petite Gris, is you can’t let it go past a certain point. If you let it go past it, you’ve lost it. And there’s a little window if it’s going to have that vine-ripened quality.
B2D: So when you know to slice a melon open?
A: It depends on the melon. Some, like the Crane Melon and the Ha'Ogen, are ready to eat right off the field. But the Petite Gris and the Charentais can’t be done that way. So you have to rely on different indicators. Like, they kind of get a slight buff look. Instead of a bright color, they start to fade a bit. Petite which would be… they do kinda get a slight.. buff look, instead of a bright color. Color starts to fade a bit. Petite Gris actually means little grey melon. So when they go from green to grey they’re ready.
There’s another way you can tell after the fact, so you can actually gauge how you’re doing. The seal of perfection on a Petite Gris is when that little drop of juice comes out of the stem, right where you cut it. That’s always a sign of an excellent melon. Now, that doesn’t mean ready to eat—you still have to wait for that. But it is the sign of the perfect harvest.
B2D: Why do you focus on heirloom varieties?
Because of flavor mostly. I talked to many melon growers, even the commercial growers, and they always insisted that the open-pollinated melons had a better flavor.
B2D: How have you developed such precision in your harvest?
A: Well there are things that confuse it. Such as, when plants are distressed, it can cause the plant to give a false signal. There are several signals, there’s the leaf that comes out right where the vine meets the melon. When that fades, that’s when all the commercial melon catalogues will tell you, it’s time to pick it. And I have been doing that…but I think you can do better than that. Because it’s risky. You can get that pale leaf, but it’s not quite as good as you can get. But you’re taking a chance. When you get that modeled, dark spot on the bottom, you can’t wait any longer. If you wait any longer, you’ll lose it. And there are other indicators too. Like if it feels heavy for its size, then it’s more than likely ripe.
B2D: What’s your future vision for farm?
A: It’s far from what I should be, but it’s definitely making great strides in the right direction. I need to make it more streamlined so that I can do the work, because the permaculture planting that I’ve established is not doable right now, with the methods that I can use. It’s too crowded. I can’t get in there and do the work. So I need to basically refine that and take out the things that are not of any use in the long run. I mean there are a lot of things that are good, but if you let some of them go they can become weeds. So I have to solve those things. My vision is to refine and perfect what I’ve already started.
B2D: What’s your favorite comment you’ve ever heard from a customer?
A: In Wallingford (a neighborhood of Seattle) a woman said something to the effect of “These melons are so good, that there must be a law against them!”