“This is really not my forte,” Jayson Werth told the Organic Trade Association’s 2017 Policy Conference Wednesday afternoon in downtown D.C. “I’d actually feel more comfortable facing Mariano Rivera in the World Series than standing up here right now. And I haven’t got any hits off that guy, ever.”
Werth then launched into his keynote address to the group, a speech that touched on his diet, his lifestyle, his entree into the world of organic farming, his challenges in turning his Illinois farm into a sustainable and profitable enterprise, and his goal to throw himself into even larger-scale organic farming and consulting after his baseball career is over.
“When I started this thing, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he told the crowd, speaking of his organic enterprise. “I wasn’t planning on anything. It just happened, organically. … I thought we were just gonna have a nice place for the animals and for us to hang out, and here we are nine years later. So as time goes on and my career winds down, I think I’ll have more opportunities, and I kind of see myself headed in this direction in my next life. But hopefully that’s not too soon. I think I’ve got a few good years in me. And this is my last season in Washington potentially — I’ll be a free agent after this year, and I’m looking to still play every day. So in the meantime, I’m focused on baseball. But long-term, this is where I’m gonna put my attention and put my energy.”
“This” being his organic farming in Illinois, which maybe I should have known about, but I’m not convinced I did. Werth, needless to say, sure seemed to win over the organic policy crowd, leading to an invitation for him to join the group during its Thursday lobbying trip to Capitol Hill.
“We play every day,” he said, apologetically. “I would love to, actually, but we play at 4.” (The Nats game was later moved up to just after noon, but Werth also told the crowd that he might have chores to do at his extensive home organic garden, so he wasn’t sure if he could make it.)
Werth was introduced as “a man that is part of the solution — in the batter’s box, in left field, on the organic farm and throughout his community,” but most of his talk was descriptive rather than prescriptive. He talked about his struggles with health and durability early in his career, how he was looking for an edge, how his wife had her eyes opened about nutrition during a college course. Ten years ago, he told the crowd, “we eliminated gluten and dairy entirely from our lives and tried to stay away from no-organic food and GMOs as much as possible. Once I started eating clean and as much organic produce and grass-fed meat as possible, my career started to take off.”
And so when he purchased 280 acres in central Illinois, he told the crowd, “my dream was to have a farm that matched my philosophy on food and diet. I didn’t want toxic chemicals on my property and my crops, and I still don’t want toxic chemicals on my or my family’s food.”
But his family, he said, was “totally clueless” about farming, knowing only that they wanted to be organic. And so they navigated a world of red tape and regulations, of organic certification and the challenges of farming next to conventional land, a world of financial hurdles and continued problems with fraudulent labeling. Werth cited a recent Washington Post report on mislabeled imported soybeans being marketed as organic, calling it “totally heartbreaking” and “really unsettling, to say the least.”
His farm improved as he found effective consultants familiar with organic practices, he said, and as he invested in improved equipment, which he called the key to his success. The Werths found a way to leave out the fallow-year they had originally used every four years. They improved their soil, increased their yields and saw things turn around. Werth eventually added three more properties, giving him nearly 500 tillable acres. He created an expansive wetland and wildlife preserve, with more than a thousand trees. He removed 300 acres of invasive bush honeysuckle. (Are you still reading? It’s okay if you’re not.) And he saw the critters on his land multiply.
“The neighbors who have lived in the area their whole lives have commented on the incredible changes in wildlife and habitat: grasshoppers, rabbits, squirrels, foxes, deer, quail and recently pheasants — pheasants that we haven’t seen in our area in almost 20 years,” Werth said. “They are all now common inhabitants. We are involved with our local Quails Forever chapter to improve the quail habitat. When I bought my property, there were no quails, we never saw any. Now we have many coveys; when I’m out hunting, I see them all the time. Their population is actually thriving.
“Recent spikes in coyote populations were believed to be the reason for the loss of these animals, but I believe that we have proven that it’s the loss of natural habitat,” he went on. “And coyotes are not welcome down on the farm, either. We do this great thing: we get these pelts made. My wife loves ’em. You know, you throw ‘em over your shoulder when you’re cold, got that whole ‘Game of Thrones’ thing going on.”
There was much laughter at all this. Werth looked around and grinned. “What?” he asked, to more laughter. “Sorry.”
His family has taken up beekeeping, too, and now has four hives. But Werth said making the transition from conventional to organic remains prohibitive for many farmers: they lack the knowledge and the equipment to farm organically, and can’t afford to make the three-year transition. That’s why he said he is forming a consulting wing to help Midwestern farmers transition to organic: his group will provide recommendations in equipment, grains, cultivation, weed prevention, crop rotation, red tape navigation, certification and so on to farmers who want to go organic but don’t know how.
“One thing I know is that people wanting to transition need help and the tools to do so. We’re preparing to help those in need of guidance,” he said to applause.
Werth’s goal, he said, is to acquire 1,000 tillable acres by the time he retires, with the ultimate goal of having 10,000 acres under his management, via direct ownership, consulting or lease arrangements. But there are still many frictions for organic farmers, he said, things like a lack of non-GMO labeling, the empty buffer zones organic farmers have to surrender, the risks of contamination, the high price tags on new equipment and on organic fertilizers and seeds, the insurance disincentives for organic farms compared to traditional. (Are you still reading? It’s okay if you’re not.) None of that is enough to chase him away.
“Baseball has been my life, but now towards the end of my career I am realizing what it has really done is help me build toward a better life for my family and others,” he told the group. “Before today, really, I did not know what I was getting into. And I’ve got to say, thank you for doing all this. I’m happy and glad to be a part of this, because this is something I can get behind.”
Werth said his teammates are increasingly adopting some of his diet preferences, something he has discussed in the past.
“When I got here to Washington seven seasons ago, no one knew anything about anything,” he said. “I was coming from a team in Philadelphia where we had been to two World Series, we were successful, we had a lot of older veteran guys. And when I came here, we had a lot of younger guys that didn’t know a whole lot about anything. There wasn’t much thought to nutrition and training. But now I’m happy to report that the Washington Nationals are one of the few teams that have gone almost strictly organic in the food room and have lots of non-GMO products, and we’ve really made some great strides in that regard. But I think most teams are still very far behind the curve.”
And he indicated he would be increasingly visible as a voice for organic farming and organic products as years go on, and added, “eating organic is vitally important, I think we all can agree to that.” After a bit more than 30 minutes, he signed off.
“Alright, I’ve got to go to work,” he told the crowd. “So see you guys later.”