Cook Family Farms is a story of transitions. Its evolution from a dairy farm at the start to a farm known for its sustainable practices today is just one of them. Cindy Cook herself is also part of that transition. “I grew up in Portland. I didn’t know the difference between beans and corn except they tasted different and came in a can,” remarks Cook. Marrying a farmer, Gary Cook, and adopting a new way of life was an eye-opening experience for her. “I was shocked to see that there was much more to it when I came to the farm,” Cook says, “it opened up a whole new world for me.” That whole new world would quickly become a way of life and a window to the future.
Cook Family Farms is a fourth generation farm. Gary’s grandfather Darwin Cook moved down from Salem in the 1940’s to start a dairy farm in the Dever Conner area near Albany. The farm is still located in the exact same spot today, perhaps the only consistency amongst the many changes it has seen.
In the early 1950s the farm transitioned to a row crop farm, and in the late 1950s, after being in the military, Gary’s father Elmer took over the farm. Gary was raised on the farm, and the Cooks still live in the house he grew up in. In 1979 Gary began to farm full time and Cook Family Farms became incorporated. Today, Cindy, Gary and their son Matthew work on the farm, a farm that’s teeming with crops and sustainable practices.
Its 1,000 acres read like a who’s who list of Oregon agriculture crops. Hazelnuts, peppermint and grass seed, specifically tall fescue and some perennial ryegrass, with an array of vegetables. Peas, green beans, broccoli, sweet corn and cauliflower are all grown for processing, the top grossing of these being sweet corn.
For Cindy, the diversity makes it hard to pick a favorite. “Broccoli and hazelnuts, because they both taste so good,” says Cook upon reflection. The farm also grows a variety of specialty vegetable seeds for various companies. Radish, butternut squash, parsley, onion and cucumber seeds are grown for a California company that ships them oversees, and sugar beet seeds are grown for a separate U.S. company. All of Cook Family Farms’ vegetable crops are grown for NORPAC and are certified sustainable by the Oregon Food Alliance.
Becoming certified sustainable might seem as easy as plastering a label on products, but this certification process requires meeting a long list of criteria. The list involves everything from meeting good working conditions and safety down to protecting soil erosion and using as little chemicals as possible. As such, it’s a label the Cooks are proud to have. “We use as little chemicals and fertilizer as we possibly can to grow a crop that is a quality crop that we can take in to process,” says Cook.
All of the chemicals and fertilizers used are USDA approved, and the farm’s practices are counterpoints to the negative views of farming that exist. “We’re the last people who want to take all the nutrients out of the soil because that’s how we make our living,” says Cook. Cook Family Farms rotates its crops and each crop produces different nutrients, so this is better for the soil. With their sustainable crops it’s all about protecting the soil and protecting the environment.
In fact, their primary goal is to run the farm sustainably and profitably and provide quality grown product with as little impact to the environment as possible. The Cooks run a riparian zone down along the banks of the Willamette River that border their property. Here, the family works with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon State University Extension to protect the river and its different tributaries and restore wildlife habitats. Their ultimate goal is to keep the river banks as close as possible to the original banks and replant native plants. This goal not only serves their farm and crops well, but serves others and the environment positively, now and into the future.
Sustainability is an ongoing project at Cook Family Farms, and the Cook family is involved in more ways than one. Matthew is a member of both groups involved in the river project, attending meetings for each of them. Gary is on the NORPAC board and Cindy is a new member of the ABC Board of Directors this year. “I’m very happy to be involved,” says Cook, “Ag covers a wide range of things in Oregon but actually being a farmer and being able to share that is a big thing.”
She also hopes to participate in ABC’s Adopt a Farmer program, sharing her love of farming and its sustainable practices with a middle school science class. “In this way we can help them understand that we love the land, we’re out to protect it, we feed people and we’re out to do the best we can.” Transitions mean a lot to Cook Family Farms. Cindy transitioned from city to farm and the farm itself has become a sustainable oasis under the Cook family’s care. “It’s not just a job for us, it’s a way of life,” says Cook, “we love what we do and we’re very fortunate.”