The question isn't what does Wade Bennett of Enumclaw do to deserve to be named King County Rural Business of the Year? The question is, what doesn't he do?
Bennett and his wife, Judy, of Rockridge Orchards and Cidery, grow just about anything you can think of on their 100 acres around Enumclaw. They grow bamboo, apples, potatoes, squash, pears, cabbage, beans, tobacco, corn, plums and more. They also make raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and tayberry wine, along with vinegar and soft and hard cider.
They help other farmers in the area. They hire many locals to work for them, including giving many teens their first jobs. Bennett serves on various state boards and is a county activist. They operate a store at 40709 264th Ave. S.E. where they sell not only their own stuff but other local products as well. And they've won other awards in recent years, including farmer of the year and for the beverages they make.
With a resume like that, why wouldn't the Bennetts win?
Well, for one, Bennett said he's up against some heavy hitters who are "brilliant." Olympic Nursery in Woodinville is legendary, and Jubilee Biodynamic Farm Inc. in Carnation is known for being environmental, he said.
So, he really means it when he says he's "won just by being up there with them."
“My priority is build prosperity and get people back to work, and small businesses will lead the way as they create the majority of new jobs in our economy,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in announcing the first King County Executive’s Small Business Awards. “I am pleased to honor small businesses by recognizing the best of them, and celebrating the entrepreneurs who are achieving excellence and putting people back to work.”
Constantine announced 21 finalists in seven categories. Chambers of commerce, cities and business organizations made 125 nominations. Winners will be announced Oct. 12 from 7:15 to 9 a.m. at the Meydenabauer Center in Bellevue. For more information go to: www.kingcounty.gov/SmallBusinessAwards
Bennett started out working in a movie theater chain, and his wife was an accountant. So they have learned farming by trial and error, he said.
"Without education life would get pretty boring," Bennett said, explaining how he's been able to learn how to stagger so many crops on his land. "It all has a niche it fits into," he said, adding the tobacco he grows takes 65 days and is used in cigars. Bennett said he's been able to stay in business when others haven't because of diversification, which he calls the "key to success."
The Bennetts normally hire about 45 workers a year, but because of poor weather, the bad economy and high fuel prices they only hired about half that number this year.
"It's like the perfect storm. Any one of those would be a problem," Judy Bennett said, adding there's also been a lot of elk damage to crops this year.
Judy Bennett said the company is one of the biggest employers of youth in the Enumclaw area. "But I can only handle about five at a time," she said with a laugh.
Judy Bennett said hiring young teens to pick berries, for example, isn't like it used to be when kids would take a bus to the fields and work all day. They were paid by how much they pick. Now, even young kids have to be paid at least minimum wage, which is $8.69 an hour.
"Few kids are worth that much," she said. "You can't get much out of a 12 year old." So, what she does, is have the youngsters work only about an hour a day, explaining kids give 100 percent that first hour, 50 percent effort the second, and it goes downhill from there. "You can't pay them by the bucket anymore," she said. "There's no incentive at all for them to work their butt off."
Judy Bennett said when the kids get old enough to work in fast food, she often loses them. But in a year many come back. "Working at McDonald's sounds charming ... until you work at McDonald's," she said, again laughing.
The Bennetts have a labor-intensive farm, using people to pick their products, rather than machines, because he doesn't want the items damaged.
When you look at Bennett's land, you won't see perfect rows of well-manicured fruits and vegetables. That's because his farm is organic -- no chemicals are used. In some areas it's hard to tell the difference between the plants and the weeds. Bennett uses a farming system called "mulch culture," where crops are mulched along with weeds then buried under 2 or 3 feet of manure to enrich the soil.
Bennett said the use of pure products makes the wine taste even better. "The flavor sells itself," he said, adding his fruit wine doesn't have to maturize in oak barrels like grape wines. "Fruit wine you don't have to age," he said. Bennett also makes apple brandy, although all 2,000 gallons made this year were sold to a Nevada business.
With the economy as bad as it is, Bennett said his business is in a holding pattern. Normally, during a recession, he said he likes to expand his business because it costs less then. But he's being more cautious this time.
He said future plans include building a bigger store and adding an industrial kitchen to lease out for a possible restaurant. He also plans to make more wine and cider.
"We're always moving forward" because if you don't businesses fail, he said. "If we'd have stayed just in fruit trees we would have gone out of business," he added, explaining that they’ve only been making wine and cider for a few years.
Bennett said with food prices going up he can't pass the increase on to customers, "or they will quit buying." So he's had to cut workers instead. To increase jobs, Bennett said the U.S. needs to push fuel prices back to around $3 a gallon. "That would put money back in people's pockets," he said.