Sustainability Award Winner: George and Eiko Vojkovich

When George and Eiko Vojkovich went organic more than 10 years ago, they could not have imagined that their way of life would become fashionable. Yet without people like the Vojkoviches, the "eat local and sustainable" movement couldn't exist. Today, Skagit River Ranch supplies some of the city's top restaurants with organic, grass-fed beef, sustainably raised pork, and free-range eggs. Customers have come to trust the Vojkoviches for their humane treatment of the animals. "Humane treatment, sustainable agriculture, and then organic [certification], in that order. Those are our tenets," says Eiko Vojkovich. If you don't hit the West Seattle or University District farmers markets early enough, you will miss out on the prize cuts. The devoted willingly pay for the difference that the Vojkoviches' meat represents. Just opening a package of their beef transports you to the pastures off Utopia Road in Sedro-Woolley. I swear you can smell the wet alfalfa and clover, the river, the sweet sweat of the farm. This is not meat. This was an animal. This animal lived well and died well, and you paid fairly for it. Years ago, when George was diagnosed with a heart condition doctors believed resulted from either his food or his environment, the Vojkoviches made a choice to change what they ate. That decision in turn led them to sell off all their livestock and institute significant changes at the farm. "Unless you're committed, it's not an easy road," says Eiko. "None of the government systems were set up to handle or support organic ranching." In the beginning, Skagit River Ranch had to ship cattle off to government-approved processing plants to be slaughtered, and could only sell customers its meat in quarters, sides, and whole animals. With the advent of a USDA-approved mobile slaughter unit, the Vojkoviches' cattle could remain on the farm until the very end, dramatically reducing the animals' stress and discomfort. A butcher now works with the mobile slaughter unit, cutting up the meat into the individually packaged loins and steaks the family sells. In turn, their commitment to ethical ranching and organic certification has benefited the ranch, allowing them to sell at farmers markets. The Vojkoviches spend a lot of time talking to customers about their approach to farming—without sounding preachy—and they bring cooks up to the ranch to teach them about butchery and the proper handling of meat. "Sustainability cannot just pertain to sustainable farming," Eiko says. "Ethical, economical, and social sustainability are as much about the farmers and those who help the cycle from farm to table. It doesn't make sense to take care that the soil is healthy if you don't care for the farmers' quality of life." When talking about sustainability, she repeatedly stresses the human relationships that make their way of life possible, from their support staff to their growing customer base. The couple turn down new wholesale customers to make sure they can support those with whom they have an established relationship. In turn, customers contact the ranch when they hear of a flood in the region, asking if the Vojkoviches need help. "The customers sustain us," she says. "It's a bottom-up movement. Ten years ago, when we started with the Mount Vernon farmers market, you had to start a conversation with 'What is organic?' Never mind grain- versus grass-fed. Now we get people grilling us with questions like 'Are the cattle 100 percent pasture-fed?' That just makes me so happy. Right on, customers!"

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