Major league baseball player Jayson Werth doesn’t look like an organic farmer—especially when he’s at the plate or in the outfield in his Washington Nationals uniform. But, looks can be deceiving.
The star hitter and outfielder has batted in almost 800 runs, hit more than 200 home runs and helped win a World Series in his now 15-year major league baseball career. He’s kept his eyes on the ball and on his health, and has eaten organic for more than a decade. And for almost a decade now, he’s also been an organic farmer.
“My dream was to have a farm that matched my philosophy on food and diet. I don’t want toxic chemicals on my crops and my property, and I don’t want toxic chemicals in my or my family’s food,” Werth told attendees of the Organic Trade Association’s Annual Policy Conference in May.
Speaking to the enthusiastic audience of organic stakeholders before he left for Nationals Park to handily help defeat the Seattle Mariners that night, Werth took attendees along his journey—first as a young baseball player trying to stay healthy, to a devoted consumer of organic food, and finally as an organic producer with a 500-acre certified organic corn, soybean and wheat farm in central Illinois.
Werth comes from an athletic family. He’s a third-generation baseball player, and his mom has often said that “all the men in his life have World Series experience.” His mother is a world-class athlete herself, and competed in track in the 1976 Olympic trials.
“I always knew that nutrition was important,” Werth said, but early in his career, he struggled with durability and maintaining his health. “I was having a hard time,” he said.
A college course in health taken by his wife Julia showed the young couple the importance of knowing how the fruits and vegetables they were eating were being grown and the poultry and meat in their diet were raised. “It talked about what’s really going on the plate and into our mouths, and it was eye-opening,” Werth said.
Werth and his wife began to eat as much organic as they could and to eliminate GMO foods as much as possible. His health and his baseball performance improved. “I started eating clean and as much organic produce and grass-fed or organic meat as possible, and my career really started to take off.”
Werth refers to the evolution of his eating habits as his “diet revolution.” He’s taken that revolution into the clubhouse and on the road, hiring a chef to prepare his meals when he’s on road trips and encouraging healthier food in the Nationals’ team kitchen. Werth said he’s been “ahead of the curve” in his devotion to healthy eating, and still does not reflect the majority, but that attitudes and awareness are changing. He reports that the Nationals now have an almost strictly organic kitchen.
Eating organic grows into farming organic
In 2009, Werth purchased his first 280 acres in Illinois—close to Springfield where he was raised, and where much of his family still lives. He admits to not knowing how much he had bitten off. “When we started this thing, we had no idea of what we were getting ourselves into.”
“There wasn’t much of a road map for organic then, so we had our ups and downs. In the beginning we were totally clueless,” said Werth. “The only thing we knew was that we wanted to be organic.”
Werth brought in an organic production consultant early on, and said that was a huge help. The many regulations to follow in organic production, the required paperwork to maintain during the three-year transition period, and the oftentimes lack of resources to help guide a new farmer can be daunting, especially for a full-time professional baseball player new to farming. Werth also works with an on-site farmer who’s in charge of the day-to-day farm activities.
Werth and his team persevered, got through the three-year transition successfully, and his operation was off and running. Werth said he and his farm team are constantly searching for ways to “integrate expert information to optimize productivity, while utilizing the best practices to preserve the land.”
His land holdings have increased to now just under 500 acres of tillable land. He invests in the latest farm equipment designed for organic agriculture, which he claims “is the key to our success.” He’s put up grain bins on his property equal to two years’ production. “We’re looking to grow,” says Werth.
Werth is justifiably proud of what he’s done. “We’ve learned the proper timing of planting, cultivation, tilling and harvesting and a new-found approach to soil health … this has led to higher yields, healthier soils full of nutrients, earthworms and all the kind of things that are supposed to be there, but aren’t in my conventional neighbor’s field just next door.”
Werth’s land also includes an expansive wetland and wildlife preserve on which over a thousand trees, native grasses and food plots have been planted. His team removed over 300 acres of the invasive bush honeysuckle—a major threat to Midwestern forest areas. His farm has recently started raising bees. Because of improvements to the land over the years, the amount of wildlife and biodiversity on Werth’s property have significantly increased.
Recognizing the need for more assistance to transitioning farmers, Werth’s farming company, JW Organics, is putting together a consulting wing to provide advice landowners and farmers who want to go organic. “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 with guidance.”
Werth’s goal is to acquire 1,000 tillable acres by the time he retires from baseball, with the ultimate goal of having 10,000 acres “under management via ownership, consulting or lease agreements.”
The 38-year-old Werth doesn’t want to retire from baseball anytime soon, and he believes that eating organic and healthy will allow him to play until his early 40s. But after that, the athlete, husband, and father of two says he wants to put his attention and energy toward advancing organic.
“As we look toward the future, we know how important it is for this industry to maintain and grow, and that we attack the challenges that currently face us,” Werth told the attendees of the OTA Policy Conference. “Baseball has been my life, but now towards the end of my career, I’m realizing that what it has done really is to help me build toward a better life for my family and others. I’m excited to be part of the growth in solutions that deliver to the organic community and ultimately to the organic consumer.”
Sounds like an organic home run! //
Photo caption: Jayson Werth, shown with Gwendolyn Wyard, holds up a t-shirt marking the Organic PAC event at the Nationals game.