Life on the organic garden was a revelation to me. We grew hundreds of kinds of plants, from burgundy artichokes to striped Lebanese zucchinis. John, the owner of the garden, was a wealthy man with a very well developed sense of taste. We grew just about every kind of herb, fruit, and vegetable that we could as he set out to create for himself a gourmet's paradise. We sold some of the produce to fancy bay area restaurants. The opportunity to meet so many people who were passionate about food taught me to look at food as something more than fuel. Food could be fun. Food could be sexy. Food could be political. The farm was beautiful. And soon the wealthy owner was not so wealthy. The garden was not covering costs. John farmed until the money ran out and I left a little wiser, seeing how business interests can never be completely subservient to lifestyle issues. I also left with a real appreciation for vegetables I hadn't even known existed before, and the determination to become a grower of organic specialty vegetables.
After working for a couple of other vegetable farms, I moved here to our place when my grandmother passed away. My father was concerned that vandals would damage the house. As my grandfather had grown into his 90's he had given up on his herd of sheep. The fields were covered in weeds, bushes, and poison oak. The well was caving in and the barn was falling down. The old place was still beautiful with redwood trees and oaks, deer, raccoons and quail, but it had a nostalgic feel to it, as though its time had passed. I looked around me, thinking about what I could possibly do to make the place pay for itself. I had no money, the family was considering selling the farm, and it seemed a shame to see it go.
|Andy and Julia's wedding day|
Before I figured out how to make this place pay for itself, I was lucky enough to find another situation that could pay for it. I had begun farming with a series of partners in the Pajaro Valley. The first venture was a bust; for a year I worked 12 to 14 hours a day, earning about $14,000 and a whole lot of grief. But the second venture was a success. Starting out as a harvest foreman at Riverside Farms, I worked my way up to partner and the business exploded. We were producing organic salad greens just when the market was getting hot. From ten employees we went to 25 and then to 250. From seven acres we grew to 30 and finally over 700 acres. It was exciting and profitable, but it was also a headache. I was the head of personnel, so sooner or later everybody's problems became mine. I became well versed in all of the ins and outs of big business agriculture. With 250 farm workers on the payroll, someone is in jail on any given day. I had every probation officer's name and number in my Rolodex. My new endeavor became all the drudgery of worker's compensation, unemployment insurance and billions of employee-related forms and files. When Julia and I got married in our garden, drunks showed up at our party looking for work. I gave them glasses of champagne and told them to go to the office on Monday and fill out applications. It was organic farming on a big scale, but it was all business and no time was left over for my family. For my own well being, I saw how business issues should never triumph completely over living well.
When my partners and I sold the company, Julia and I were able to buy most of the family property here from my uncle and sister. My parents gifted us the rest and finally we had our own little homestead.
For two years I continued farming with my old partner in a venture we called Happy Boy Farms, where we sold our crops primarily through farmers markets. As an afterthought to help our cash flow, we began a CSA program and got an enthusiastic reception from the shareholders.
A successful farm doesn't start with a love for the land and it doesn't start with enjoying the outdoor life. A successful farm starts with a good business plan. At Happy Boy Farms we planned to make our living off farmers market sales. When El Niño hit last winter, not only were our fields flooded but our clients in the farmers markets were washed away. I love farmers market and I've met many interesting people there, but you have to be crazy to buy your food in a downpour. Although the Bay Area is full of benevolent weirdoes, there weren't enough crazy people buying vegetables in the rain to keep our cash flow going. In the spring we broke up our partnership.
|Graydon and Lena help out with the machinery|
Julia and I elected to keep the CSA program going and we moved the office into our house. We called this new venture Mariquita Farm, after the Spanish word for ladybug. If anything says small, cute, busy and organic, it's a ladybug. The name had a nice ring to it and "ladybug" in English was already taken. We owe a lot to the Hispanic people who have worked with us at Riverside Farm, Happy Boy Farm, and our new farm; a Spanish name seemed like a way to acknowledge that relationship.
This past year was difficult, but we got our computers up and running, we got a cooler built, we made a lot of tractor and truck payments and we survived. We learned how to put together a newsletter and how to work together. We learned how to grow new crops and we had some crop failures we won't repeat. We choked our learning experiences down and have crafted a new business plan that we hope will take advantage of all we have learned.
I have put together a planting schedule based around what I know this land can support. Because we have deer, water, gopher and weed problems here, the home ranch is being planted out in drought tolerant perennial herbs and flowers. The herbs are too strongly flavored for the deer. Additionally, we will grow a few select vegetable crops such as summer squash and pole beans. To add variety and spice to the shares, we will deliver a different herb every week. To help us beat the bottom line, the excess herbs will be sold wholesale to organic herb companies.
Watsonville is cool, so for hot weather crops in the summer and for an early start in the spring, we will continue to rent two acres of greenhouse that border our property. Here we can plant on schedule whether it rains or not. Here we can grow tasty melons, eggplants, tomatoes or cucumbers in foggy weather. And here, when in the dead of winter it's not possible to grow enough crops to support a CSA, we can grow herbs to help us with our business.
In Aromas we'll continue to farm strawberries and do some of the outdoor crops that require lots of land. The 15 acres we rent are flat and easily cultivated. Here we can grow squashes, potatoes, corn and dry beans. Taken together, our program will be based on almost 20 acres of land, enough to support quite a long list of crops for our shareholders from April through November.
Julia has been working on tightening up the management of our business. This effort ranges from whipping me into shape to whipping the customers into shape. Yes, there are a few new rules. There have to be if we are going to make this business work. Please read the guidelines she has established. If you are still interested, please join us as we continue to develop our farm and our service. We promise you fresh, organically grown vegetables and fruits. We promise you good recipes and an interesting newsletter that will inform you about the production of your food. We promise you fair prices and a commitment to quality. And we promise we will do our best to make you happy.