Dirt, Food, People, and Money
Diversity is a buzzword. But just because “diversity” has become a politically correct term with its edges worn smooth from use doesn’t mean that the concept is any less valuable. In fact, when I think about my life, my farm, my business, and the customers I serve it becomes apparent that respect for diversity is the key to the future. Diversity is a natural law; ignore it and pay the fine. Let’s look at how the value of diversity ties together disparate notions of environmental sensitivity, demographic reality, and economic necessity. But enough of the long words; I’m talking here about dirt, food, people and money.
My formal education in agriculture ended with the sale of my show steer at the Tri-County Fair in King City and my graduation from the Carmel High School Future Farmers of America Vocational Ag Program. I produce my vegetable crops using organic practices because that’s how I learned to farm from the farmers who hired me on as a farmhand. As I’ve grown in the business I’ve stuck with organic practices because they conform to the best environmental science as I understand it and because I have faith that farming without dependency on toxic chemical is the best way to go for me, my workers, and the customers who support our efforts. An appreciation for the value of diversity is a core element of a grounded, “organic” mindset.
Organic farmers act on the belief that if they care for the soil then the soil will care for them. Care of the soil does not end, or even begin, with adding fertilizer. Soil is a living thing, an ecosystem, a complex bioactive medium, and a renewable resource. Each plant family draws a certain spectrum of minerals and nutrients from the soil, and each plant family attracts and hosts certain pathogens. Organic growers rotate crops to avoid depleting the soil or increasing the population of pests. At Mariquita Farm we take each piece of ground on a cycle through the Alliaceae, Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Chenopodiaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Fabaceae, Gramineae, the Solanaceae etc. These Latin words are only botanical words for common plants; we rotate crops from the onion family, through the carrot family, the lettuce family, the cabbage family, the beet family, the squash family, the pea family, the corn family, the tomato family, and so on. Crop diversity is intelligent soils management.
There is a natural affinity between small farms, organic farming practices, and Community Supported Agriculture. True, every form of agriculture is supported by some sort of community. Large scale monoculture operations, for example, like cotton farms, wheat farms, or corn farms, depend on the support of a complex “community” of barge captains, silo operators, commodity futures traders, bankers, diplomats, and politicians. But a little farm like mine depends on support from the local community. Good organic practice demands that we grow a wide range of crops. And by delivering a diverse harvest of vegetables over the season we hope to keep your interest in our produce alive. Nobody wants to eat the same thing every week. If we fail to satisfy their expectations we lose them, and they are not always easy to please. Talk about “diversity;” There is no “average Mariquita Farm customer.” You all are the actual picture of diversity!
There were at least a hundred people who showed up at the last tomato U-Pick we hosted in our Hollister fields and I heard at least six languages being spoken. Every cultural tradition has its own food preferences; just to make a gross generalization, for example, East Indians tend to appreciate eggplant, while your standard issue, white bread gringo like me doesn’t always know what to do with it. I’ve had to learn. Some people demand spicy peppers while others barely tolerate them. We have to grow diverse crops for the soil, and we have to grow diverse crops to appeal to the wide range of people that live in the Bay Area. A pleasant side effect of the diversity in the field is that our everyday chores tending these different crops vary from hour to hour, and that keeps life interesting.
The crops themselves demand of the farm that we have a business plan that looks to a diverse customer base. Our CSA shareholders serve as our bankers. CSA is an awkward acronym that stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” Our CSA subscribers advance us monies several times throughout the season that we use to push production forward and we repay them with weekly deliveries of “interesting boxes” of the produce that they have helped to produce. Without our CSA supporters we wouldn’t be able to employ our workers all year long, pay our rents, or invest in equipment.
Crop diversity can be an advantage when dealing with pests, but it can be a challenge too. Strawberries, summer squash, tomatoes, and peppers, for example, need to be harvested several times each week. We harvest Tuesday for Wednesday’s CSA veggie box delivery, and pick on Wednesday for Thursday’s box, but what do we do with the crops we need to pick on Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday? Some CSA farms in our position go to a farmers’ market to move their excess product. I choose to sell produce that is not taken up by our Community Supported Agriculture program to restaurants and to offer some of our crops in bulk to people who want to make jam or sauce or pesto through our Ladybug Truck Farm delivery program. My business plan is simple; I sell food to people who cook, be they home cooks, professional cooks, or people who make a hobby of canning, freezing, or drying food. The diversity of the customer base we serve is the key to our survival as a business.
We couldn’t exist without our CSA subscribers, but restaurants are good partners too. Besides helping us to use produce that falls between CSA harvests the chefs help us by inspiring us to try many new and different crops. I didn’t grow up learning about produce but since I started farming I’ve grown everything from agretti to zucchetta rampicante. If you point to a crop in my field chances are strong I can tell you the name of the cook who prompted me to learn how to grow it. I’ve learned a lot about food from the chefs I’ve worked with and their passion is inspiring and infectious. I need the checks the restaurants send me, but the love for their work that they share is important too.
Some of the restaurants we serve have graciously allowed us to use their facilities for our Ladybug Truck Farm bulk deliveries. Thank you Camino, Cotogna, Greens, Incanto, Piccino, Slow Club, Aziza, and Carried Away. Without your generosity and good will we wouldn’t have spaces in the City to park our trucks and distribute our produce. (It’s also nice to finish up a tomato or pepper sale in the evening and find ourselves tired, hungry, and thirsty, but magically parked outside a nice restaurant.) So all in all we count on three sources of cash flow, each operating on a different logic and schedule, which hopefully means there’s always some money coming in to deal with whatever crisis is at hand.
There is strength in diversity. The weather can change. Some seasons the warm weather crops do well, and other seasons the cool weather crops are what pull us through. When we have a number of crops some may fail, but others succeed. The economic climate varies too. Some years people are flush, they eat out a lot and our restaurant business is strong. Sometimes the economy is in the dumps and people go back in greater numbers to cooking at home. Eating never goes out of style but the only constant we can count on with farming is that things will always change. Diversity is the nature of Nature. Diversity is a challenge we cope with and diversity is the tool we use to negotiate our way through a changing world. To everyone in our diverse group of supporters, thank you for being here for us.
Photos above: 1) Andy with his steer in FFA in high school. photo taken by Joan Griffin; 2) Allison, owner of Camino, outside with a vegetable customer. photo by Julia Wiley; 3) CSA pick up site for Mariquita Farm. photo by Andy Griffin
Ladybug Truck Farm Deliveries this week: