in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for
the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker
to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king;
Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España,
foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose
España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head
Range of crops: greens, root crops,
tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic,
melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers
market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants
that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping,
crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year
March 31, 2005: The wife of the cardboard box
manufacturer cuts quite a figure at local social and charity events
and I warmly wish that the bubbles never stop streaming up the sides
of her crystal champagne flutes. Let’s all lift our glasses
high to continued prosperity for our friends in the farm supply
sector; we need them. But, I’m not pleased to always be paying
more for waxed cartons. Happily, we at Two Small Farms have been
able to dramatically reduce our use of cartons over the past several
years and that pleases me on a number of levels.
First, our local carton supplier had such a lock on the distribution
of waxed vegetable boxes that they allowed their customer service
to slip to ridiculously low levels. Our farm is an hour south of
San Francisco and Oakland, or, if you’re a football fan, we’re
90 minutes south of both the San Francisco 49'ers and the Oakland
Raiders. I don’t follow football but plenty of my neighbors
do, and most of them, to judge by their jerseys, bumper-stickers,
flags and coffee mugs, are citizens of the “Raider Nation”.
I bring this up only to tell you (this is really true!) that I once
saw the senior clerk at our local carton yard refuse service to
a farm worker who had come to pick up boxes simply because he was
wearing a Niners windbreaker. After witnessing that affront, and
after receiving years of sullen service myself, I began driving
an extra 35 miles to Salinas to buy my cartons from the competition.
I also started trying to think my way out of the cardboard box.
Watsonville is situated along the coast. While politics have not
been kind to the local flower growers and almost all the rose and
carnation farms are now out of business, the cool marine climate
we have favors flower farmers who produce unusual varieties. Bulbs
are big business around here, and almost all the bulbs that are
planted are imported from the Netherlands in sturdy bulb totes.
A commercial flower grower may buy thousands of these totes every
year and be forced to discard them as soon as the bulbs are planted
out. It is uneconomical, given transportation costs, to ship these
totes back to Europe, so they pile up in huge drifts.
At first, bulb farmers were happy to give us the totes for free
because we were doing them a favor by taking them off their hands,
but now they’re charging a dollar or two apiece. I don’t
mind paying because the totes are perfect for harvest and we can
use them over and over and over again. We pick right into the totes
and load them onto our trucks for delivery into the packing shed.
The totes ride well. Each one is designed to rest on top of another
in a stack. And the stacks of full totes are so easy to push around
in the back of the truck or walk in refrigerator we don’t
need a hand-truck to move them.
Our CSA packing shed is really a converted dairy barn with two
levels: one upper level where the cows once stood to be milked and
a lower level where the milkers worked. Once we’re at the
shed we move the full totes up the ramp onto the upper level and
line up the various vegetables we’re going to put in the harvest
share boxes. Then we slip some full totes onto a tilted rack that
has been designed to accommodate them and the pack out begins.
One worker makes up a waxed cardboard carton, inserts a plastic
liner bag, and puts the box on the roller conveyer that runs the
length of the packing line. Another worker reaches into the tote
in front of them, removes a bunch or head or bag of produce, puts
it in the box, and pushes the box down the line. The next item is
placed in the box from a tote, and so on until each of the eight
or nine veggies that makes up the box has been packed. A paper copy
of the week’s newsletter is the last thing to go in before
the carton is closed, stacked and wheeled off to be loaded on the
delivery truck. As the share boxes are loaded, and the totes are
depleted, someone stays on the upper level of the packing station
to keep sliding new, full totes in to replace the empties. Pack
out is fast, and the empty harvest totes are loaded onto a truck
for a return trip to the field.
We still have to use waxed cardboard cartons for the actual deliveries
because we haven’t figured out a way to get enough of the
plastic totes back to make using them economical (our customers
have discovered bulb totes also make wonderful laundry totes). Also,
since bulb totes don’t fold up, we don’t want them cluttering
our pick-up-site host’s yards every week. Still, the bulb
totes have reduced our carton costs dramatically. Now we’re
working on convincing our shareholders to treat their cardboard
boxes with great care so we can use them nine or 10 times. One of
our pick-up site hosts even constructed a great little frame to
contain the boxes in his yard so they aren’t messy and they
don’t blow away.
On a final note, the local carton company finally fired their rotten-spirited
clerk who made doing business with them such a drag and replaced
him with a pleasant woman who is only too happy to take my money.
Because I’m saving so much by purchasing less boxes, my checks
are even good at the bank, and that’s something both me and
the carton maker’s wife can drink to.