Land 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 vegetable packer
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
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover
cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year
April 19, 2005: I can say that after twenty
five years in farming I’ve been to most of the very best
restaurants in San Francisco. Of course, I’ve entered
those establishments through the back door, pushing a hand truck
stacked high with drippy produce boxes and trying to maneuver
my load around grease barrels and sacks of grubby linen. But
that’s life, or my life at any rate. Growing specialty
crops for restaurants has been one of the ways I’ve made
my way in farming from the very beginning. Today my farm has
three distinct streams of income; subscription sales to our
CSA members, a restaurant delivery route and one farmers' market
stall. Choosing which crops best serve these three very distinct
groups of customers with their varied expectations is one of
my biggest challenges. Luckily it gets easier every year.
My business plan is modeled after a three legged stool to
afford me stability in the rough, uneven world that is farming.
The CSA is by far the most important part of my business because
these folks are my underwriters. They're essentially fronting
me the money we need to farm and they need to be paid back
with weekly deliveries of vegetables they can easily use;
lettuces, cabbages, strawberries, onions, etc. Since I never
know exactly how many shares I’ll need to fill (and
I can’t predict how many insects, gophers and mildew
spores I’ll “share” my harvest with) I always
plant more than I’ll need. Surplus produce beyond what
we require for the CSA deliveries is available for our farmers'
market stall. Restaurants are another issue altogether.
The benefits of selling to restaurants go beyond just the
checks they send. Unlike our CSA delivery program, our restaurant
business is active year-round. Having a 12 month work schedule
(and a 12 month cash flow) allows us to keep our entire crew
employed full-time. Having steady work means we can attract
steady workers and minimize the confusion and expense of constantly
training new people. Since we’ve essentially had the
same crew for the last eight years, they are now better than
me at doing almost everything on the farm which frees me up
to do marketing for our CSA program.
I’ve discovered, too, that the most successful restaurants
often have their own in-house promotional tools, like newsletters.
By working with them, I can extend the reach of our own promotional
efforts. We’re always delighted to lend essays or photos
from our newsletters for their web sites and they appreciate
that. From time to time we’ve hosted special farm dinners
with restaurants and those have been good for attracting attention
for everyone involved. And it never hurts our credibility
with our CSA subscribers when they go out for a night in the
big city and find their farm’s name on the menu. We
get instant validity and they take pride in having such great
taste supporting a fine, hifalutin farm.
But restaurants don’t necessarily want the same vegetables
as the general public. Take radishes, for example. Just about
the only time our restaurants will buy red radishes is when
they’re looking for something their Hispanic line cooks
can munch on for lunch. And the kinds of vegetables that are
popular not only change with the seasons, but go in and out
of fashion. Vegetables that get stewed up in a pot, like cabbages,
onions and kales, will never go out of style, but to appeal
to a restaurant, even a fancy place, they’d better be
cheap. We’re happy to sell cheap stock pot veggies but
the real glamour (and promotional utility) of having your
farm’s name on the menu comes from growing more novel
vegetables that stand out on the plate. So we’re faced
with a decision: Just how much time and land are we going
to be able to dedicate to our restaurant program.
To minimize the inconvenience of planting for two different
markets, I’ve adapted my planting schedule for the CSA
to accommodate some of the restaurant’s needs. Take
chard, for example. The rainbow chards like 'Bright Lights'
with their pretty red, yellow, pink, and orange stems are
popular with the general public because they’re pretty.
Americans shop with their eyes. But cook those chards and
the colors get muddy. Besides, the flavor is nothing special.
So instead we grow lots of erbette chard which is very popular
with the restaurants for its marine flavor. (In fact, a restaurant
brought this common Italian variety to our attention.) Encouraging
a restaurant to name a variety they want increases their interest
in the crop, too, just as long as every other restaurant doesn’t
have the same thing on the menu. When we tell our CSA customers
that such and such a restaurants prefers the erbette and even
brought us the seed from Italy, they forget they were ever
dazzled by 'Bright Lights'.
Sometimes the restaurants request items that have little
or no utility for the home cook, like the range of unusual
heirloom chicories they encouraged me to grow last fall. (See
value--and the limits--of fantasy in any farming operation
for more on the chicory and other requests.) But constantly
trying out new crops keeps me interested in what I’m
doing and lets me continue to learn about new foods which
have value just on their own.
And sometimes all I have to do to make a restaurant happy
is harvest an old standby, like rapini, in a different way.
Instead of letting all the rapini mature to the point of budding
the way we might for our CSA customers, we harvest some of
it young as though it were arugula. Tender baby rapini greens
are popular with the restaurants. Beets, turnips and leeks
are three other mainstream crops we can harvest young for
a different twist on a classic crop that appeals to restaurants.
They look especially good served whole on a plate.
Which brings me back to the beginning. It’s getting
easier to plan crops for customers as disparate as fancy chefs
on the one hand and on the go home cooks on the other hand.
Restaurants have changed the way people are eating around
here. They are giving old fashioned crops appreciated for
their flavor a new relevance. Fennel used to be a hard sell,
now people understand it can be used like celery. Spring garlic,
or garlic harvested at the scallion stage, is something our
CSA customers look forward to each spring now, when just 5
years ago it was still something weird. Fava beans are even
popular with CSA members as long as we don’t try to
send them out too often. I love seeing greater acceptance
of the unusual heirloom crops I like to grow. Having a general
public develop with an appetite for distinctive seasonal crops
evens the playing field for small scale growers and keeps
a guy like me from falling off my stool.