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
April 21, 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 The
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
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