CAPAY VALLEY, CALIFORNIA: Full Belly Farm

Northern California’s Full Belly Farm redefines what it means to be a family farmer
Despite its 35 full-time workers, 15 retail accounts, 15 wholesale accounts, 650 member CSA and three farmers’ markets almost year ‘round, Full Belly still has the heart and soul of a family farm.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

November 7, 2003: Almonds, arugula, beans, basil and beets. Head lettuce, jalapeños, corn dried or sweet. The list spills off the table, and with it go the names of five cherry tomato varieties, 11 winter squashes, and two pumpkins penciled in on the bottom of the dangling page.

This is the early October pick sheet for Full Belly Farm. It’s long and wide, with eight customers listed across the top to make a block graph of who gets what. The buyers are listed as casual acronyms: ADS, a four-star restaurant in Napa; BOL, an old-school natural foods store; WFSR, a massive grocery, and its neighbor MKT, a farmers market that Full Belly attends 49 weeks a year.

Yes, the farm is in one of the country’s best, all-purpose growing regions: the Capay Valley, west of Sacramento. And yes, that region is privy to some of the most enthusiastic, wealthy organic food customers in the country. But there are plenty of organic vegetable farms struggling in Northern California; moreover, perhaps none has it together like Full Belly. They have 15 wholesale accounts, 15 retail, and a CSA with 650 members. They occupy double-sized stands at two farmers markets and employ 35 full-time workers year-round; in summer that rises to three markets and 50 employees. And the most telling statistic: the owners’ entire income comes from the farm.

Expanding the definition of family farm to families farm

Sounds like Full Belly Inc., but actually it’s still a family farm—just a new version. The owners decided early on that the lone-man-on-a-tractor stereotype wasn’t for them, and that has become their strength. The formula has been one of expanding conventional definitions of what’s important, valuable, and effective. The result is that now, rather than support themselves by a single, strong pillar—one leader, one crop, one market—they have formed a series of webs.

The first step was expanding the most basic definition, to go from a family farm to a families farm. In 1989, when Dru Rivers and Paul Muller had a chance to buy the land they were renting, they brought in Judith Redmond and her husband as partners. “Part of it was financial,” Dru recalls. “But also, we had two young kids and a complex business. We realized we might not make it with just the two of us doing everything.”

Next, the four adopted a strategy of group-decision making. Each has individual priorities—Dru manages the animals, for instance, and Judith is the accountant and computer whiz—but nothing big happens on the farm without a decision made by all four partners. (The fourth is now Andrew Brait, Judith’s current husband.)

“Partnerships are not appealing to most farmers,” Judith says. “They think it’s oppressive to have to make decisions with other people. But I’ve seen over and over that we make better decisions this way. Rather than bearing the stamp of one strong individual person, our choices are guided by a range of considerations and perspectives.”

On a practical level, the partnership divides the weight of running a full-time farm four ways. They split the days when they must rise at 3 am; they get vacations. Plus, they are able to pursue individual interests that would be impossible for a lone proprietor. When last year Paul wanted to grow wheat, he planted four acres just to see if it would work.

An overlapping web of markets, from wholesale and retail to farmers markets and CSAs

Today, Full Belly sells both wheat berries and flour through the farmers markets, the CSA, and the wholesale list. Where the core partnership works because it’s solid and unchanging, this web of different markets draws strength from being dynamic.

The farm originally made the bulk of its money through wholesale, but some years ago, the partners realized that selling to distributors was leaving them unfulfilled. “We were sending things off and the only time we heard back it was negative,” Dru recalled. “We never heard, ‘Oh, this is beautiful.’ It was more, ‘We weren’t happy with this’ or ‘We’re sending it back.’ That got discouraging.”

In 1992 they started a CSA program as a conscious move toward more personal markets. And yet they never gave up wholesale. Partially it was due to the unpredictable nature of farming: some years favor crops targeted at direct markets, other years favor crops that can sell in mass quantities (and with less effort) to distributors. This mix of markets acts as a shifting net that catches Full Belly wherever the season lets them fall.

But the farmers have also chosen to keep their wholesale accounts because they’ve managed to make them personal. They have grown to know the buyers over the years, and now talk with them as much about orders as about their kids and vacations. “That makes [them] really feel connected to us and, ultimately, want to buy stuff from us,” Dru says. “Maintaining and nurturing those relationships is critical.”

The four partners are not plotting in their affections—these are among the most sincere people you’ll meet. But they have put quantifiable value on knowing customers. The traditional model of anonymous food production sees time spent gabbing as a loss, but at Full Belly, personal contact is considered as essential as planting or picking.

In addition to the thousands of casual conversations the four have each week on the phone and at the farmers market, they organize very intentional points of contact: They host kids’ camps and potlucks and farm tours and cooking classes. They write a CSA newsletter and supply feedback letters at drop-off sites so members can respond. Every October they hold a two-day festival of hay rides and camping in the almond orchard. This fall, 4,000 people attended.

These interactions create a public identity for the farmers, to which customers bond. They also allow the farmers to tune into what else customers want. Evidence of their listening is everywhere: At the farmers market, their offerings are not stacked on a low, folding table, but instead closer to eye level in three orderly tiers; the goods are constantly restocked to create a sense of abundance. The farmers will describe for you the difference between all 13 varieties of winter squash, or cut open a melon just to give you a taste. When they first sold full, butchered lambs to their CSA members, many didn’t know how to cook the neck and other less-used parts; Full Belly found a chef to teach them.

Working to blur the line between farm and wild, farm and community

Because customers treasure variety, the farm now produces 120 crops on its 200 acres. Understandably, a master plan for crop rotation would be prohibitively complicated. They don’t follow tomatoes with tomatoes or corn with corn, but otherwise Full Belly relies mostly on inherent diversity to counter pests.

This has meant expanding the definition of valuable land use to include that which doesn’t yield a crop. They cover crop adamantly and plant gardens that are pure decoration. There’s wild land, too, including 20-odd acres of riparian habitat and four wide hedgerows they’ve planted with California natives.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Judith told me. “We all live here on the farm, so we feel it’s worth it to make the place beautiful and create habitat. Everyone recognizes the need for it.”

As the land becomes more than just endless rows of vegetables, the lines separating Farm from The Rest of the World break down and ecosystems on each side reach across. Likewise, the people on the farm make a point of interacting with the rest of the human world. All four partners do advocacy work aimed at creating opportunities for farmers; with Paul’s help, some local ranchers have transitioned to the more lucrative grass-fed beef market. Dru and Paul make a point of knowing everyone in town, and their daughter is the chapter FFA president. And of course the food itself is the biggest opening: since the farm isn’t in a drop-by location, their Friday farm stand is pointedly geared toward the neighbors.

A stable, dedicated workforce makes it all possible

Altogether it is an impossibly big job for even four dedicated partners. They have 50 full-time employees, of course, but sheer manpower isn’t a guarantee in itself. So Full Belly has created year-round jobs to keep their workers rooted. A core crew of ten has been at the farm since 1989, and another 10 have been there for a decade. Judith put the value plainly: “They know this place really well.”

In addition to the hourly workforce, Full Belly has an internship program that draws applications from as far away as Chile. I asked Judith if they end up being a net benefit to the farm.

“We look at everything from an economic and social viability point of view,” she replied. “Ask that question and a lot of farmers would be wondering what do we pay these guys and how much work do they really do—trying to boil it down in terms of the economics. I think on all levels it’s positive.”

The practical level is that these live-in workers can load trucks late at night and rise before dawn if necessary. Plus, their 150-mile drive to the farmers market isn’t paid by the hour. Of course, there’s more to it than that. The people in Full Belly’s program are there because they are excited about farming. Their enthusiasm is a great sales tool at the market, and it’s even better on the farm as a sort of life force.

“It adds a lot to our lives to see them evolve year after year,” Judith said. “Some interns just don’t get it in the beginning. They don’t understand why we’re working so hard, they don’t want to work late and get up early. But eventually it dawns on them that Wow, this is amazing, and they want to jump on every tractor and turn every compost pile and go to every market.”

Many former interns now own farms themselves: Jack and Jenny run a similar operation in Minnesota. Tom and Suzy grow vegetables in Alaska. Mike and Emily have returned to her hometown in Oklahoma to look for acreage. And with her husband, Nigel, Francis co-founded Eatwell Farm, less than an hour away.

The strings of this web stretch so far you can hardly see them from the farm, but in some ways it is the most valuable support—especially for the future. The more our population grows, the more farms and cities will compete for land and water. There are plenty of people who think using those resources for agriculture is a waste.

“That’s why we need to develop constituencies in urban areas,” Judith says. “And that’s why we grow farms and farmers as well as food. We’re creating a community of farms, and they will grow more farms, which then build the market, and do even more to educate the cities. It just doesn’t work if there are only one or two.”