From the Farmer's Tractor
December 25, 2011
How did you get into vegetable farming?
I literally grew up among the same fields that I am farming today. My earliest childhood memories were running around the ranch and playing hide and seek in the asparagus field behind our house with my younger brother, Jeff.
By the time I was in high school, my summer job was working on the ranch: I would drive the tractor and move sprinkler pipe. After graduating from high school, I earned a BS in Agricultural Economics from UC Davis and an MS from Cornell University in Ag Business Management.
Even while attending graduate school in far away New York, it was always my goal to be able to come back and manage the family farm. I was fortunate to be able to come home, work with and learn from my grandparents, who started farming here in 1950. So, to answer your question: I have been a farmer almost all my life.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Our farming practices, as well the practices of fellow growers in the Salinas Valley, have changed a great deal over the last ten years. The last decade has brought big advances in conservation and food safety.
Today, there is an increased focus on conserving our natural resources. The longer we farm in the Salinas Valley the more we realize what a special location we have for vegetable farming and the more we as farmers need to protect it. Growers today have a heightened awareness of the amount of inputs used – water, fertilizer, diesel, and so on. I want my grandchildren to be able to farm this same ranch. This will only happen if we are good stewards of the land.
Salinas Valley farmers invest a great deal of time, resources, and energy to ensure the vegetables we are produce are safe to eat. A field is not simply a field, but a food supply. Fields are now looked to as a protected environment. They are regularly monitored for any signs of possible contamination. All employees entering fields are extensively trained in personal hygiene and food safety practice. Well water is tested monthly and third party auditors inspect ranches regularly.
How will vegetable farming evolve in the next five years?
There will be an increase in efficiency on a number of fronts, which all comes through growing populations needing more and higher quality foods. We will be using more drip irrigation in order to farm with less water. Seed breeders are selecting varieties that yield more nutrient rich vegetables. We will fine-tune our farming practices to increase yield and/or planting density. Food safety practices will remain a high priority and new research will help growers further improve their practices.
What is your greatest challenge as a vegetable farmer?
I would say that one of my biggest challenges is also part of what keeps my job so exciting. In a word, balance. Specifically, it is balancing the wide variety of tasks necessary to succeed today as a small vegetable farmer. Because we are a small family-run company, we each take part in a variety of tasks. It is this variety of necessary activities that keeps my job interesting and challenging on a daily basis.
As a farmer, the majority of my time is spent in the fields in order to make well-informed decisions. I need to make sure we are on schedule with our farming practices and that our crops are high quality. Additionally, I work with my grandmother, Jane, on the weekly payroll, constantly updating our various compliance programs, meeting with food safety auditors, and reviewing planting schedules and seed varieties with partners like Dole. It requires a great deal of work and long hours to stay on top of them, but I love diversity and challenge.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
As a farmer, we decide what to plant, and consequently what to sell, based on two major inputs. The first depends on our soil and climate; you can’t grow all produce in all conditions. One concept we take from our wine-grape vineyards is one of “terroir”: the French term that describes how a wine from a specific region is different from another, or why one plants certain things in a given area. We have a very specific growing region and we focus on what does best here. We would never be able to ripen table grapes or peaches, but the cool and foggy climate is great for lettuce, broccoli, celery, cauliflower, and the other vegetable crops.
The second is from the partners who sell our produce. These partners work extensively with retailers and consumers to find out what items people are interested in. From this, we all get together and plan ahead. We rely on Dole to help us harvest, pack, cool, and distribute our produce and send it to consumers through out the globe.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
We track a lot of data to create an overall plan for reducing our carbon footprint and lowering our inputs. Water is so precious that we monitor usage, vary the times that we irrigate (mostly at night for both reduced evaporation and lower electrical rates) and use drip irrigation where possible.
We also test our soils to determine if and when we need to apply fertilizer. Equipment is constantly upgraded for improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. Growers work closely with Ag Commissioners to reduce these inputs.
Our partners like Dole are also very invested in finding sustainable ways to harvest and ship produce around the country, further reducing our products’ environmental footprint.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
A lot of our produce is sold locally, but we are not directly involved with the selling of our vegetables. We are responsible for the produce up until harvest time, at which point Dole or another partner comes in and harvests. From there, it is packed, cooled and shipped to various markets around the globe. Much stays local, but some is also transported around the country.
We’re lucky to live in an area that can grow produce to support the local market, but we have to remember not everyone is in such a positive situation. Many people live in areas that will never be able to grow these vegetables, and it is important to have the supply chains in place to be able to get them the products they need and want.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
It sounds funny, but people are amazed to find out that people actually farm. Often times I think many visualize farming as a completely mechanized or commercial process and kids assume that produce comes from the grocery store. But in reality, if you have a garden at home, what we do is not so different. We have the same problems, just on a larger scale. We have to deal with weeds, compost, pests and weather, just like anyone else.
One of my favorite things to show people are the crops growing in a field. A lot of people have only seen produce in the grocery store, and it is so special to see it actually growing. The details of farming are incredibly complex, but when you look at a field of near-ready lettuce, it has such simplistic beauty. You can't help but think about how many people will be fed from that field.
People often leave the ranch encouraged to eat more vegetables.
In upcoming issues, we will feature interviews with food companies that are making strides in their sustainability efforts. If you are interested in telling us more about what your company is doing to get involved please contact Allison Bloom firstname.lastname@example.org.