Heirloom Varietals and Dry Farming
From the Farmer's Tractor
February 26, 2014
Mike and Karen Collins own Bloomfield Farms, which grows over 50 varieties of produce on about 40 to 45 acres in Sonoma County, California. Mike has been farming for over 30 years with a passion for local, sustainable agriculture and heirloom seed varietals. Bloomfield Farms also does a lot of dry farming of tomatoes and potatoes. We talked to Nick Papadopoulos, 38, Mike and Karen Collins’ son-in-law and the General Manager of Bloomfield Farms, about the growing demand for local food and the interest in knowing where one's food comes from.
How did you get into farming?
My in-laws love to farm and grow food for the community. Mike thinks it’s important to preserve the heirlooms, and he grew up in a family of very well respected wine makers in Napa Valley and got the organic fruit and vegetable bug and started growing produce. Now that’s what he’s committed to. We have certified organic vegetables on our farm. We’re close to the ocean so things like broccoli, leeks, lettuce and heirloom dry-farmed potatoes and tomatoes grow really well here.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Our farm has always prided itself on organic and sustainable practices. Each year new innovations emerge that we incorporate but fundamentally we are working with nature, making sure we take care of the soil and conserve water resources, really listen to customers about what their needs are about not wanting toxins, and keeping our food as clean and healthy and pure as possible. The recognition that heirlooms and preserving heritage breeds is important is also driving our business today.
How will farming evolve in the next five years?
In the local food movement, the demand is increasing. We have to ask if ourselves if local farms will be able to meet the demand – and what happens if that doesn’t happen?
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?
Our biggest challenge is we’ve got Mother Nature on our board of directors. She shows up to meetings a bit grumpy sometimes. Recently, for example, we had some kale covered in aphids. Looking back, last April or March, we had plants that flowered too early because of the warmer temperatures we experienced. It’s warmer than anticipated so we have plants flowering too early and we have to replant. The most challenging part of local organic agriculture is working with nature. Secondly, a lot of farmers really have a talent for growing wonderful food but it’s hard to build a team. You need someone taking the lead on marketing and finance, and it’s hard to have all those capabilities in one farmer’s mind. A lot of farms struggle with growing a successful and profitable business and making sales partnerships with distributors and retailers.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
A recent study from Rabobank on local food showed that demand is growing and increasing and now the big question is: Can we fulfill the demand? There are other issues as well, because the demand is for beautiful, blemish free, perfect looking food. But not all food looks blemish free when you’re farming organically, and those blemished items are still flavorful and nutritious. Those items can be hard to sell even with their other good qualities. In our attempt to prevent food waste, we have started CropMobster™ (more on the movement here), a social network community that functions like a series of classified ads for fresh produce. Farms, agricultural producers and food sellers can post opportunities and offers to the community, creating affordable access to fresh food and free donations while keeping other surplus items from going to waste. This also helps create strong partnerships with customers.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
Like I mentioned before, we do a lot of dry farming at Bloomfield, and it’s really one our specialties because we don’t have a lot of water here. More and more, dry farming is becoming critical from an environmental standpoint. Also, the flavors can be much more intense and complex when you dry farm. And we are working on a grant to promote the health of our soil through composting, cover cropping and water conservation.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
We sell our produce through numerous channels. Some locally at Farmers Markets, and some through distributors. We have a robust business with Whole Foods and with retailers like Bi-Rite Market, Molly Stone’s, and an amazing new start up called Good Eggs. Good Eggs has a chance to fundamentally shift how people purchase their food. Good Eggs really tells our story and traditionally distributors haven’t done a good enough job doing that, and they tell our story as a small farm and use that to build community. We also have a CSA and work directly with folks.
Do consumers get to meet your farmers in person?
We do something fun on Sundays called U-Pick Sundays because we really feel that it’s important to get the public, as well as our partners, out into the dirt and every Sunday we open up our farm and allow folks to come out and roam the field with a wagon and harvest their own produce at a great value, to learn about agriculture, to meet our farmers and team and to really experience where food is coming from and we can see how transformative that experience is for folks. It really builds a deep loyalty and appreciation for all the work and love and passion that goes into farming. It’s extremely hard work but it’s a wonderful lifestyle.