From the Farmer's Tractor
October 26, 2008
How did you get into squash farming?
I worked as a farm laborer on organic farms for 10 years before going into business as a farmer. For me, growing squash has always been part of an overall program of crop rotation. By growing both summer squash, which are market fresh, and winter squash, which can be stored, it's possible to spread sales out over a long season.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
I've learned how I can integrate my farm's "weeds" into my sales program, becoming more sustainable while making a profit. Instead of spending money to get rid of weeds, I now make money by harvesting nettles, lambs quarters, amaranth, chickweed, epazote and purslane – and selling them to restaurants.
How will squash farming evolve in the next five years?
My farming practices are unlikely to change much, but my marketing efforts are becoming more sophisticated. I'm learning that there are customers out there that want squash leaves, unopened squash buds, squash tendrils, and young, tender, "un-ripe" winter squash. Diversification doesn't only mean growing more crops; sometimes it can mean harvesting the same old crops at a different stage. Also, becoming acquainted with a wide range of ethnic cuisines and marketing to those needs has been one way for me to expand my sales without expanding my production.
What is your greatest challenge as a squash farmer?
Growing squash is only one part of my whole, year-round farming program, and the challenges I face with squash are no different than the challenges I face with the other crops. Problem number one is our immigrant worker situation. The legalization process needs to be easier to navigate. Problem number two is rising fuel prices and insurance charges that make farm/city delivery cost difficult to predict and pass on. And number three, since I buy a lot of seed from Italy, France, and Spain, the falling value of the dollar makes my seed costs rise. As a result, I'm beginning to grow more of my own seed.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
I speak to my customers all the time. Almost every crop I grow was sown at the suggestion of one customer or another. I don't plant anything without a market in mind.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
As an organic farmer I've always taken conservation seriously. We have a good cover-cropping program in place, I maintain habitat for beneficial insects, and I use no "crop protection products," either organic, or conventional. The only thing I've sprayed in 10 years has been clear water.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
I sell all my products locally. About 85% of my business is through our farm's CSA program, which we manage with a partner farm called High Ground Organics. We call our joint effort "Two Small Farms," and we service over a thousand families between Monterey and San Francisco. The rest of our business comes from a restaurant delivery business that serves 50 restaurants in downtown San Francisco. I make a joke that I know the home address of every single one of my customers and I can get to them within 90 minutes if they fail to pay me. If that’s not local, I don’t know what is!
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
I think most of them are amused, but I don't worry about it too much.