Our second session with the 2018-19 National Farmers Union’s (NFU) Beginning Farmer Institute (BFI) took us into the country’s heart of organic produce, the salad bowl of America, the sunny Salinas Valley, California. Again, we were the last to arrive late at night, and a bit jet-lagged. For the first day of training, we participated in a hands-on learning session, hosted in partnership with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), an organization dedicated to creating economic opportunity for limited-resource and aspiring organic farmers through land-based education. ALBA creates farming opportunities while providing education and demonstration of organic farming, conservation, and habitat restoration. About 35 farmers operate their small organic farm at ALBA on an annual basis.While there, we heard from the Director of Direct Marketing of the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, Ben Palazzolo, on some of the unique quandaries and benefits of running a certified and sustainable farmers’ market year-round. Our class also had the opportunity to hear from Michael O’Gorman, who spent 40 years farming vegetables before starting the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2008. O’Gorman grew $250 million of organic vegetables for 3 of the country’s largest organic companies, and was willing to share his trade secrets.
The following day our group visited three local produce operations. In Soledad, we laid eyes on some of the most beautiful soil imaginable; it was truly humbling to see so many acres of lush green romaine lettuce and rye cover crop. At JV Farms Organic, owner Israel Morales, and his right-hand man and grandson, were wells of knowledge about microbial soil health and how to minimize disturbance to the soil. We also learned about how to actualize enough accessible nitrogen for plants with intensive successions. We talked with Javier Zamora, a graduate of ALBA, and owner of JSM Organics. Javier began his business in 2012 with no employees and no money. Today, he has over 30 employees, and sells berries and produce across the Salinas Valley. BFI also witnessed the inner workings of the Coke Farm in San Juan Bautista. Coke Farm has been growing organic fruits and vegetables since 1981, when founder Dale Coke began the farm with a 1/4 acre of organic strawberries. Since then, the Coke Farm has grown and evolved from an organic farming operation into a thriving organic produce aggregation company. Their produce hub represents a diverse group of local organic fruit and vegetable growers located in and around the central coast. They work with their growers to develop growing plans, as well as receiving, cooling, selling and shipping their wide variety of organic produce.
With all these remarkable business models to draw from, we have already made small tweaks to our own operation, including a new focus on different components of our soil tests. The final BFI session will be held in March 2019 in Bellevue, Washington. We’ll let you know how it goes, but based on what we’ve experienced so far, I can assure you it won’t be short of amazing.
Molly Stepanski is the Local Food Coordinator for Northeast Michigan and owns and operates Presque Isle Farm with her family. She enjoys digging, planting, and hiking in the dirt; cooking up her own recipes; drinking wine; and eating lots of fresh, seasonal produce (and anything deep-fried, in accordance with her southern heritage). Contact her at [email protected]