A Farmer’s Perspective
by Robert Abbott
The following perspective was taken from a talk given at the Faulkner Gallery on March 23, 2011, as part of the Ag Futures Alliance “Farm to Fork” Educational Series.
I help manage Abbott Ranch, an avocado and lemon farm on the south side of Carpinteria that my grandfather bought in 1923. He was a young man at the time, and energetic, and he planted 60 acres of lemon and avocado trees, many of which are still producing today. But Abbott Ranch is only half of my job. The other half is dedicated to farmers markets, where we sell under the name Hilltop and Canyon Farms.
We sell at four markets a week, primarily lemons and avocados. We also lease a couple of acres for row crops, which go straight to the markets—30 different types of field flowers, 10 kinds of beans, some eggplant, a few heirloom vegetables, odds and ends to keep it interesting. My wife, Tessa, and I started doing markets about seven years ago, and to make a long story short, farmers markets have changed my life.
You see, I do enjoy farming—I love it, except for hand weeding. But there are some long days. Farming can get kind of lonely if you’re on your own most of the time. And if the difficulty of growing a quality crop weren’t enough, the fickleness of the wholesale markets coupled with the fickleness of the weather can be downright demoralizing.
Selling directly at the farmers markets, on the other hand, solves these problems. I get to talk to people—some of whom are actually interested in what I do. The pricing is stable, and it’s something I can count on. In a time when our economy is anybody’s guess, there is nothing more gratifying—or more real, in an economic sense—than showing up at the market with a truckload of the best stuff we can grow and offering it to enthusiastic, supportive customers. I’m proud of what we bring to the market, and it really makes me happy to know that people will take it home and enjoy it, and that it will sustain them.
The only thing farmers markets don’t resolve is the workload. Actually, I’d say it just about doubles the work. But for me it’s well worth it. Half the time it doesn’t even feel like work—which is the way a job should be.
So, obviously I’m a big advocate for local marketing. I’d love to sell everything we grow locally, but then you’d all have to start eating a lot more guacamole and drinking a lot more lemonade, which is maybe not a bad idea. But the reality is that Abbott Ranch produces on a scale that exceeds local demand. So, we need a larger market, replete with wholesalers, packinghouses, quarantines, national and even international distribution, more paperwork and certifications than you can shake a stick at, the cost of diesel, you name it. In that market, we get whatever we can get. Some years are good, but for every good year there are a string of years where we just break even or even lose out at the end.
About five years ago the California avocado industry had its largest production year on record—over 600 million pounds of fruit. If you combine that with the stuff from Mexico and Chile, it was a billion-pound year. Sounds great, right? No, everyone was downright depressed, except for maybe Vons and Albertson’s. With a total glut on the market, prices spiraled down in the early spring and stayed there all year, hovering between 30 and 40 cents a pound. Some growers just let the fruit drop to the ground and rot. They couldn’t afford to pay for the picking, let alone trucking, refrigeration and all the rest.
On the other hand, last year was a very light year for the entire state and even Mexico. Demand outstripped supply and prices headed toward $2 a pound. So, that’s a market fluctuation of 500% in five years!
The crazy thing is that this is typical. I know first-hand that the lemon market is even worse. Just in the last six months prices have fluctuated from $7 a box to over $40. And the big citrus packinghouses won’t even pay you until the season is over and they have figured out their own costs. Growers get whatever is left over.
So, let’s put this in perspective: A farmer plants a tree, in this case an avocado tree. For the first five years you have to weed and water and mulch and help the little tree along, without any production in return. Years 5 to 10 the little tree starts producing, just a little. From year 10 on you start hitting good production. You are able to cover your costs, and somewhere in there you are supposed to break even. Then after all that work and water and labor, you are expected to throw your hard-won produce into a market that can, in any given year, fluctuate well over 100%. Are we crazy? Who in their right mind would do that? You can see why I prefer the farmers markets.
What is crazy is that through thick and thin—when you average it all out, and if you’re pretty frugal—you can do OK. Abbott Ranch has been growing basically the same crops for almost a century—that’s not bad. I may not have faith in those volatile commodity markets, but I do have faith in this land of ours here in Santa Barbara County. Markets can swing all over but there are some fundamental reasons why this can still work.
First of all, as you may or may not know, the south coast of Santa Barbara County is one of the great growing regions in the world for subtropical fruit like avocados and citrus—there are only a handful of places where these trees can thrive, and we’re living in one of them. Santa Barbara is a geographic niche; it’s as good for agriculture as it is for tourism.
Second, the crops we grow are perishable. You might think it’s counterproductive for a farmer to want a perishable crop. Well, in these days of international markets, we have to compete with imports. The longer an avocado or lemon stays in the truck, the worse it tastes. That’s a fact. And that’s fine with me. Imports from Argentina can be a month old or even older by the time they make it into your kitchen and into your stomach. No wonder California produce tastes so much better.
Third, food is fun, and food is culture. It’s as much a part of our culture as art or music or the movies we watch. And the culture of food is based on what grows right around us—what grows locally or even in our backyard. And I’d say that the American food culture is still in its infancy. There are still people who don’t know what an avocado is. I’ve met some people who ask if they are supposed to boil it or put it in the oven. That, to me, sounds like a growing market.
Fourth, we happen to have access to an awesome local food community. We can grow on a decent sized scale and move a lot of it locally. I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it weren’t for a strong, local base of supporters who give lifeblood to small and medium farmers through the farmers markets, CSAs, restaurants and a network of businesses who go out of their way to source the best freshest food available.
So, when it comes to the next century of farming for Abbott Ranch, over all I am optimistic. It’s certainly going to be tough. Things only get more expensive. The cost of land is out of reach. Water is barely affordable. There’s going to be more paperwork in the future. There are just a lot of negatives.
But we keep doing it. Here’s why:
• We farm because we like to eat good food.
• We farm because of this community, which supports us.
• We farm because we love being able to tell people where their food came from, how we grew it and the best ways to eat it.
• We farm for a different community, too—a community of farmers, where we can trade experiences, ideas and support one another.
• We farm because we like hard work—the tangible proof of what you can do in a day can be incredibly satisfying.
• We farm for discovery—to try out something new every year.
I live for early mornings, when the plants are fresh and my back is fresh. I farm because it’s in my blood, and because if I didn’t farm I would still find a way to do it.
Robert Abbott is an environmentalist, an artist and a farmer who is active in the community. He lives and farms in Carpinteria at Hilltop and Canyon Farms/Abbott Ranch with his wife, Tessa, daughter Edie and soon-to-arrive baby #2.