“When you buy local organic food, you are making a decision about the kind of world you want to live in,” says Noey Turk, owner of Yes Yes Nursery in Los Olivos. If you want food grown in healthy, pesticide-free soil by farmers who care passionately about the health of their family, friends and neighbors, buy your food from local organic farms.
A growing number of young farmers are planting seeds, tending the soil and selling their organic produce locally. To learn more about what has inspired younger farmers to join this movement and how we can support them, I contacted the owners of five small farms and asked to spend some time working and talking with them.
Jack Motter, age 26
Ellwood Canyon Farms, Goleta
When I arrived at Jack’s two-acre farm, he pointed to a row of carrot seedlings and suggested we hand-weed the row as we talked. It was a cool morning with the threat of rain.
Jack grew up in the Imperial Valley, a fourth-generation farmer. But he did not stay in the Imperial Valley to grow lettuce and onions with his dad and uncles. He wanted to be near the ocean and good surf, so he came to UCSB to get a degree in business economics. Then he took a job with the financial management firm Smith Barney.
Realizing he had no passion for what he was doing, he left Smith Barney after two years. “Mark and Laurie Constable of Avalon Flowers were in the process of converting from growing cut flowers to growing organic vegetables and starting a CSA,” Jack says. “I offered to help write a business plan and ended up working for them full time during the transition.” After that he worked for a landscape gardener, until a friend told him about a plot of land available in Goleta. Jack talked with his dad, put together a plan and rented the land.
We finished our weeding and moved into the greenhouse to plant seeds. I poked holes into potting mix–filled cells, dropped a seed into each cell and then topped them with potting mix. Noting the soft filtered light and the sound of the rain on the greenhouse roof, Jack told me, “It’s important to enjoy each part of the process.” He talked about the contrast between his father’s conventional farm—1,000 acres of lettuce and 800 acres of onions—and his two-acre organic farm of mixed vegetables and flowers. His family is very supportive. In fact, on Jack’s parents’ first visit, his mom brought a jar to take some of his soil home to his grandfather. The farming roots run deep in his family.
Jack’s greatest challenge is figuring out how to market his produce. It’s not easy for a new farmer to get into our farmers markets. A unique product helps, but so does product demand, so he chooses his crops with that in mind.
Jack has started a CSA, encouraging members to come out to visit his fields and to recycle their green waste in his compost piles—to feel connected to the land that grows their food.
He is also setting up a farm stand where you can stop by for freshly picked produce.
Noey Turk, age 37
Yes Yes Nursery, Los Olivos
Noey shares a booth at the Saturday Farmers Market in Santa Barbara with her mother and stepfather, Debby and Shu Takikawa (The Garden of…..). Noey sells vegetable, herb and flower seedlings. Her parents sell flowers, lettuce and other seasonal vegetables.
When I arrived at their farm, Noey was outside the entrance to a plastic-covered greenhouse, floating seedling trays one at a time in a tub of fertilized water. She spoke softly as she bathed her baby plants.
This 24-acre property where Noey works and lives was purchased in the 1950s by her grandmother, who planted some of the first wine grapes in the Santa Ynez Valley. Now the vineyard is leased and maintained by Qupé Wine Cellars. Her family farms three acres and rents another three acres nearby. Noey grows the seedlings they plant on the farm.
As we bathed the seedlings, Noey explained her family has kept the farm small enough that they haven’t had to increase their costs by hiring employees. This has given them the economic flexibility to experiment with seeds, soils and growing methods.
Her stepfather, Shu, taught her how to grow healthy vegetable seedlings. But when they added cut flowers, she spent a lot of time experimenting and recording the results. Noey’s first season was a disaster, but she learned a lot about which nutrients each plant needed to thrive. Her parents and brother Kai helped her discard her failed plants and encouraged her to keep on experimenting.
After feeding her seedlings, Noey put trays of marigolds and violas onto a wagon. I followed her up the path to a shade-cloth covered greenhouse. We brought along tubs of her homemade potting mix.
At the upper greenhouse, Noey filled straw pots with potting mix, and I gently slid the seedlings from each cell into a filled pot while Noey explained how she ended up back on the farm where she had played as a child.
She traveled after high school, “trying to find my place in the world,” she says. She came back to Santa Barbara to get a degree in physics. But as her graduate studies became more abstract, she felt a need to connect more with the real world. She spent most of her free time at the farm helping Shu figure out how to grow healthier plants.
She left graduate school to move back to the farm full time. When she took over the plant nursery and started her own business, she realized this was exactly where she wanted to be. I understood this as I worked next to her, the morning sun warming my hands, stopping to watch the cat stalk a gopher or to study a spider with a load of babies on its back.
At lunchtime, we drove out to the field to pick lettuce and baby yellow beets. Each row was bursting with healthy, bug free plants. Noey says the secret is finding the right nutrient balance to keep the plants hardy.
After lunch I helped Noey mix a new batch of potting mix in a large bathtub near the lower greenhouse. We used an oar to stir buckets of worm castings and micronutrients into the coconut husk base. It would take two more full tubs to handle the afternoon transplants. “Farming is hard work,” Noey says as we stir the mix.
She points out that responsible small-scale organic farmers are challenged to find ways to increase the productivity of their land in a way that nourishes rather than depletes the ecosystem. Noey is grateful that she has the opportunity to work with Shu on new ways to address these challenges. “If farming isn’t creative, what fun is it?” she asks.
Shawn McMahon, age 26
Out of Step Farms, Goleta
I arrived at Shawn’s farm at 7am. He had been picking baby greens since 5am. Shawn usually works alone on his one-acre farm in Goleta. His girlfriend, Melissa Cohen (store manager for the Isla Vista Food Co-op), usually helps him wash and package his greens.
Shawn came to UCSB from northern California to get a high school teaching credential in world history. But when he walked into the office to register for the program, he realized it wasn’t what he really wanted to do. Instead, he went to work at the Isla Vista Food Co-op.
Shawn had previously worked for an organic farmer in Half Moon Bay and had sold produce at farmers markets. “I just got more and more into food, agriculture, politics and social justice,” he says. As produce manager for the Co-op, he met many local farmers and realized he wanted to have his own farm.
Shu Takikawa is Shawn’s mentor. Shu shares his expertise and skills freely with other farmers. Shu told me that he, in turn, is inspired by the work of these younger farmers. With Shu’s encouragement Shawn planted strawberries without plastic sheeting (which ends up in our landfills at the end of each season). Encouraged by Shawn’s success, Shu has some additional growing methods he wants to try.
As the day warms, we move into the shade to triple wash our harvested greens and combine them into the sweet, spicy and braising mixes he sells at the farmers market. While we spin, weigh and pack the baby greens into bags, Shawn tells me his plans for the future.
He has recently subleased an additional acre from Jack Motter. He currently sells his produce to the Co-op and at two farmers markets. He hopes to get into more markets. He also offers his produce for direct sale and delivery. On the new acre, he will share the farm stand with Jack Motter.
On a larger scale, Shawn believes that food autonomy is critical to the health and strength of a community. Shawn and Melissa have both spent the past 3½ years encouraging shoppers to protect our local food sources by buying their produce from local farmers. Now he is one of them.
Christopher and Johanna Finley, age 32 and 31
Finley Farms, Santa Ynez
I arrived in Santa Ynez on a foggy morning to find Johanna driving from the 10-acre farm where their house is located to their 26-acre field to pick up her husband, Christopher, who had driven the tractor there and needed a ride back to the home farm.
Johanna put her daughter Ashlin in the stroller and Christopher carried their son Quinton as we walked along the perimeter of the field. Lettuce and kale for the next day’s farmers market were packed into boxes at the end of the each row.
The Finleys currently employ six field workers. Christopher says that having workers allows him to focus on coordinating the planting cycle, but he must use their time cost effectively. He says good communication is the key, but so is investment in equipment that keeps his labor costs down.
Christopher showed me an adjacent 20 acres he hopes to add next year when it becomes certified organic. Johanna says, “I’m already feeling that we’re almost too big right now,” but then explains, “We always feel that way this time of year because we’ve spent all the money we made during summer, and we’re not making any money yet.” They have doubled their acreage almost every year since they began farming six years ago. Johanna used to share more of the workload, but now she has the children.
As we walked down a row, Christopher pointed out the rannuculas, sweet peas and bachelor buttons they sell as cut flowers to local groceries and at the farmers market. When we reached the ripening strawberries, Johanna picked a few for the kids to snack on.
Before leaving, we peeked into the greenhouse at rows of healthy tomato plants. The Finleys are known for their heirloom tomatoes. They started out growing tomatoes for salsa. Johanna says, “We would harvest on Friday, take our produce to a certified kitchen and work until 1 or 2 in the morning making batches of salsa for the Saturday Santa Barbara market.”
The Finleys have learned farming and marketing by trial and error. Johanna says, “We are self-taught and still learning.” Christopher graduated from UCSB with a degree in environmental studies and Johanna with a degree in art. During college Johanna worked for a peach grower in Dinuba, California, managing their Santa Barbara markets. Christopher sold produce for John Givens at the Los Angeles farmers markets.
They moved to the Santa Ynez Valley when they decided to pursue farming as a career. Johanna says, “It was too hard to find adequate irrigated acreage on the coast.”
In addition to selling their produce at farmers markets, Johanna has developed a CSA program and set up a farm stand at their home farm—things she can do with the kids.
While the Finleys struggle to manage their growth and establish new markets, Johanna says, “I have a huge appreciation for the customers who rely on us for their weekly groceries.” She has no desire to move back into the city. The farm is where she wants to raise her children and work alongside her husband.
Toby McPartland, age 30
Fairview Gardens, Goleta
I met Toby at 7am at the farmhouse. The other farm workers met us at the shed across from the yurt houses where they live with their families. We walked with Chava Gomez-Ochoa, Javier Gomez-Ochoa and Manuel Gomez-Ochoa down the hill to the fields. These three brothers have worked these fields for 20 years. “They are the guardians of this soil,” Toby says. “I joke with them that I’m their boss, but actually I’m also their apprentice.”
We started out picking kale leaves, which we bunched together for the CSA subscribers and for sale at the farm stand. Working on the row across from me, Toby explained how a degree in cultural anthropology led him to this job as farm manager. He joined the Peace Corps after college and worked with peanut farmers in Senegal. Toby says, “I was touched by their hard work. They brought back enough peanuts and millet to feed their families for an entire year. That’s when I decided I wanted to farm.” When he came back to the U.S., he worked on the organic farm at Cal Poly. He has been at Fairview Gardens for the past 21⁄2 years.
A hen cackled in the distance as we began to pick collard greens. Toby told me that in addition to field work, he spends at least 50% of his time away from the farm working on permitting issues and meeting with neighbors. This farm is 121⁄2 acres. Fairview also farms another 10 acres nearby.
Urban farming can be challenging, Toby says, but he enjoys sitting in neighborhood living rooms, solving problems and building relationships. He solves most problems easily by listening to neighbors’ concerns and then moving the chickens a little further from a bedroom or moving the brush pile away from a neighbor’s fence.
But what drew him to this job was the education program. Fairview Gardens offers internships and a summer camp for kids and encourages visits from school groups.
As we began picking tender young fava bean leaves, Toby told me that he has been evaluating the cost effectiveness of each crop. He says, “Most farmers focus on production, but it’s important to farm for profit. One kale plant can produce leaves for a whole season, while another crop may take up more space and be less profitable.”
Toby invited me to come back during a visit from David Cleveland’s UCSB class on Small-Scale Food Production. A week later, 27 students gathered at the farm to ask Toby questions. In response to a student’s question about the problems small farmers have selling to local grocery stores. Toby said, “I don’t feel like the infrastructure is really here for small-scale farming. A lot of small-scale farmers are part-time drivers, distributing their food and trying to hustle their products—spending less and less time on the land they love.”
As a member of the Southern California chapter of the National Good Food Network, Toby is helping develop regional distribution hubs for small farmers. He says, “By combining forces, smaller farmers can share marketing and distribution resources.” This will help them get their produce into local grocery stores and institutions like schools and hospitals.
Fairview currently markets their produce through their CSA, the farm stand and at two farmers markets.
Farming and the Future
The Greenhorns, a nationwide organization of young or new U.S. farmers, says, “The last 30 years have seen a protracted crisis in American agriculture. We have fewer farmers, less land, a degraded soil base and intensifying corporate control over production, processing and technology.”
Today the average age of the American farmer is 57 and America loses two acres of farmland per minute. But it’s not too late. The young farmers I met work long hours healing the soil and nurturing the plants we eat. They reach out to each other with advice and share resources. They honor their customers, their workers and their neighbors. They are our hope for the future, and they deserve our support when we make food purchasing choices.
Nancy Oster enjoys meeting and writing about people who share her passion for food and cooking. She feels fortunate to live in Santa Barbara where she has a year-round garden and can also find juicy oranges, crisp fresh greens, tangy sweet apricots and vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes grown organically by farmers who live right here in Santa Barbara County.
For More Information
Jack Motter—Ellwood Canyon Farms
Farmers market: Wednesday, Harding School
Noey Turk—Yes Yes Nursery
Farmers markets: Saturday, Santa Barbara;
Tuesday, Santa Barbara; Wednesday, Solvang
Shawn McMahon—Out of Step Farms
Farmers markets: Friday, Montecito; Sunday, Goleta
Christopher and Johanna Finley—Finley Farms
Farmers markets: Tuesday, Culver City; Wednesday, Solvang;
Thursday, Goleta (in summer); Friday, Montecito;
Saturday, San Luis Obispo, Santa Monica and Los Olivos;
Sunday, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Studio City
Toby McPartland—Fairview Gardens
Farmers markets: Wednesday, Santa Monica;
Saturday, Santa Barbara
UCSB Environmental Studies Department