At the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, JF Organics is an essential pit stop every chef makes because you can always find a wide variety of flavorful heirloom vegetables. We not only buy a lot from them on Wednesday but we also get two weekly deliveries directly to our kitchen. Oftentimes the produce is picked the same day that it arrives to us which is really special. As our biggest supplier of produce we were really anxious to visit this farm.
Once we drove up the rocky driveway leading to their twenty acre plot in Yucca Valley, we had the wrong address. With guttteral sounds of goats mating on a landscape of abandoned trucks, construction materials, random livestock, Joshua Trees, and, well, trash scattered in no conceivable order, this place felt cobbled together in ways we wouldn’t expect of a farm we purchase so much from. Our mouths were agape. Where were all the prized greens? Where the heck were we?
As we continued to walk around the property, we had the sinking feeling that we may just be trespassing. We looked at each other, our brows furrowing, apologizing to one another silently. We were on the verge of turning back.
What a mistake that would’ve been….
With perfect timing, Farmer Luis drove up! A very quiet speaking man, I had to lean in to hear him explain to us that all the prized greens and radishes we were there to see growing, that we weren’t seeing anywhere on our own inspection, were inside and protected under shade houses that he and his family had built themselves from found and recycled materials. Suddenly everything was beginning to make sense.
Luis pointed out found wood palettes they used for the side walls of all of their shade houses and many of their animal pens. Former produce boxes were transformed into planter beds, and much of the fencing was recycled as well. What I had perceived as trash laying around was being conserved for practical purposes. Why throw something away when you can reuse it? I was struck by how judgmental my initial impression was. The more I learned as Luis showed us around, the greater my respect became for the extensive and humble sustainability of this operation.
With such sandy soil in Yucca Valley, most would deem this land as unfarmable. Farmer Luis and his family fell in love with the serenity of the property so after some trials, they avoided planting directly into the earth because nothing worked when they did. Instead they combined 60% percent soil with 40% manure from their chickens, goats, and horses in boxes to plant seedlings. This combination helps secure and maintain moisture, as well as provide essential nutrients.
Additionally, to protect from the savage sun and bugs of the high desert, they made a plan to build shade houses, but the mesh material required would be upwards of $40,000 to purchase new. How does a small farmer afford such expenses? JF Organics gets resourceful. They scoured Craig’s List for a while and found 5 acres of it highly discounted. This can-do spirit and indomitable endurance is what most impressed me on this farm visit.
There are limitless hurdles faced by the small farms who grow our food, most especially now during this crippling drought we are experiencing here in California. JF Organics has a well that is nearly run dry. Here again, they get creative. Each of their planters sit atop drains constructed to catch the excess water which is then stored in salvaged tanks formerly used as part of a hydroponic system. These tanks will also serve as rain catchers for whenever it finally does rain.
In other shade houses, beds sit on tables that catch the water with this ingenious contraption made of found heavy duty plastic. As makeshift as it is in appearance, it’s a sophisticated concept, and one that more farmers will need to incorporate as our population grows and resources deplete. JF Organics is ahead of the game.
The water from those beds above is stored here for reuse. The big hole in the back will be lined with plastic to catch rainwater, and this pump is used to run water back to the drip sprinklers.
In yet another shade house, wild strawberries grow. All the wood you see here is recycled from a golf course that was being demolished. The deal was if they hauled the wood away, they could keep it. Done. Here too you see techniques to incorporate catching water.
Not only is JF Organic Farms a model of sustainable practices, but it is one of compassion also. Farmer Luis explained that they are a rescue farm of sorts, which explained the ragtag herd. They take in animals from surrounding farms that can no longer are being cared for, like these cows. They were raised as pets and are so loving. As loving as any of my dogs, but their owner passed on so they had not been fed and were in bad shape when Luis got them. He’s fattening them up to keep as dairy cows and further contribute to the biodiversity of this farm.
This is not an ostrich but an emu, another rescue. This guy was the opposite of nice, but a reliable protector for the 1000 chickens and 400 ducks that he shares the farm with. Luis said he even chased off a mountain lion! As grand as he was menacing, he let out a deep drum-like sound to communicate that I should back off. You got it dude!
I learned from this enlightening visit to keep my slick, cosmopolitan judgement on hold when visiting small farms. These are people who struggle against persistent hurdles and combat them with integrity, not for the financial rewards, but because they simply love doing it. There’s no other reason to embrace this stressful lifestyle because in most cases, there is more income going out then there is coming in. Across the board, when I ask small farmers why they keep at it, they always, emphatically and without pause answer, “Because I love it.”
Our current farm policy in the United States overwhelmingly encourages overproduction, not small farms. It’s up to us as consumers to support small farmers who are committed to maintaining soil fertility as they embody an active interest in long-term sustainability not found on large farms owned by absentee investors who dominate our food supply and receive extensive government subsidies.
Change in our broken food system is possible if we make a demand for it. It’s up to us. We purchase food everyday, and each purchase is a vote for what you believe in. Be attentive. Ask questions. Now, more than ever, make it a requirement to know where your food comes from. It’s a simple action to support your health and our future.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this farm visit!