The Art of Small, Organic Farming
On a cross-country bicycle trip in 1999, Jacob Grant got an up-close view of large-scale farming in America. It was July in Iowa; the corn was young and tall.
Traveling the narrow country roads, he says, “It was corn and soybeans as far as I could see. And at the edge of each field was a billboard advertising the chemicals they were using.”
When a local farmer joined him for part of the ride, Jacob asked him why he didn’t grow something different? “In a productive year, the prices will hit rock bottom,” Jacob pointed out. “How can you make enough money selling corn or soy?”
The farmer explained that he had no market for selling produce direct to the consumer because there were few local customers left.
One farmer with a tractor can farm a tremendous amount of corn or soy by himself, so there is no longer a need for labor and no economy other than large farms left in the community. The towns had essentially become ghost towns, and Jacob saw few remaining farmhouses.
He also learned that the price paid to the farmer is sometimes so low that it takes thousands of acres of corn or soy to bring in what a Southern California farmer can make on two or three acres selling direct locally. That ride was a turning point for Jacob.
Born and raised in Los Olivos, Jacob graduated from high school in 1993 and spent two years at UC Santa Cruz asking himself, “What do I want to do?” His father’s advice was, “If you love what you do you’ll be successful.” What Jacob loved was carving wood, “But there are certain things that don’t inherently make money… like carving wood,” Jacob says.
Jacob also discovered he enjoyed cooking, having learned freestyle cooking from his mom—Jacob describes this as “Here’s what we have, what can we do with it?” At home they cooked from his mom’s backyard garden. In Santa Cruz he discovered the farmers market. “The simplicity of producing food from seed struck a chord with me,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to do that.”
During a visit home in 1995, Jacob asked friend Shu Takikawa, farmer and co-owner of The Garden of….. in Los Olivos, to teach him organic farming. Shu was reluctant to take on an apprentice, but offered to answer questions about his farming techniques. So Jacob moved back to Los Olivos to work alongside Shu—asking lots of questions. Within a few months, Shu made an exception and took Jacob on as his “final apprentice.”
Jacob’s year-long apprenticeship culminated with Shu offering him a quarter acre to plant and space to sell his produce in Shu’s booth at the farmers market.
For the next six years Jacob continued to work in Shu’s market booth, but not in the field. He was carving African drums and sculpting wooden salad bowls full time. He was also hiking in the Santa Ynez Mountains, learning to carve stone and occasionally playing the nyabinghi drum in a local reggae band. But none of these felt like the answer to what he really wanted to do.
Roots Organic Farm
That bicycle trip in 1999 crystallized a few things for him, emphasizing the value and resilience that small farms bring to a community. And that he was fortunate to live in a community with land available for small farms, a community where he could grow produce and sell it directly to the consumer.
When he got home he began to farm again, planting melons, carrots and strawberries at Midland School. Then in 2002 Jacob leased his first three acres of land and formed Roots Organic Farm, growing carrots from seed Shu had given him a couple of years earlier.
My introduction to Roots Organic Farm produce came through Arlington Tavern co-owner and chef Ron True, who told me, “Caesar salad is one of the best salads on the planet, but Little Gem lettuces from Roots Farm take it to a whole new level. Dressing and croutons are important, but the lettuce is the show. Without those Little Gems, the salad is no longer incredible. It’s just OK.”
One forkful and I understood. The freshly picked lettuce was crisp, juicy and flavorful. How could a simple leaf of lettuce taste that good? It’s so good that when that lettuce is not available Ron takes his Caesar off the menu.
I was eager to meet Jacob and visit his fields to learn why his produce is so superior to what I buy at the supermarket.
The Farm Expands
Jacob said he’d meet me at his new 37-acre Casey Avenue property in Los Olivos. This is the newest and largest of his three locations. He still farms his original 10 acres at Rancho de Los Olivos and has about eight acres in Ballard.
“Second property on the right,” he’d said. I was not at all clear where the first property ended but then I came to a field planted with rows of deep blue-green and purple kale, alternating with rows of lighter green dandelion greens and crimson red radicchio. I was pretty sure I was in the right place. I texted Jacob who texted back “Yep, I’m across the field on the blue tractor.” He was planting spring peas.
While Jacob parked his tractor, I looked across the field at the Santa Ynez Mountains. It was a crisp clear morning. “I love the view of the mountains from these fields,” he told me. “From here I can watch the shadows change. I used to drive down to these fields and think… ‘maybe someday.’ Then I got a call in September saying this place was available.”
Increased year-round demand for Roots produce has made it more challenging to plant cover crops that get turned under to nourish the soil, not sold. But cover cropping is critical for maintaining fertility. This additional land gives Jacob the space to rotate his crops. He can take the load off of his other properties, allowing for more soil enrichment at all three locations.
Soil Health and Fertility
Being a small farmer allows Jacob to pay close attention to the needs of his soil. Increased acreage requires huge quantities of organic compost often aided by some type of fertilizer. However, most organic fertilizer is made from slaughterhouse renderings. As a former vegetarian, Jacob finds it difficult to justify using meat-based fertilizers.
In nature, he has noticed that after a rain the grass growing out of animal droppings is twice as high as the grass around them. While animals that die in nature are usually eaten before they can decompose, nitrogen is put back into the soil in the form of droppings from predators. He has also watched harvester ants use straw and cut grass stems to insulate their ant cities.
“In the spring when it rains,” he says, “that ant mound grows tall stuff—concentrated fertility.”
As a naturalist, the message he reads from this is that both compost and manure are rich inputs for healthy, productive soil. So he uses a chicken manure fertilizer with rock dust mineral amendments in addition to organic compost and cover crops to feed plant nutrients into his soil.
Direct Contact with Customers
In addition to farming techniques, and careful crop planning, the small farmer must develop a reputation for the quality of his produce.
“I’ve ridden the wave of popularity of farmers markets,” Jacob says. “For the past 12 years most of my sales have been direct-to-consumer. I personally go to the market on Saturdays, but I’m farming a lot more now and I like to be home for dinner with my wife, Genevieve Herrick, 7-year-old son Orin and 4-year-old daughter Amelie.”
He has a reliable group of people to manage his stand at the markets, but his cell phone still rings a few times while we are walking in the field. One call is from Clark Staub, owner of Full of Life Flatbread. Clark needs fresh greens and root vegetables for that evening’s appetizers and pizzas. He will be at the field in an hour to pick them up.
“Clark gets it,” Jacob says. “He builds his weekly menu around what is fresh in the field. Not only fresh but at its peak.” Jacob points out that most fruits and vegetables have a peak time when they taste best. “My strawberries are good in the spring but in the fall they are amazing. Same plants.”
Jacob tastes his produce in the field before it goes to market. “If it doesn’t taste good, I don’t bring it to the market,” he says. He doesn’t use coolers to store his produce. It goes directly from field to his market stand. “I have lots of fresh beautiful lettuce, why would I want to sell yesterday’s leftovers?”
I can see that his success is all about quality and consistency. As farmers market shoppers, we learn where to go to get the best-tasting onions or tomatoes or kale. A stand like Jacob’s featuring exceptional carrots and greens gets return visits and recommendations.
Unlike large single-crop farmers, small farmers celebrate the diversity of their crops and often experiment with different varieties to find the most flavorful ones that grow well in their fields.
Small farms have the flexibility to make mistakes and recover. For example, Jacob began saving seeds from his popular Red Butter Lettuce after it was discontinued. The seeds are prolific and viable for a few years. Recently, however, he discovered that his nurseryman had almost run out of seeds. His handful of remaining seeds had a low germination rate, but enough to refresh his collection of viable seeds for next year.
Jacob also saves seeds from his favorite varieties of leek, tomato and carrots to help keep costs down. “The amount of carrots I plant now,” he says, “costs me almost $2,000 in seed. If I let just a little go to seed I have four times that much seed to plant next year.”
About three years ago Jacob found an outstanding variety of orange carrot that is sweet in the fall heat even before cold weather takes the carrots to their peak flavor. “The catch was that my new choice was a hybrid (very expensive and not stable for seed saving) and it was slated to be discontinued,” he says. “I had a similar experience with the dark purple carrots I was growing. So I selected the best of each and isolated them to begin what is known as ‘stabilizing the hybrid’ to develop a reliable seed. As an experiment I let a row of each go to seed side by side. The cross is a beautiful plum red carrot with an orange or yellow core,” a unique new variety.
Seed saving also helps preserve the diversity of heritage seeds such as the rare Blue Shackamaxon Bean, grown by the Lenape tribe on the Delaware River and preserved by Quaker farmers. Intrigued by a photo he’d seen of the brilliant blue beans in garnet red pods, Jacob contacted the Seed Savers Exchange and managed to get about 25 beans, which produced five pounds the first year and about 70 pounds the next year. Today he plants a third of an acre, which yields about 2,000 pounds of these delightful beans.
Doing Something He Believes In
Jacob stops mid-sentence to point out a flock of starlings overhead. “They’re here for the grapes in that field,” he says. “They fly, like, in a cloud and then they turn all at once and disappear for a minute.” Amazing!
Jacob’s fields put him at the center of this Los Olivos landscape. His roots run deep in the soil he farms. He’s at home here in this field, standing on this rich fertile soil, doing his best to protect the small farm economy and to nourish the community he lives in—doing something he believes in.