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Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History Series on Sustainable Agriculture and Organic Farming on California's Central Coast

The Regional History Project has been documenting the history of the Central Coast of California and the institutional history of UC Santa Cruz since 1963, through oral history, a method of conducting historical research through recorded interviews between a narrator with personal experience of historically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of adding to the historical record.

Cover page of Amy Courtney: Freewheelin' Farm

Amy Courtney: Freewheelin' Farm

(2010)

Shareholders in Freewheelin’ Farm’s community supported agriculture program enjoy an unusual perk: delivery by bicycle-drawn trailer. Freewheelin’ founder Amy Courtney, a 1997 graduate of UCSC’s Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture, strives to produce fresh, healthy food while minimizing her environmental footprint. Courtney started the farm in 2002 with almost no motorized vehicles, incorporating used equipment and recycled materials wherever possible in the farm’s operations. She and her current farming partners, Kirstin Yogg and Darryl Wong, still haul all of their CSA shares by bicycle six miles into Santa Cruz.

Courtney’s work as a farmer springs not only from a love of land and plants, but also from a commitment to social justice, community health, and cultural vitality. She majored in community studies as an undergraduate student at UCSC; before founding Freewheelin’ Farm, she worked with school gardens, Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project, the United Farm Workers and the AFL-CIO, and an agricultural extension program in Cuba. Freewheelin’s website places the farm “at the forefront of the growing movement towards community renewal, addressing issues of environment, health, and social equity in a simple and delicious way.” The Freewheelin’ farmers have begun collaborating with “Food, What?!”—a youth empowerment program based at UCSC’s Life Lab Garden Classroom. Other cultural and educational initiatives at the farm have included an annual community art show, yoga classes, and cooking instruction with Zen Buddhist priest and Tassajara Bread Book author Edward Espe Brown.

Courtney’s long, low house sits on the original Freewheelin’ acre, a stretch of cultivated land between the Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean in northern Santa Cruz County. The house and land belong to Courtney’s friend and mentor Jim Cochran—proprietor of nearby Swanton Berry Farm, and the only organic farmer to have signed a United Farm Workers contract. Sarah Rabkin interviewed Courtney there on the late afternoon of January 16th, 2009: a day of clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine that heated Courtney’s southwest-facing living room—with its large windows looking over the ocean—to a tropical warmth. Courtney and her two farming partners were poised on the brink of big changes: they had just signed a lease for an additional parcel of land, multiplying the farm’s acreage eightfold, and they were laying plans to ramp up Freewheelin’s 40-share CSA to a membership of 100.

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Cover page of Nancy Gammons: Four Sisters Farm and Watsonville Farmers' Market Manager

Nancy Gammons: Four Sisters Farm and Watsonville Farmers' Market Manager

(2010)

Nancy Gammons is both a longtime organic farmer and the manager of a weekly downtown farmers’ market in the largely Spanish-speaking city of Watsonville. Four Sisters Farm, which she and her husband Robin named in honor of their daughters, produces a variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers on five rolling acres in Aromas, California.

Gammons found her way to both of these callings by following her heart. (“I’ve approached everything in my life,” she says, “in kind of a romantic way.”) After falling in love with the Spanish language in high-school classes, she went on to major in Spanish in college, spending time abroad in Spain. Her facility with the language has since enabled her to make close connections with the Spanish-speaking workers at Four Sisters, and with farmers and other vendors at the Watsonville market.

In the 1960s, Gammons came across a copy of Robert Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening at a friend’s house, and was drawn to Rodale’s rhapsodizing about ‘the deep recesses of the compost pile.’ Again, it was love at first sight. She had her first professional gardening experience in 1970, as an employee of the Esalen Institute, in Big Sur, California. Starting Four Sisters in 1978 on marginally fertile land in the hills of Aromas, California, she and Robin have since built up twenty-eight inches of topsoil using compost and green manure. They grow kiwi fruit, apples, avocados, greens, and flowers.

Gammons’ involvement with farmers’ markets goes back to her participation in the founding of markets in San Francisco (Alemany Market), Berkeley, and downtown Santa Cruz. The Watsonville market hired her as manager not long after its 2000 inception. Under her leadership, it now hosts some forty vendors, and provides unique income-generating opportunities for local Latino farmers and food vendors.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Nancy Gammons on Monday, January 26th, 2009, at Four Sisters Farm in Aromas, California.

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Cover page of Cynthia Sandberg: Love Apple Farm

Cynthia Sandberg: Love Apple Farm

(2010)

Cynthia Sandberg is proprietor of Love Apple Farm—an establishment unique among Central Coast small farms in its combination of biodynamic techniques, an exclusive supply relationship with a single high-end restaurant, a focus on heirloom tomatoes, a rich public offering of on-farm classes, and a successful Internet-based marketing strategy.

Love Apple occupies two productive acres in Ben Lomond, in Santa Cruz County’s San Lorenzo Valley. Sandberg farms according to the biodynamic principles developed in the 1920s by Rudolph Steiner, and is seeking certification for Love Apple through Demeter USA, the country’s only certifying agent for biodynamic farms. In addition to shunning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, a certified biodynamic farm must also be managed, according to Demeter’s website, as if it were “a living organism,” minimizing waste and external inputs.

As the kitchen garden for upscale Manresa restaurant in nearby Los Gatos (Santa Clara County), Love Apple enjoys a symbiotic business relationship with the two-Michelin-star restaurant and its executive chef-proprietor, David Kinch, who often visits the farm. While Sandberg grows a wide variety of produce for Manresa and for sale in her seasonal on-site farm cart, she specializes in heirloom tomatoes, of which she produces more than 100 varieties. (Locals sometimes refer to her as “The Tomato Lady.”) She sells tomato starts every spring, and teaches popular classes on a wide variety of topics including growing tomatoes from seed, building tomato cages, and gardening in containers. And she has cultivated an effective online marketing strategy centered on her blog/website.

Farming is a second career for Sandberg, a former attorney. She unwittingly launched her new life in the early 1990s, when, hoping to improve her rudimentary gardening skills, she enrolled in horticulture classes at Cabrillo, Santa Cruz County’s community college. A few years later, her early-spring gardening preparations proved unexpectedly successful, and she found herself puzzling about what to do with 290 excess tomato seedlings. She arrayed them in the driveway along with a sign and an honor-system money jar—and passersby quickly snapped them up. Thus was born Love Apple Farm.

“Love apple” is an old French name for the tomato, historically associated with aphrodisiac qualities. The farm’s name also commemorates Harry Love, a former Texas Ranger who led the attack on Mexican Robin-Hood figure Joaquin Murrieta and his band of outlaws in San Benito County in 1853. Sandberg has been told that the house she inhabits, now surrounded by garden beds and greenhouses, was built with Love’s reward money.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Cynthia Sandberg on the back porch of Sandberg’s Love Apple farmhouse in Ben Lomond, California, on March 9, 2009.

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Cover page of Jim Rider: Bruce Rider & Sons

Jim Rider: Bruce Rider & Sons

(2010)

As a grower and shipper of organic fresh market apples in Santa Cruz County’s Pajaro Valley, Bruce Rider & Sons is currently a rarity. Pressured by the apple industry’s shifting economics of scale, many of the valley’s formerly abundant orchards have given way to berry fields; others now supply apples only for juicing and processing. Jim Rider grows seventy-five acres of Mcintosh, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Braeburn, Fuji, and other varieties well suited to the local climate, while his brother Dick runs the company’s packing operation, handling some seventy-five percent of the organic apples in California.

A fifth-generation orchardist and experienced horticulturalist, Jim Rider enjoys a reputation as a savvy, innovative grower. He is an adept and enthusiastic grafter, and has made strategic selections to produce a succession of varieties that ripen on the Central Coast when customers in other climates crave them. He saves on labor and equipment by growing on rootstock that yields smaller trees and by keeping the orchards pruned to a maximum of seven or eight feet tall, averting the need for ladders during pruning, thinning, harvesting, and other operations.

Accustomed to making frequent proactive adjustments to ever-changing market and environmental conditions, Rider converted all of his orchards to organic production in the wake of the public awareness over the spraying of Alar on apples in 1989. Rider collaborated with UCSC entomologist Sean Swezey in ten years of organic field research trials; together they pioneered a pheromone-based mating-disruption system to control codling moth infestation. He has also experimented with hedgerows as a method of enhancing biological pest control.

In this interview, conducted by Sarah Rabkin on March 6, 2008, at Jim Rider’s Watsonville office, he discussed apple production in the Pajaro Valley, his conversion to organic production, the changing markets for organic apples, his orchard management techniques, the flower business he and his wife ran until recently, and other aspects of his operation.

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Cover page of Juan Pablo (J.P.) Perez: J&P Organics

Juan Pablo (J.P.) Perez: J&P Organics

(2010)

Juan Pablo “J.P.” Perez founded his J & P Organics Community Supported Agriculture program in 2006, while he was a college student, with a subscriber cohort of five friends and advertisements on Craigslist and a campus electronic marketplace. Today, Perez employs his parents and siblings in his expanding farm enterprise, which serves about 300 (and growing) CSA subscribers in towns as geographically and economically disparate as Prunedale, Pacific Grove, and Palo Alto.

J & P Organics offers an unusually generous roster of subscriber options, including home delivery for all customers and a choice of pay-as-you-go weekly, alternate-weeks, or monthly orders. Customers who grow their own vegetables can opt to receive boxes only during the months when their gardens lie fallow. Perez’s CSA boxes contain a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables, plus optional fresh eggs and flowers—and he has plans to include more exotic variety in future shares. He also delivers to restaurants and sells at farmers’ markets, where he creates eye-catching displays to attract customers.

In his mid-twenties, Perez is one of the youngest organic farmers to run such a burgeoning enterprise. His success testifies not only to his dedication, skills, and entrepreneurial savvy, but also to the effectiveness of the program that mentored him and his father in organic farming: the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA). The son of Mexican-born parents, J.P. was born in Salinas, California, in 1983. When the young Perez was a teenager, his father, who was growing raspberries and cut flowers on five acres of leased land in Watsonville, offered him the choice of working full time with him in the fields, or concentrating on school. Fully aware of the hard work and low pay he could expect as a farmer, J.P. opted for school and opportunities for alternative employment.

As it turned out, Perez’s academic career took him full circle. After trying a variety of majors at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), he gravitated toward earth systems science and policy. This field of study led him into two internships with ALBA and another at Serendipity Farms in Carmel Valley. Eventually, J.P. persuaded his father, Pablo (the “P” in “J & P”) to enroll with him in ALBA’s Programa Educativa para Pequeños Agricultores (PEPA), which trains small farmers in organic production methods and marketing techniques.

Pablo and his wife, Florencia, now oversee most of the farming operation on acreage that the family leases from ALBA, while J.P. takes primary responsibility for sales and marketing. The family hopes to buy its own farmland, where they aim to raise livestock and orchards as well as row crops.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed J. P. Perez on June 22nd, 2009, at Rabkin’s home in Soquel, California.

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Cover page of Jim Cochran: Swanton Berry Farm

Jim Cochran: Swanton Berry Farm

(2010)

Jim Cochran was born in Carlsbad, California in 1947. He came to UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s as an undergraduate student to study child development and 19th century European intellectual history. As a student at Merrill College (one of the UC Santa Cruz residential colleges), he lived up the hill from the Chadwick Garden (Student Garden Project) and admired the organic food and flowers grown on that steep hillside. After he graduated, Cochran took a job as an assistant to organizers of Co-op Campesina, a farm worker-owned production co-op in the Pajaro Valley, California. He later helped several farmer co-ops in Central California with marketing and financial planning. This shaped his future role as founder of Swanton Berry Farm, famous as the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). Swanton Berry Farm offers their workers low income housing on site, health insurance, vacation and holiday pay, a pension, and other benefits including an employee stock ownership program. In 2006 Cochran received the Honoring Advocates for Social Justice in Sustainable Agriculture (Justie) Award from the Ecological Farming Association.

Cochran began Swanton Berry Farm in 1983 because he wanted to try to grow strawberries organically. He was the first (modern) commercial organic strawberry farmer in California, and in 1987 the California Certified Organic Farmers certified his farm. Cochran’s methods became a resource for other organic strawberry growers, and in 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded him the Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for developing organic methods of growing strawberries that did not rely on the soil fumigant methyl bromide. A key component of Jim’s success was his partnership with UC Santa Cruz agroecologists Steve Gliessman and Sean Swezey in on-farm research.

Travelers along the North Coast of Santa Cruz County visit the Swanton farm stand on Highway One, where they pick strawberries by the sea, and savor the fabulous jams, truffles, strawberry pies, scones and other treats concocted in the kitchen. When no one is minding the store, customers pay on the honor system, a lesson in trust that Cochran encourages. A photo exhibit documenting the agricultural history of Santa Cruz County and of the United Farm Workers is displayed above long comfortable tables where customers sip coffee supplied by the Community Agroecology Network.

Ever a visionary, Cochran joined the Roots of Change Council’s Vivid Picture Project, which is “daring to dream up a comprehensive vision of a sustainable food system in California.” He discusses all of these aspects of his career in this interview conducted by Ellen Farmer on December 10, 2007, at Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California.

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Cover page of Erika Perloff: Director of Educational Programs, Life Lab Science Program

Erika Perloff: Director of Educational Programs, Life Lab Science Program

(2010)

Erika Perloff directs educational programs for the Life Lab Science Program, a nationally recognized, award-winning nonprofit science and environmental organization located on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Founded in 1979, Life Lab helps schools develop gardens and implement curricula to enhance students’ learning about science, math, and the natural world. The program has trained tens of thousands of educators in more than 1400 schools across the country.

Life Lab’s specialized projects include LASERS (Language Acquisition in Science Education for Rural Schools), now renamed the Monterey Bay Science Project, which trains teachers to teach language development through scientific exploration. The organization’s Waste Free Schools program helps teachers and students reduce school waste through conservation. Its model Garden Classroom, located at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, is used for teacher training and school field trips and events.

Perloff’s interest in garden-based science education began with a love of natural history. As a college student, she transferred from Carlton College in Minnesota to UC Santa Cruz, where she double-majored in environmental studies and biology. Among her formative educational experiences was UCSC’s celebrated Natural History Field Quarter. After graduating in 1983, she worked in outdoor education jobs for the National Park Service, the Yosemite Institute, and the Headlands Institute in Marin County. Eventually, desiring more sustained contact with students, she earned a teaching credential at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.

While working as an elementary science specialist in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, Perloff took a Life Lab teacher training, which inspired her to revive an old garden patch at her school. “There was nothing as exciting,” she said in this interview, “as walking into the classroom and the kids would see my keys for the garden, and they would just jump up and down and say, “El jardín! El jardín!”

Perloff began leading Life Lab teacher workshops herself on weekends, and soon was flying around the U.S., funded by a Department of Education program called the National Diffusion Network, to train Life Lab teachers in other states. She joined the Life Lab board of directors, and in 1990 accepted the job of education coordinator.

In this interview, conducted by Sarah Rabkin at the UCSC Science and Engineering Library on July 9th, 2008, Erika Perloff described the colorful variety of projects and initiatives that have occupied her attention at Life Lab. She also reflected on the national impact of the program, and its possibilities for the future.

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Cover page of Roberta Jaffe, Founding Director, Life Lab Science Program, Co-Founder of Community Agroecology Network

Roberta Jaffe, Founding Director, Life Lab Science Program, Co-Founder of Community Agroecology Network

(2010)

Roberta (Robbie) Jaffe grew up in New York in the 1950s, and moved to Florida when she was sixteen. She attended the University of Florida and University of South Florida, and graduated with a degree in sociology. During and after college she was deeply involved in the United Farm Workers (UFW) movement as a field organizer and boycott organizer for the state of Florida. Jaffe first came to the Santa Cruz area with her then-husband, Jerry Kay, who was also active in the sustainable agriculture movement. They farmed ten acres near Elkhorn Slough, and in 1976, Jaffe helped start the first farmers’ market in Santa Cruz County, at Live Oak School.

After that marriage ended, Jaffe studied horticulture at Cabrillo College with Richard Merrill, and took a position with a CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program called Project Blossom. As part of that program, she co-founded a school garden at Green Acres School in Live Oak, a semi-rural area near Santa Cruz, California. This was the genesis of the Life Lab Science Program, which grew into a groundbreaking nonprofit organization that works with schools throughout the United States to develop school gardens and curriculum for teaching science and nutrition. Jaffe served as founding executive director of the program for many years.

Jaffe earned a second master’s degree in education from UC Santa Cruz, with an emphasis in agroecology. She met and married Steve Gliessman (also the subject of an oral history in this series). In 2001, they co-founded the Community Agroecology Network (CAN). CAN defines its goals as, “to help a network of rural, primarily coffee-growing communities in Mexico and Central America develop self-sufficiency and sustainable growing practices, and direct market coffee to consumers in the United States.”

Jaffe is the co-author of “From Differentiated Coffee Markets Towards Alternative Trade and Knowledge Networks,” in Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Sustaining Livelihoods and Ecosystems in Mexico and Central America, and many Life Lab publications, including The Growing Classroom.

Ellen Farmer interviewed Robbie Jaffe on May 5, 2007, at Jaffe's house in Santa Cruz, California. Farmer’s MA thesis (in public policy) at California State University at Monterey Bay focused on the coffee crisis. As a graduate student, she worked with Jaffe at CAN, and brought her knowledge of the economics and politics of coffee growing in Latin America to the interview.

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Cover page of Patricia Allen: Director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable  Food Systems

Patricia Allen: Director of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

(2010)

As director of the world-renowned Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at UC Santa Cruz, Patricia Allen wears an extraordinary number of administrative hats. As one of the nation’s most prominent scholars on social aspects of food production, distribution, and access, she illuminates the changing food system as it affects and is shaped by conditions of labor, gender, and social inequality.

CASFS has dramatically broadened its mission since its origins in the campus garden that came to life in 1967 under the stewardship of pioneering horticulturist Alan Chadwick. The UC system’s first program to focus on sustainable food production and distribution, the 21st-century Center is (as its January 2008 self-study states) “dedicated to increasing ecological sustainability and social justice in the world’s food and agriculture system.” The Center’s accomplishments have been formally recognized on several recent occasions. In January 2007, the Ecological Farming Association presented its Steward of Sustainable Agriculture (“Sustie”) Award to the staff of the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture; in October of that year, US Representative Sam Farr read a testimonial about CASFS into the Congressional Record.

As CASFS Director since July 2007 (after six months as Acting Director), Allen oversees some 35 employees; a 25-acre farm and 3-acre garden with a seasonal produce stand and community supported agriculture program; a full-time residential Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture that annually trains a diverse group of 35-40 organic farmers, gardeners, and educators; a wide range of research and service initiatives; prolific publications and events programs; educational offerings for undergraduate and graduate students as well as the general public, and ongoing fundraising efforts.

Allen’s many administrative responsibilities compete for her time with her research on food and social justice—a driving passion, as is clear in this oral history. Her publications include Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Food System, published in 2004 by Pennsylvania State University Press, along with numerous articles and book chapters.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Patricia Allen on two occasions, in Allen’s office at Oakes College on the UCSC campus. The interview conducted on December 4, 2008, emphasized Allen’s education and professional background and her work with CASFS. On May 21st, 2009, the primary focus was on her research and writing.

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Cover page of Jerry and Jean Thomas: Thomas Farm

Jerry and Jean Thomas: Thomas Farm

(2010)

Jerry Thomas grew up in the Los Angeles area and attended college at San Fernando Valley College (now California State University, Northridge), where he earned a master’s degree in urban/economic geography. He is a fifth-generation Californian on his mother’s side of the family. After a stint in the Peace Corps in Guyana, South America, Jerry and his wife, Jean (who also grew up in LA), wanted to leave smoggy and congested Los Angeles. They moved to the Santa Cruz area in 1970, and became back-to-the-landers on five acres of land in the foothills of Aptos.

In this oral history, conducted by Ellen Farmer on March 20 and May 7, 2007, at Thomas Farms, the Thomases describe how what began as a large garden grew into Thomas Farms, now one of the oldest organic farms in California. Jerry was invited to participate in Rodale’s organic certification program that pre-dated California Certified Organic Farmers, and was a founding member of California Certified Organic Farmers. He helped draft the first state organic legislation in 1979. Jerry has served as a County Farm Bureau director and as a member of the County Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, and frequently speaks at the Ecological Farming Association’s Eco-Farm conference. He has served on the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers’ Market board of directors.

Jean helps run Thomas Farms, and also teaches adult education courses in writing, science and math. A watercolor and monoprint artist, Jean serves on the Pajaro Valley Arts Council; in 2007 she curated Market Motion, an art show about the farmers’ markets in the Central Coast area.

The Thomases have represented the Community Alliance of Family Farmers (CAFF) as members of the Campaign to Save Pajaro Valley Farmlands and Wetlands. They mentor younger organic farmers, and participate in many local farmers’ markets, where their booths are distinguished by a dazzling plethora of colorful sunflowers, zinnias, irises, lilies and other cut flowers.

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