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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 Russel and Karen Wolter: Down to Earth Farm

Russel and Karen Wolter: Down to Earth Farm

(2010)

Born in Pacific Grove, the descendent of pioneers who came to California with the De Anza party in 1774, Russel Wolter has been farming “organically” since he was fourteen, when his mother forbade him to use chemical fertilizers and sprays on their ranch in the Carmel Valley. That was in 1947, decades before organic certification, but Wolter’s expertise in organic farming methods became a valuable resource to a newer generation of farmers who began farming organically in the 1970s. After his mother’s death, Russel and his wife, Karen, farmed forty-five acres of the family ranch as Down to Earth Farm, growing a variety of crops, including sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, red and white chard, kale, collards, cucumbers, apricots, plums, winter squash, pumpkins, and fava beans. They distributed their produce through Bud Capurro’s distribution company based in Moss Landing, California, and also sold directly at farmers’ markets in the area. Down to Earth Farm was part of the original organic certification program initiated by Rodale Press’s Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine in 1971. Russel was a founding member of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and received a Stewards of Sustainable Agriculture (Sustie) Award in 1994. Russel and Karen are now retired from farming, and lease their land to Earthbound Farms. Ellen Farmer conducted this interview with Russel and Karen at their home in Carmel Valley on March 28, 2007.

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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 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 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 Larry Jacobs: Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo

Larry Jacobs: Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo

(2010)

Larry Jacobs is the co-founder of Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo with his wife, Sandra Belin. He was born in 1950 in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, California. As a young man, he owned and managed a tree nursery. When aphids infested some of his trees, a pesticide inspector sold him Metasystox to apply with a backpack sprayer. Jacobs temporarily became very ill from pesticide exposure. Vowing never to apply pesticides again, he searched for alternatives. Jacobs was lucky to find a mentor in Everett (“Deke”) Dietrick, a pioneer in the integrated pest management field, who taught him how to control the aphid infestation through IPM methods.

Shortly after that, Jacobs left the nursery business to study soil science at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo. After graduation, he moved to Vermont to apprentice with Helen and Scott Nearing, world-famous grandparents of the back-to-the-land and simple-living movements in the United States. In Vermont, Jacobs met his future wife, Sandra Belin. After a stint in Guatemala helping bring appropriate technology to the Western Highlands region, he and Sandra moved to Pescadero, California, a small town nestled in the rounded hills above the Pacific Ocean in San Mateo County, where in 1980 they founded Jacobs Farm. Jacobs Farm is now the largest organic culinary herb producer in the United States, growing sixty varieties of fresh culinary herbs and culinary flowers at seven farming locations on the Central Coast of California.

In 1986, Larry and Sandra were inspired to work with a cooperative of family farmers in Baja California, Mexico, to start the Del Cabo organic growers association. Together they created an international market for organic vegetables grown in Baja California for shipment north, especially during the winter season. Jacobs Farm became Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo.

Now each of Del Cabo’s farmers earns between $24,000 and $100,000 a year and receives retirement benefits and health insurance for life. Del Cabo imports nineteen million pounds of cherry tomatoes and other vegetables into U.S. markets, and as far away as Iceland and Dubai. As of 2009, Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo farms a total of 3700 field acres, and 22 acres of greenhouses.

In 2008, Jacobs won a landmark pesticide drift case against pesticide application company Western Farm Service, Inc. The court found that the contamination of organic crops caused by pesticides drifting after application violated the rights of the organic crop grower. Jacobs’ narration of the events surrounding that case is a critical part of his oral history.

This oral history, conducted by Irene Reti on March 11 and June 10, 2008, at the Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo offices in Santa Cruz, was conducted over several evenings at the end of Jacobs’ busy days. He is a vivid and natural storyteller.

In 2009, Jacobs and Belin received the Ecological Farming Association’s (Eco-Farm) “Stewards of Sustainable Agriculture” or “Sustie” award for their lifetime achievements in sustainable agriculture.

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Cover page of Melody Meyer: Organic Foods Distributor

Melody Meyer: Organic Foods Distributor

(2010)

Conducted by Ellen Farmer on June 8 and September 22, 2007, Melody Meyer’s oral history documents the extraordinary transformation of the organic foods sector between the 1970s and the early 21st century. Meyer was born in Iowa in 1960; she was introduced to organic and natural foods at age sixteen, when she began working at a natural foods co-op in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She moved to Santa Cruz in the late 1970s and joined Community Foods, a collectively owned, collectively run natural foods store, where she stayed for six years. There she met many local organic growers who came to sell their produce in the store and through its affiliate, Santa Cruz Trucking.

After leaving Community Foods, Meyer became Watsonville Coast Produce’s first woman buyer, developing an organic distribution program. Later she was hired by Ocean Organics, an organic foods distribution company located in Moss Landing, California. She moved on to work for six years for Scott Hawkins of Hawkins Associates, where she pioneered transporting organic produce from California to distant markets such as Bread and Circus, Wellspring Grocery, Mrs. Gooch’s, and other small natural food store chains in the Midwest and on the East Coast, many of which were eventually bought by Whole Foods. In 1995, Meyer left Hawkins to start her own distribution company, Source Organic. Her Jack Russell terrier, Dylan, became president of the company and had his own voice mail and e-mail account. Dylan settled under the table during the oral history, and his contented snores can be heard on the audio recording of this interview.

In 2000, Source Organic became a subsidiary of Albert’s Organics, which in turn was bought by United Natural Foods International (UNFI)—a reflection of increasing consolidation in the organic foods industry. In 2006, New Hope Media awarded Melody Meyer the Spirit of Organic award, honoring organic leaders nominated by their peers in the industry.

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Cover page of Andy Griffin: Mariquita Farm

Andy Griffin: Mariquita Farm

(2010)

Andy Griffin runs Mariquita (“Ladybug”) Farm on twenty-five acres in Watsonville and Hollister. In collaboration with Steven Pedersen and Jeanne Byrne’s High Ground Organics in Watsonville, Griffin and his wife, Julia Wiley, sell much of their produce through a community supported agriculture venture called Two Small Farms.

Possessed of a quick mind and a powerful command of language, a wry and robust sense of humor, and strong opinions gleaned through extensive experience in the farming and marketing of organic produce, Griffin is also a prolific writer, blogger, and radio commentator. With farming roots reaching into California’s 1970s organic-farming renaissance, he has plenty of stories to tell.

The great-grandson of California farmers and son of a plant ecologist, Griffin took agriculture classes through the Future Farmers of America program at Carmel High School, then went on to UC Davis to study range management. Disillusioned by the pesticide-heavy focus of that program, he eventually completed a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

Griffin’s practical education took place in a series of jobs on farms—including Cargill-owned sunflower fields in Davis, an organic garden that supplied produce to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the Straus family dairy and Warren Weber’s Star Route Farms in Marin County, and a ranch in Santa Barbara County. After stints as a produce distributor, he eventually established Riverside Farm with partner Greg Beccio. The proceeds from that successful salad-greens business funded the creation of Happy Boy Farms, now run by Beccio—and eventually helped Griffin establish Mariquita Farm.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Andy Griffin at her Soquel home on November 6th and December 16th, 2008. In addition to rollicking anecdotes, Griffin’s extensive transcript provides trenchant insights into the evolving economics of organic production, distribution, and marketing on both small and large scales.

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Cover page of Guillermo Payet: Founder, LocalHarvest.org

Guillermo Payet: Founder, LocalHarvest.org

(2010)

Guillermo Payet is the founder of Localharvest.org, a leading organic and local food website that maintains a public nationwide directory of small farms, farmers’ markets, and other local food sources; helps eaters find products from family farms, as well as other local sources of sustainably grown food, and encourages them to establish direct contact with small farms in their area.

Payet grew up in Lima, Peru, in the 1960s and 1970s. His family visited small farms in the Andes and fishing villages on the Peruvian coast, where he learned to savor the taste of local food. As Payet writes on his website, “During the 1980s, Peru was victimized by two opposing forces: the dehumanizing economic colonialism of transnationals, and the misguided rage and violence of the Maoist Shining Path. These two forces wreaked havoc in the country . . . Family farms found it impossible to compete with cheap, subsidized agricultural products dumped into Peruvian markets by richer countries, and the impoverished Andean people were forced by the violence of the civil war to flee their rural villages. Millions were forced into lives of abject poverty in polluted and overcrowded cities, working for pennies in factories (if lucky enough to find a job) producing cheap products for export, helping generate profits that would never benefit them or their families.”

When car bombs began blowing out the windows of his home, Payet decided to leave Peru. He came to the United States as a student, entering a computer science program at Santa Clara University, and then beginning a career as a systems engineer. He eventually started Ocean Group, a web development company. By coincidence, he rented an office location next door to the offices of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), and developed a friendship with Reggie Knox [also interviewed for this project], who was working for CAFF at the time. Knox and Payet began talking about the fate of small farms in the United States, and Localharvest.org began as a project of Ocean Group in 1999.

In this oral history, conducted by Ellen Farmer at her house in Santa Cruz, California, on October 7, 2007, Payet describes the growth of Localharvest.org. As of 2009, the company has 19,000 members, including 11,740 farms and 4,425 farmers markets, and is growing by twenty members a day. As the Buy Local movement has burgeoned, so has interest in the website, which receives 22,000 hits a day. Even since this 2007 interview took place, business has burgeoned. Payet’s goal is to “leverage the Internet and the vast array of community-owned tools provided by the world of Open Source software to help build virtual communities, and to use these as tools for achieving a sustainable future for real, physical communities.” His company attracts significant attention from Time magazine, Wired, Redbook, ABC-TV, the New York Times, and other media outlets.

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Cover page of Ken Kimes & Sandra Ward: New Natives Farm

Ken Kimes & Sandra Ward: New Natives Farm

(2010)

Both Ken Kimes and Sandra Ward grew up in Southern California. They met in the Los Angeles area, but moved to Santa Cruz in 1980. Together they founded New Natives Farm, a greenhouse-based farm certified by California Certified Organic Farmers in 1983, and located in Corralitos, California. There they tend organic sprouts, including alfalfa, wheat grass, pea shoots, sunflower sprouts, broccoli, and beans. In addition to managing their farm full time, Kimes and Ward are both outspoken activists dedicated to the sustainable agriculture movement. They are longtime members of California Certified Organic Farmers. Kimes served on the board of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) for many years, and worked for Santa Cruz Trucking, an organic foods distribution company affiliated with the local health food cooperative, Community Foods. In this oral history, conducted by Ellen Farmer on May 3, 2007, at New Natives Farm, Kimes and Ward share their recollections, impressions, and opinions of the organic farming movement over the past thirty years.

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Cover page of Jim Leap: Farm Manager, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

Jim Leap: Farm Manager, Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems

(2010)

Since 1990, Jim Leap has managed the 25-acre farm at UC Santa Cruz—designing crop systems, overseeing production, purchasing and maintaining equipment, teaching apprentices, supervising staff, coordinating field research, helping write training manuals, and educating students and visitors about the farm. In March, 2009, he was recognized with the UC Small Farm Program’s Pedro Ilic Award for Outstanding Educator. The honor is named for an influential Fresno County small-farm advisor who was an important mentor to Leap.

With California family roots reaching back to the 1850s, Leap grew up in California’s Central Valley. His father, an independent insurance agent and anti-racism activist, wrote policies for the United Farm Workers at a time when other insurers refused the organization’s business. Growing up in the 1960s, the young Leap was exposed to UFW grape boycotts, Teatro Campesino productions, and other activities connected with the farm worker movement. As a teenager, he harvested grapes in 110-degree heat—straining to keep pace with his fellow workers, and learning firsthand about the human costs of large-scale, profit-first farm practices.

After graduating from Fresno High in 1973, frustrated by the circuitous and drawn-out aspects of political activism, Leap sought to challenge the agribusiness status quo in a more direct, hands-on way. He ended up founding a successful small farming operation of his own, where he emphasized sustainable methods, drawing inspiration and guidance from innovative Central Valley growers. He also worked as crop production manager for a federally funded program that trained Native American farmers, a position that enabled him to run field trials for novel production techniques.

At thirty, Leap returned to school, completing an agricultural science degree at Fresno State while maintaining his farm, and graduating with honors in five years. He envisioned continuing on to a master’s degree and eventually becoming a farm advisor. Instead, at a friend’s urging, he applied for the operations-manager position at the UCSC Farm, and was offered the job, which has been more than a full-time occupation ever since. Sarah Rabkin interviewed Jim Leap in the Regional History Project offices at McHenry Library, UCSC, on June 9, 2008.

  • 2 supplemental audio files