April 30, 2019 – The iconic family farm, once common in the United States, used to be a unique form of livelihood, a blend of business and lifestyle. Many families earned a fair living specializing in something like dairy, selling milk through a cooperative, making sure everyone shared the small but adequate income.
Then they purchased what little they needed from the general store, sustaining their families mostly with what they grew on their own diversified farms – hogs, chickens, eggs, a wide variety of vegetables and tree fruit, with goats or cows for milk. They might have a big corn field for animal food and delectable sweet corn in the heat of summer. Sometimes the farm wife enjoyed growing peonies and petunias for the thrill of watching them bloom. Why am I tearing up while I write this? It’s the story of my grandparents’ farm, lost to history, and it’s probably why I love chatting with Javier Zamora.
Zamora chose farming in north Monterey County after 20 years of urban real estate investments in Los Angeles left him broke during the economic crisis of 2008. In his youth, he had farmed with his father in Mexico, and because he had fond memories, he decided to return to the work that he knew instinctively how to do. Recently he increased his acreage and lives in his home at the farm while working creatively with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation to support a conservation easement.
“My business model is to have the crew members make a good living, do whatever they want to do besides working here, and have enough money, but also grow a lot of healthy food for a larger part of the community. That’s my thing,” he says.
As I stood talking with him in a freshly tilled field early in April, workers were placing tiny jicama seeds into the soil, planting as partners, to insure the spacing was right. They chatted and joked as they moved past us down the rows. On one return trip, a mom told Javier in Spanish that she would be leaving for a few hours to take her child to the doctor.
“That wasn’t staged,” he told me. “She was checking in with me out of respect, but she told me her foreman already knew.” Thanks to Javier’s translation, I learned that he was joking with her saying, “I’m not the boss,” at the same time telling her it was fine. Zamora’s Spanish fluency gives him an advantage in building easy-going relationships with his employees.
My grandfather used to take time to joke with everyone while running his farm. If I showed up at his dairy barn in a red dress, he would say, “My, my, what a beautiful green dress!” And then he would delight in my indignant reaction. Having time for friendly banter on the farm makes the day go by faster and the hard chores seem easier. Even though farms are very productive, they don’t have to be run like factories. Javier is motivated by getting to know his loyal long-term employees and watching them thrive.
As a businessman, he learned that the way you treat your employees can make or break your business. So when he started his farm, he began gathering people around him and saw to it that they could live well working there.
“I want people to be part of this, but this is not their entire life. They have their lives—they have their kids, they have their families, so family comes first and then everything else.”
“I’m a Mexican who came to America. I’m a transplant, but I made America my home because I’ve lived here most of my life. So I’m really happy that I can understand both worlds and navigate really well (I think) in both. “
Javier began his retraining at the Horticulture program at Cabrillo College where he learned how to grow cut flowers that do well in this region. One of his staff, Hana Lyon, is especially fond of showing off theranunculus, delphiniums, and pincushion proteas on Facebook and Instagram and with anyone who stops by the JSM Organics booth at the farmer’s market at Fort Mason in San Francisco. In only seven years, Javier has grown his farm from a few acres to several hundred, scaling up because he knows how to hustle those urban accounts. His workers also rock the Kensington and Diablo Valley farmer’s markets, and help him serve wholesale, restaurant, and special event accounts.
“Coming to Spring on the Farmis a good way for customers to connect with the farm and see how we do it, what it really takes. I think it’s a good opportunity for them to get a different perspective of where their food comes from, instead of just visiting the farmer’s market or grocery store,” he says.
Zamora now he leases out some of his land at low cost to ALBA (Agriculture & Land Based Training Association) graduates, where he received his organic farm training. He sits on the Boards of ALBA, Eco-Farm, and Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, and is a member of USDA’s Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.
In Washington DC, he testified before the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of increased support for specialty crops and organic farmers in the farm bill. His goal was to bring attention and public money to ordinary small farmers, once the backbone of American society, and help consumers make the connection.
“The role of the farmer protecting our natural resources is absolutely something that we always have in mind, especially organic growers. As an organic grower we have to make sure the soil gets fed, not just mined and used. Feeding the soil is something that we rely heavily on—cover cropping, using compost, and trying to reduce the damage that we’re doing. It needs to be here for future generations, and we need to make sure we do our part. It’s important for us to make sure the organic matter builds up. We try to control any kind of leaching or erosion, especially here where we farm on hills. Use it, feed it, leave it better than what you found when you started. That’s our job for future generations to come,” he adds.
Other regenerative farms open this spring include Monkeyflower Ranch, just a mile away from JSM Organics as the crow flies, which offers a Spring Open House the same afternoon. Farmer Rebecca King has baby lambs to swoon over, baby pigs to feed, and a tour of her cheese-making facility. Boots and sun hats are recommended. “A little sombrero,” says Zamora.
Ellen Farmer is a freelance writer and organizer living in Santa Cruz.