The Farmed Life

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Posted April 22, 2010 in Feature Story

While tending to your Farmville crops may seem overwhelming at times, there are residents in the Inland Empire who are still fighting the good fight on their own soil. That scuffle started when Anson Van Leuvan brought six orange trees to San Bernardino Valley from San Gabriel Valley in 1857. 

 

Then the railroads arrived. Advanced water irrigation systems weren’t far behind, spurring an agricultural and land boom. By 1910, at least 100,000 acres of navel oranges were already planted in California, mostly in what was then called the Citrus Belt—the area stretching from Pasadena to Redlands. 

 

Sales reached $200 million, according to Ingersoll’s Century Annual of San Bernardino County. By 1949, there were 50,000 citrus acres producing. By the end of 1989, there were 6,840 citrus acres left. 

 

By the 1930s, dairy farms were predominant in the area. But by the 1990s, you could visibly see the acres of farmland being sold off to developers for housing tracts, a trend that started after World War II. Anyone who had been through Chino or Ontario during the last five decades can drive through the area and see the change.

 

GOT MILK?

Used to be the dew of the morning overwhelmed the area with the smell of agriculture from mega farms. Cow manure was absolutely overwhelming.

 

In 2008, San Bernardino County produced $547,439,000 worth of agriculture, down by $24,734,300 from the year prior. According to the report, “Crop and Livestock Report,” by County Agricultural Commissioner John Gardner, the decrease was caused by excess milk production and less demand for flowers and plants for landscaping in new construction. Still, milk remains the No. 1 product produced in the area, with livestock and poultry making up 81 percent of the production in the county. 

 

The Gorzeman Dairy, a family-owned farm in Ontario that once had about 4,000 cattle, closed its doors in September 2009 after 20 years in business. A manure fire sealed the deal, but there were other factors that led to the dairy’s demise prior to that. 

 

Milk prices went down while the cost of feed increased. “We couldn’t hang on,” says Karla Gorzeman, whose father Glenn owned the 20-acre dairy, and whose grandfather and great-grandfather were also dairymen. 

 

At least five other dairy farms in Ontario and Chino closed their farms and sold their herds to Cooperatives Working Together during the last two years. The Co-op offers a herd retirement program that offers struggling dairy farmers a way to opt out of the milk biz while also scaling back overproduction at a time when milk consumption has slowed.

 

ORGANIC GROWTH

Many small produce farmers in the Inland Empire are finding creative ways to stay afloat and capitalize on the area’s rich agriculture history.

 

“Despite continued conversion of agricultural land in the county to residential and business development, agriculture is still an integral component of the community in many areas,” Gardner states. “The importance of agricultural land can only increase as open space decreases and the preservation of these properties may become essential to the quality of life in our communities.” 

 

Riverside County saw an increase of $3.5 million in its total gross valuation from 2007 to 2008, which breaks down to a 2.3 percent increase for agriculture and a 5.3 percent decrease in livestock and poultry production, according to the 2008 Annual Crop Report released by John Snyder, agricultural commissioner for Riverside County.

 

Agriculture must change with the times to survive, and many farmers are helping spearhead the revolution right here in the IE by meeting the demand for locally-grown, organic produce.

 

“There’s a veil that has dropped between the foods that we eat and where it’s produced,” Eric Schlosser says in the 2009 Oscar award-nominated documentary Food, Inc. “The reality is a factory, not a farm,” he says, “and corporations bent on speed, efficiency and consistency have taken control to the detriment of the nation’s health and sustainability.”

 

A few local farmers are saying “enough.”  But it’s not easy for David to fight Goliath while intentionally keeping things simple and small.

 

RUNNING LIKE CLOCKWORK 

One Redlands group keeps its fists up. The Inland Orange Conservancy (IOC) is a nonprofit project focusing on citrus preservation in the Inland Empire. IOC helps citrus growers persevere by connecting them to local consumers in its Share the Crop program. Members receive two 5-pound bags of locally grown oranges weekly. 

 

The IOC—started by Bob Knight Jr., a fourth-generation Mentone citrus grower—works as the middleman but pays the growers up to five times as much as large chain stores like Walmart. In turn, members get citrus from the area The New York Times once called the “Napa Valley of the navel orange.”

 

Until 2002, Knight worked as a telecom executive with AT&T and Lucent in the Middle East. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Knight returned home to run the family business. Aside from the Inland Orange Conservancy, he also created Old Grove Orange, which sells citrus, kiwi and avocados to schools, restaurants and retailers from local farmers at a living wage.

 

PLAYING CHICKEN

Others are also turning back to their roots. Tacey Perkins, owner of Yesteryear Poultry and Seed in Mira Loma, operates an acre of farmland that has been in her family for three generations. Now a single mom with two small children, Perkins turned to her family land two years ago to make a living the old-fashioned way on what she calls her “hobby farm.”

 

Perkins’ penchant for homegrown is starting to pay off.

 

“I thought it would be nice to show my kids where we get food, where we get eggs,” Perkins says. She started with free-range laying chicks to create fertilizer for her heirloom tomatoes and peppers, which she hopes to eventually sell at farmers markets or through a membership program. 

 

Yesteryear Farm set up shop and started selling eggs. Her first return customer buys three-dozen at a time. Perkins grows everything organically, although she is not yet certified. She hopes to eventually raise hormone-free meat chickens, too.

 

“I try to stay organic with everything,” Perkins says. “In today’s fast-paced life, everyone wants everything really fast. When you do that, you end up putting chemicals or altering genetics or cutting corners basically to make things grow faster or come about sooner. It’s really taking a toll on not just California as a whole but the United States.”

 

“I’M SMALL”

Perkins’ hobby farm is not without its challenges—from economics to customer education to bugs and critters. “We still get the same pests as everyone who uses chemicals,” she says. 

 

And, there was quite a bit of start-up cost involved. But she is investing in her future.

 

“I don’t have a lot to lose,” she says. “I’m small. I don’t have anyone depending on me right now. I’m not feeding America.”

 

Perkins hopes to attract some sophisticated friends. Restaurants like Farm Artisan Foods in Redlands markets itself on serving locally-grown, hormone-free and organic foods. It’s no secret from mega natural and organic grocery markets like Whole Foods—that have stores up to 65,000 square-feet, selling everything from gluten-free organic buckwheat cereal to grass-fed, humanely-raised beef—that people are willing to pay more for healthy food. 

 

To have a farm that grows and raises food with a conscience you need to have a customer willing to pay the price for it. Perkins is finding that not only are her customers willing to dish out a little more for her eggs, they also want a tour. 

 

“I think it’s really exciting,” Perkins says. “I would like to take it to the next level. I do feel optimistic that the whole food industry is really catching some speed. A lot of people are noticing that their health is directly linked to the food they consume.”

 

CREATIVE RECREATION

Some organic farmers find creative ways to sustain themselves. Jan Kielmann is manager of 123 Farm, an organic farm in Riverside with a creative solution.

 

“We are lucky because the farm is tied in with the resort and restaurant,” Kielmann says, “so we also take care of the resort’s landscaping, provide a nice background for customers and have some financial backing in hard times.” 

 

The resort also helps as a place to showcase the products, like organic essential oils. The farm produces organic produce, herbs and meat for the restaurant directly. “That is really nice and rewarding, plus it gives a little more income then selling it as a commodity to a wholesaler,” Kielmann says. “Direct sales are very important for small farmers.” 

 

The 123 Farm, which was started by the Highland Springs Resort in 2001, also relies on volunteers. “I don’t know if we could make it by paying for all the labor,” Kielmann says. They painstakingly weed and hand-pick the crops, saving the discarded herbs after distillation for compost.

 

“On top of that, we wanted to be more sustainable and fair to surrounding wildlife and animals, which is why we try not to kill them.” The fields of lavender help keep the squirrels away, as does their friendly neighborhood bobcat that roams through the crops. 

 

The biggest challenge, Kielmann says, is the increasing cost of water and heat, along with sagging economy. To combat escalating water prices, 123 Farm owns its own well, but supply is limited. “We can’t always keep everything at maximum potential as much as we’d like,” Kielmann says about the summer months.

 

GROWING UP

Abby and Jason Harned have a different problem: too many customers and not enough product to meet demand—not that they want to. Small is good, Abby says. Their dream, Three Sisters Farm in the San Timoteo Canyon in Redlands, came to fruition after buying the land eight years ago. 

 

Less than two years ago, the Harneds started tilling the soil and getting to work. With Abby’s degree in agronomy, specifically focused on sustainable agriculture, and Jason’s degree in irrigation design, the two were in a prime position to succeed as working farmers. 

 

The Harneds own their own water well, so rising utility costs haven’t hampered their production. But they are considering switching to solar to power the well in the next couple of years, Abby says.

 

So far, their biggest challenge has been staying small. “There is a lot of pressure to get bigger and hire help,” Abby says. She and Jason do all the farm work by hand, which is extremely laborious on their one acre of farmland. The growing demand for local, organically-produced fruits and vegetables takes up all the produce they have. “There is a real consciousness growing,” she says.

 

AN ORGANIC DEMAND

The Harneds run a small CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture agreement for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. The demand was so great from the start from merely registering on www.localharvest.org that they had to limit their customers to Redlands residents only and cut off their waiting list. They are thinking of adding more people to the CSA, but then they will need to harvest more. That may mean getting—shudder—bigger.

 

For now, aside from their CSA, Three Sisters Farm sells at one farmer’s market and they sell direct to one local restaurant and the University of Redlands. If they have any extra, they call Inland Empire Organic Produce Buyers Club, which services about 100 people per week.

 

“The word is getting out there,” Abby says. “There is such a huge void in Southern California of neighborhood farms. It’s in the news, it’s in the papers—even doctors are telling their patients to eat more vegetarian, more organic.”

 

The cheap food mentality is generational, Abby says. “People feel obligated to get the best deal you can. For that consciousness to transfer to what we eat, it will take time.” But it’s happening, and it may just help preserve the past.


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