Two small California family farms I visited recently couldn’t be more different, yet the same in many ways. Both are north of San Francisco, are certified organic, and produce foods that end up in products. How did they get there and how do they thrive?
Powered by association membership
One, the Mattos Farm, is an organic 400 cow dairy farm and member of Organic Valley farmers co-op.
The other, Allstar Organics belongs to Marin Organic and has several acres of herbs and flowers which they turn into artisan food products sold at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market and provide to other food producers as ingredients. Both get input and support from these memberships which helps them also reach new markets and take advantage of sales and product development opportunities.
Making the rural life work.
Janet Brown of Allstar Organics explained how she and her husband Marty the farm so they could “live where we work and work where we live,” with a homesteading ethic.
Allstar is able to take advantage of California’s law allowing farms of certain sizes to process their own food products. “A DPH FDB-approved kitchen used for processing cannot be in a residence or in an attached garage. It can be in a separate detached building on a farm or ranch that has adequate drainage and sewage/waste disposal, water supply, restroom, and otherwise meets “good manufacturing practices” (GMPs) per the Federal Code of Regulations as administered by DPH.” (more info – PDF from UC Davis)
While farming and growing is a lifestyle, an often difficult one with extremely small profit margins, it was clear these dairy farmers are made to milk. The Mattos’ have worked on the same land for generations. With a sky high mortgage, John converted to organic for economic reasons, realizing how much more he could get for his milk. Now he is a convert, seeing cows live to 15+ years with very few health problems. I was tempted to join the herd and spend my days grazing, if it weren’t for all the vultures.
Connecting to neighboring producers
Racks of strawberries dried in Allstar’s makeshift dehydration room. “My neighbor at the farmer’s market couldn’t find a place to dry his strawberries,” Janet explained. “I’ll do it! And keep some for myself.” Now the husband and wife team is planning a line of products involving dried strawberries. The market and association with Marin Organic also connect the farm to other local producers. An herb mix in one room sat ready for testing as a cheese coating. (Yes I’m being mysterious on purpose.)
In addition to distributing under Organic Valley, the Mattos farm supplies milk to Bay Area favorite St Benoit yogurt.
Learning as they go
Mattos experiments on the farm to continually improve: “Every day I try to think of something new for the cows. I might take them on a different trail or make some small change to make the day interesting.” How would you like milk from cows that are treated like children?
The cows also enjoy 19th century style treatments of natural essential oils and tinctures (how Marin) from vet “Dr. Paul.” kelp is a big part of the herd’s diet, which results in high levels of anti-cancer CLAs – which get passed on into the milk. The kelp idea came from Tony Azevedo, the first organic dairy man in the Central Valley, who had seen iodine-deficient cows munching kelp while visiting Portugal as a boy.
Allstar Organics‘ farm started with the basics: tomatoes. Then basil. Then roses. The plan: Sell big antique-style rose bouquets. Well that didn’t last. Feedback from her first sales call “That’s too green, that’s too closed. That’s too thorny…” took the bloom off her rose.
Ye old synchronicity: A friend suggested they try making rose water instead. It just so happened at the time their greenhouse stood empty, a wizened elder taught them how to plant tuber roses. They hired an expert to build a still to make their floral hydrosols and essences, and planted a backyard farm thriving with rosemary, mint, roses, and other edibles.
And so the two farms thrive, driven by community, passion, innovation, and a commitment to good food.
Mattos Farm – fun in the sun
Allstar Organics – From field to farmer’s market: