Organic farmers:
business people working the land

ET interviews two local organic farmers

Bill Brammer-Be Wise Ranch, Rancho Bernardo
Bill Brammer became a farmer because he thought he could make a living at it. He was working in the post office, and managed to save enough money to lease 220 acres in the Rancho Bernardo area from San Diego Gas and Electric. The first summer was scorching hot, and he and his wife lived in a trailer home on the dusty open land.
Eighteen years later, the Be Wise Ranch has expanded to include another 145 acres, and is a successful, growing business. Bill and his farm manager, Serena Wyatt, and their 45 farm employees grow crops year-round using organic growing methods. They feel that San Diego County organic farmers could directly supply local supermarkets with plentiful amounts of fresh, tasty San Diego-grown organic produce.
The Be Wise Ranch is a member of CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, a non-profit, voluntary trade association of organic farms and food processors. CCOF offers certification and promotes the "CCOF Certified Organic" seal to the public.

ET: Why do you farm organically?
BB: I had a garden for three years, and I always grew organically. It always made more sense to me in terms of the environment. I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and learned about how the Chinese have grown crops on the same land since the 14th century by managing the land properly. I read a lot.

ET: Why did you become a farmer?
BB: I wanted to work outside, and to work for myself. Now I spend half my day inside. From 7-11 am., I'm on the phone finding buyers, and doing invoices on the computer. In the afternoon I run errands picking up things we need on the farm. Then I might supervise the loading of pallets into trucks, or walk the fields. Serena Wyatt, my farm manager, supervises the labor throughout the day.

ET: What are your major crops and growing seasons here in San Diego County?
BB: In the winter, December through May, we grow broccoli, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, carrots, beets and lettuce. Strawberries start in February and go through May. From March to June we grow soft squash and cucumbers, and from June to December we grow tomatoes - tomatoes are our biggest crop. From July through November it's eggplant, and we have citrus year-round.

ET: Where do you sell your produce?
BB: Between 65 and 70 percent of our produce is sold to wholesalers, who sell it in Boston, Texas, Colorado, San Francisco, Oregon, Seattle and Chicago. Another 10 to 15 percent is sold directly to local natural foods stores, and 20 percent is sold through our CSA - the Community Supported Agriculture plan, whose members pay a weekly fee for a box of our produce.

ET: Why do you sell so much out of San Diego? Can't you sell to supermarkets here?
BB: Because consumers in the Bay Area have demanded it, most supermarkets up there have a section for organic produce. The Bay Area is a big market for us, so they determine what we grow, in part. For example, in the summer they don't need our squash and cucumbers, which we sell to them in March and June, because their own farmers can grow those things and sell them directly to the markets.
If San Diego markets would buy directly from local farmers on a larger scale we could sell a lot more of our own produce right here at home. I can grow any amount a market would want of broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kale, carrots, beets, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes. Out of the 200 or so organic farmers in the area, only 3 or 4 sell direct to stores. Selling direct would lower prices and provide people with the freshest, tastiest produce available - and grown locally, which saves resources that would be used in transportation.

ET: What are some of the challenges facing organic agriculture in San Diego County?
BB: In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the competition from Mexico. It costs less to grow in Mexico. We pay farm laborers $7 per hour, while they pay them $7 a day. The land and water costs less, too.
If the bigger local markets bought more, that would help. If they valued and promoted locally grown produce for its freshness and taste, they could sell it. Also there are health benefits they could promote to customers.
Another challenge to organic agriculture in San Diego is the cost of water. We spend about $60,000 a year on water at the Be Wise Ranch, and that will only continue to increase as more demands are placed on our water supply.
And our land is running out. Where will new farmers get their land? Land is being used for development and it is being saved in the multiple species plan. On my 200 acre piece of property, only 80 acres can be farmed, because the rest is wetlands or coastal sage scrub. We have 13 pairs of gnatcatchers here.
Finally, with regard to land use, the County does not have an agricultural preserve element in their plan. The City of San Diego does, and 11,000 acres are preserved, although only 4,500 can be farmed. The issue of availability of land is crucial to the future of farming in San Diego County, not just organic farming.

Andrea Peterson-Peterson & Pio Produce, Fallbrook
Andrea Peterson, her husband Lee and partner Pio Perez farm 35 acres in Fallbrook, seven miles due east of the Oceanside Pier. They've farmed there for 8 years, and originally bought the property to grow specialty crops for brokers - things out of the ordinary, like baby lettuces, and yellow and French beans. Sometimes they sold to restaurants. They still grow specialty crops, but have added others for the wholesale market. They have always farmed organically. Peterson & Pio Produce is a member of CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers.

ET: Why do you farm organically?
AP: I'm a bird-watcher, and didn't want to mess with the environment. We try to work with natural systems as far as we can. In organic farming, you can use sprays in an emergency, and they can be toxic, but they must break down fast, and are usually derived from natural substances rather than synthesized chemically. We try to interrupt the natural environment as little as possible. There has been quite a bit of argument about what can and can't be used, but generally it's those harsh and persistent, highly toxic chemicals that go for the big kill that we can't use. Using those kinds of chemicals results in allowing the few insect survivors to be more resistant and to multiply. It's not efficient, ultimately.

ET: What are your major crops?
AP: We grow baby lettuce year round. We grow beans from April through January and ship them to San Francisco, Seattle or Los Angeles. We grow raspberries from April through December and sell them locally. We grow squash in the summertime.

ET: Where do you sell your produce?
AP: New York is our biggest market. We also sell to Chicago, Florida, New Orleans, Seattle, Canada and San Francisco. Locally, we sell at 9 farmers' markets. We used to sell to local brokers but now we sell direct to wholesalers in order to make more money. I drive the produce to Carlsbad in our van and a freight forwarding company who ships flowers also takes our produce along to the airport.

ET: What are some of the challenges facing organic agriculture in San Diego County?
AP: The same as regular farmers-figuring out how to make enough money to stay in it! It's nice when grocery stores will buy local-they can get it two days sooner and it's lots fresher, and costs less money.

ET: What's the role of the farmer in helping to educate the public about organic agriculture?
AP: They should be really active! That's why our farm is hosting a farm tour in September for Organic Harvest Month.