San Diego Farm Seeks to Go Beyond Organic and Build Sustainable Connections with Customers
November 14, 2011 | Jessica Vernabe
Suzie’s Farm is all about rekindling the connection between farmer and consumer while also helping people become better stewards of their bodies, its owners say.
The 70-acre USDA-certified organic farm in San Diego, with more than 100 varieties of crops, has about 400 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program members, or community members who sign up to receive boxes of its produce on a regular basis, said Lucila De Alejandro, who owns the farm with her husband. Suzie’s Farm also sells its produce at 14 weekly farmer’s markets all over San Diego County, and it sells its produce to more than 50 restaurants and at least 10 grocery stores.
De Alejandro and her husband, Robin Taylor—who were both drama majors in college—also keep an open line of communication with their customers. They distribute a weekly newsletter, they have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, and they run a blog that includes recipes, instructing their customers how to use Suzie’s Farm’s unique crop varieties, De Alejandro said.
The couple also hosts tours and events at their farm, which is located about three miles north of the Mexican border and three miles east of the Pacific Ocean. For example, the farm held an event earlier this year that featured a sunflower maze with secret garden rooms with art installations, De Alajandro said. Suzie’s Farm also coordinates a “Farm Raiser” program, or fundraising opportunities in which schools and nonprofit groups can purchase boxes of produce at discounted prices for resale.
Chad White, a chef and partial owner at Sea Rocket Bistro in San Diego, called Suzie’s Farm’s owners “true farmers” who provide the best possible product instead of turning out bulk amounts.
“What I love is the relationships,” White said. “I can call up the farmer and ask them what crop is top-notch right now, what’s the best plate presentation, what’s the best flavor, what is something that no one else is carrying, and they’ll work directly with me.”
He noted that the farm also has a lot of different types of greens and other vegetables to choose from. De Alejandro said that this year, the farm produced 12 varieties of peppers, eight varieties of summer squash and six varieties of eggplant.
Suzie’s Farm Beginnings
Taylor’s farming career goes back to 1984 when he was a teenager and his father started a small sprout farm called Sprout Power in the San Diego suburb of Encanto, De Alejandro said. In 1991, Taylor’s father moved the farm to San Diego’s South Bay, changing the name to Sun Grown Organic Distributors. Taylor and De Alejandro married in 1995, and soon after became partial owners of the farm, eventually retiring Taylor’s father.
The idea to start Suzie’s Farm was planted in De Alejandro’s mind when she was a USDA organic farm inspector attending a Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service conference in 2003, she said. De Alejandro said she was shocked to see so many “real farmers,” or those who ran smaller organic farms with animals and multiple crops, as opposed to “growers,” who operated thousands of acres of single crops for packing houses that worked with major organic brands. While De Alejandro and her husband had Sun Grown Organic Distributors, most of their business was done over the phone with clients in the Los Angeles market, who bought the crops at wholesale prices, she said. They shipped their products all over the United States and never met their end-users.
“These (farmers) were like stars to me,” De Alejandro said. “They knew all their customers. They were at farmer’s markets, they delivered directly to grocery stores, they delivered directly to their restaurants and they had CSA programs, which I had never heard of at the time.”
De Alejandro became determined to start a “real farm” of her own, but the responsibilities of another full-time farm and her inspecting job got in the way. She and her husband did, however, start growing herbs and selling them—along with edible flowers—under the brand name of Suzie’s Farm, she said.
The name Suzie came from a wild dog that Taylor’s father named and took under his wing. She was a dog who didn’t run with the pack, and she went from being “nobody’s dog” to “everybody’s dog,” De Alejandro said.
The farm concept didn’t really start building up until De Alejandro became pregnant with twin girls in 2006 and the couple really started paying close attention to what they were eating, according to De Alejandro. That concern only intensified after the twins were born and started eating solid foods.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘We can’t be the only one thinking this,’” De Alejandro said. “We started to revisit the idea of a real farm … and having face-to-face interactions with our end-user and growing the food that would not just feed us, but nourish us.”
From that point, the farm’s growth skyrocketed. In January 2009, they started by growing an acre’s worth of produce on a three-acre parcel of land. By July of that year, they expanded to a plot of land with 40 acres. At that point, they only had about 20 CSA members and were not yet working with any restaurants, grocery stores or farmer’s markets, De Alejandro said. By November 2010, they had expanded to 70 acres.
Catt White, “marketing maestra” for SD Weekly Markets, said she believes Suzie’s Farm is particularly good at getting their name out and keeping it there. She said the farm participates in three farmers markets that SD Weekly Markets operates.
“They started in no markets, and I think they’re (now) in more markets than any single farm in San Diego County at this point,” she said. “Suzie’s (Farm) has diversified and they are one of the most forward-moving farms in terms of continually trying new crops … (and) their range of things that they offer.”
Like other certified organic farms, Suzie’s Farm does not use chemicals on its crops. It instead uses natural herbicides and pesticides, such as lemongrass oil and clove oil, De Alejandro said.
The husband and wife duo, however, are now striving for another level of sustainability—certification in Biodynamic agriculture. Demeter International, which claims to be the world’s only certifier of Biodynamic farms and products, defines the process as going beyond organic methods by “envisioning the farm as a self-contained and self-sustaining organism.” In the process, farmers avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They also use compost and cover crops, and they set aside at least 10 percent of their total acreage for biodiversity, according to the non-profit’s Web site (http://www.demeter-usa.org/). De Alejandro said Suzie’s Farm currently has chickens, which help till and fertilize the land in rotations. The next goal is to purchase a cow, which will also help with the biodynamic process, she said.
De Alejandro estimates that Suzie’s Farm’s farming methods are about 80 percent of the way in reaching certification, a goal she hopes to realize by 2014. She said that’s also the year she hopes the farm, which currently costs more than it makes in revenue, will start turning a profit, or at least start breaking even. The farm currently partners with Sun Grown Organic Distributors for resources, such as employees, trucks and office space, De Alejandro said. That, in itself adds to the farm’s sustainable practices.
“Suzie’s Farm piggybacks from Sun Grown’s customers, so (for deliveries) we go with two different products to one location,” she said.
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