By Maximizing Local Availability of Organic Produce, Three Brothers Hope to Influence the Future of Agriculture
January 25, 2012 | Melinda Clark
Though the core values have remained the same, the conventions of organic farming have shifted and changed over time. The same can be said of Capay Organic, a second-generation organic farm located in the Capay Valley (northeast of San Francisco), with an offshoot in the Imperial Valley in southern California. It, and the brothers who took over running the operation for their parents, have stayed true to the values of sustainable growing, while also evolving and adapting to keep up with the changing times. With the farm and its modern, highly customizable CSA, Farm Fresh To You – which attempts to make supporting local agriculture as easy and tasty as possible – the Barsotti brothers hope to change the future of agriculture.
Capay Organic was founded in 1976 by Kathleen Barsotti and Martin Barnes. Two non-farmers, they met at UC Riverside, and found that they shared a distrust of the heavy-chemical-input agriculture that was popular at the time.
“My parents were part of the group that didn’t think that that was healthy for the environment. They were also part of the group that wondered how you can connect farmers directly to consumers without using the agribusiness machine that was in place then and still is now,” explains Thaddeus Barsotti, Kathleen and Martin’s son, who currently runs the farm and CSA with brothers Noah and Freeman.
The sons were brought up on the farm, which has grown from an initial 20 acres to 400 acres. When Kathleen passed away from breast cancer in 2000, the boys took over operations. In 2007, the company began farming in southern California, in addition to its northern farm, to expand its produce line during Capay Valley’s cold winter months. In addition to its Farm Fresh to You produce delivery service, the company also sells produce at several farmers’ markets, partners with produce wholesalers, grocers and Bay Area restaurants, and runs a retail storein San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Though Thaddeus and his brothers grew up surrounded by the principles and practice of organic farming, he says they also came to the conclusion that organic farming is superior to conventional on their own.
“I have always been an organic farmer and that’s been fine, but I do truly believe that it’s scientifically better. I haven’t just taken the punch, even though that’s how I grew up,” Barsotti says. His time at Cal Poly, where he earned a degree in agriculture engineering, gave him additional perspective on sustainable agriculture and its merits. Freeman also graduated from Cal Poly, and Noah from U.C. Davis.
When asked about the brothers’ relationship, Barsotti laughs. “Do we always agree? No. Do we agree with the big picture, where we want the company to go? Yes. We’re all from the same family, grew up the same way. We share the same values and are really genuine to the values of our customers.”
One such value is a commitment to local production. When it comes to agriculture, Barsotti is a firm believer that to be sustainable it must be local.
“I believe that local food is better. When organic is possible, that’s best… I also believe that the current way that big ag connects to society doesn’t take into account that local is better; it’s just about dollars.”
He points out that if produce from far away is cheaper, the current system favors shipping it over. But Barsotti has found that consumers don’t necessarily agree, and Capay Organic makes a point of ‘maximizing local availability.’
That’s the foundation for Farm Fresh To You, Capay Organic’s produce home and office delivery service.
Says Barsotti, “We built our own distribution system that cuts out the retail chain and connects our farm directly to consumers. We believe it’s better for the local economy, it’s better for the environment.” He adds, “This is something that should be offered to all of society, not just the elite…We want to build something that’s scalable and can make a big change in agriculture. We’re ambitious on the scale that we believe we can bring this access to people.”
A Different Kind of CSA
Farm Fresh To You was started by Kathleen in 1992. It’s not the traditional CSA; it delivers directly to residences – no pick-up required – and allows consumers to not only see ahead of time what will be in a particular week’s box, but to ban certain items they don’t like, choose whether they want a strictly local box or one that includes other regions, select different box sizes, and pick whether they want it delivered weekly, every other week or every third or fourth week. Since the philosophy behind the operation is local consumption of local produce, the boxes are available where the farms are: northern California in the greater Sacramento/San Francisco area, and east and south bay, and in SoCal’s inland empire. They are available to both individual consumers and offices, with the majority of deliveries going to residences.
Barsotti says that giving consumers this high level of choice has been key to the company’s success.
“The customer wants what they want,” he explains. “It’s interesting – if I tell a customer exactly what they’re getting and they don’t like it, they’re not that happy. However, if I give them a complete local selection… and then they have a choice to manipulate that, they feel that they’re getting exactly what they want.” He adds, “We do to the door delivery, we do customization, we give recipes out, we have many different box types. Anything that we can do to make this easy for a consumer to want, that’s what we do.”
This high level of customization adds a high level of administrative work, requiring three extra departments in addition to farming: IT, distribution and logistics, and warehousing and packaging.
But overall, Thaddeus says that the delivery service has proved to be a much less risky, more lucrative outlet than selling wholesale or at markets, although Capay Organic does that as well.
“We’ve had wholesale relationships, sold at farmers’ markets. I, as the farmer, take all of the risk of growing these crops… it’s an economically dangerous situation. With Farm Fresh To You, you cut out all of that BS,” he says. “We have the ability to sell lots of products, to adjust what we sell… and the confidence that we’re always going to have an outlet. It’s a far, far superior way to do business.”
The company currently employs 400 people and ships 40,000 boxes per month to customers.
Also, since long-distance shipping and storing aren’t necessary, they have more freedom in their planting. “We focus on varieties that taste good as oppose to ship well,” says Barsotti. “I’m always experimenting with new crops. I also happen to have all of these customers right at our fingertips, so it’s easier to test new things on our customers.” He says he enjoys hearing customer feedback when he adds new crops like pea shoots to the boxes.
With the cornucopia of ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ claims in the marketplace, it can be difficult for consumers to know what is truly sustainable – which can lead to frustration and confusion. Barsotti says that they’ve simplified this issue by letting consumers know exactly what Capay Organic and Farm Fresh To You mean by ‘sustainable.’
“I’ve never seen society want, demand it so much,” he says. “At the same time, when you get to the production side, it’s very subjective. There’s not a clear definition of what a sustainable food system is. You see a lot of products marketed to sustainability, and it’s like the marketing agency has just gotten wind of consumers’ desire for it. It’s unclear what sustainable is.”
He explains, “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful – we have our own little definition of what it is, and we’ll bring you out and show it to you.”
Barsotti is referring to the farm tours held on the farm every March through October. In addition to farm tours, Capay also hosts events that are open to the public, such as tomato tastings or grape stomping. Barsotti says that seeing city folk come out to the farm is always fun, and a reminder that not everyone grew up as he did.
“I’ve always taken for granted what farm life is like. Every time people come out to the farm, it’s cool to see how excited they are,” he says.
The Future of Food
Barsotti said that one of the things he’s most excited about going forward is technology, and it’s possibilities for furthering sustainable agriculture.
“What’s the difference between the farm my parents started and the farm we have now?” he asks. “It’s the computers.”
He continues, “I don’t think there are many other farming companies that are doing what we’re doing with computers. We’re managing 50,000 customers, dealing with all of their own preferences. Connecting that to our planting schedules…All the little details that go into getting that customized selection of local produce from the farm to the consumer as quick as possible.”
“It really comes down to, we’re interested in transforming agriculture in America by connecting local communities to local farms in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner… I think that it can be an industry so large that it will crowd out the conventional big ag and retail outlets… It can really be a new way that is standard for people to feed themselves and take care of their local resources.”
He says that their ultimate goal is to be able to create a management standard that can be replicated by others. While they haven’t entirely figured how to do that yet, one thing is very clear: the demand for sustainable agriculture has been and will continue catching on.
“I don’t think it’s always been cool. Ten years ago it started to be cool,” he says. “Ten years ago everyone kind-of knew about it and there was a group of people who it really was their core value. Now I would say, it’s like… we were on Extra. We were Gwyneth Paltrow’s featured Christmas gift. I don’t think that would have happened 10 years ago.”
Above all, he says, when people join a CSA like Farm Fresh To You, they’re not just buying a box of produce – they’re establishing a relationship with the people and land that grow their food.
“When someone signs up for our CSA or any CSA, they are partaking in a true partnership. It’s a mutually beneficial situation.”
He adds, “It doesn’t seem like a big thing to buy a box of local produce from a farm, but if everyone did it, it would have a huge impact.”