Young Farmer’s Passion for Gardening Mushrooms into Thriving Organic Farming Enterprise
May 9, 2012 | Hana Lurie
What began for young farmers Johanna and Christopher Finely as a passion for gardening has evolved into a profitable organic farming enterprise. In just 10 years the couple has grown their farm, Finley Farms, in the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, CA from one-acre to 45. The couple now employs ten people to grow and harvest an abundance of organic produce ranging from kale and tomatoes to pumpkins and peppers.
I recently spoke to Farmer Christopher Finley to learn more about the story behind Finley Farms, the reason for its embrace of sustainable and organic practices, the challenges that the farm faces and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Christopher Finley: My wife and I graduated from college and we decided: hey, bet you we could do this. I always liked gardening. We started with one acre and one tractor and nine years later we were at 45 acres and numerous tractors and numerous implements. So we just grew year by year, all self-taught.
Q: What type of produce do you grow on your farm?
Finley: A wide assortment of vegetables, anything that’s in season. From arugula to zucchini, all the broccolis, cauliflowers, lettuces, fennel, chard, kale, tomatoes, corn, watermelon, cucumber, garlic, onions… I could go on forever. Right now we’re starting to pick a lot of peas, like sugar snap peas, shelling peas. Strawberries are starting for us. We have a lot of greens like kales and chards, lettuce and fava beans, plus a whole bunch of other stuff.
Q: When and why did you decide to embrace organic, sustainable practices?
Finley: As soon as we started farming, 10 years ago, and because I didn’t see any other way of doing it. I wasn’t interested in applying chemicals to kill [a] certain pest…and just to be more in tune with nature.
Q: Why did you decide to seek organic certification for your farm and how difficult was the certification process?
Finley: We [sought] certification because we knew we were growing organically and we wanted to be able to call our produce organic. It was not difficult; it was just a matter of showing your organic system plan and how you are going to go about preserving the integrity of the land and the soil [so as] not to cause erosion. And you could not use the prohibited substances. All the land that we were farming was certifiable so we didn’t have to wait any sort of months or years to become certifiable; it was just about going through the paper work. I think a lot of people think it’s harder than it is.
Q: So you mentioned your organic system plans. Can you describe some of the unique sustainable agriculture practices that you employ?
Finley: Well, for example, we let certain plants like fennel and cilantro go to flower because the flowers that those plants produce are a habitat for a lot of beneficial insects that help in combating the bad insects on the farm. We grow cover crops in the wintertime – it’s like a blanket over the soil through the winter – to prevent erosion and to help build the soil structure. All the hoeing is done by hand so that there’s really no chemicals that are ever applied to the land whether they be organic chemicals that you’re able to use or not. Because we have so much land we keep a lot of [crops]. After a crop dies, sometimes it’ll just sit there for a month and the way I see it is that it’s just a habitat for the animals.
Q: How does the farm make money?
Finley: Farmers markets, the farm stand and we’ve been doing CSA for 3 or 4 years. We [sell] produce to local grocery stores and restaurants. Every once in a while we sell stuff wholesale to a distributor of produce when we have large crops of certain things like kale. But most of our income comes from farmers markets.
Q: Is the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
Finley: I’d say a little bit of both… (laughs). No, I’d say it’s profitable. My wife and I, we raise our personal income. And we employ ten people that use the money to raise their families. My brother works for me and earns his income as well… so I’d say it’s profitable.
Q: What kind of challenges does the farm face – operational, economic, or otherwise?
Finley: Operational challenges would be that I have too much responsibility and never enough time to do things that I need to do on the farm – just not being able to relinquish from the duties that I take on. I’m busy managing workers and planting schedules. The challenge is to figure out how to properly train people to do it the way I want them to do it. Besides that, there are always challenges with insects and pests on the farm and fertility issues in certain areas. We try to keep things watered and keep produce looking fresh for the market so that it’s not all wilted. So there are challenges, we just take them as we go.
Q: What are the future goals of your farm?
Finley: Our future goals are to be able to grow as much as we grow now but to do it with less labor. Not necessarily to become more mechanized, but to become more efficient in preparing land so that when you plant into it, there’s less weed pressure. That [way] you don’t require as many people to come in and hoe and stuff like that.
Q: Have you been considering any new type of machine to use on the farm?
Finley: Yeah, I want to buy a transplanter. It’s an implement that you would hook on the back of the tractor: you drop the little plants into the transplanter and then it plants them into the soil for you. So, as opposed to a worker dropping the plants and somebody else following them, you could be a little bit more efficient in that way. It wouldn’t require as many people to do the job at hand – it would only be a three person job as opposed to an eight or nine person job.
Q: Would you like to add anything?
Finley: Come support us! We’re in Culver City on Tuesdays, Saturdays in Santa Monica, Santa Barbara and San Louis Obispo, and Sundays we’re in Hollywood.