Sustainable Farmer in Malibu, California Vows to Keep on Farming Till He Runs Out of Money
October 17, 2012 | Melonie Magruder
Larry Thorne is a third-generation Southern California farmer. His father first cultivated sweet corn, tomatoes and melons in fields that ranged from Topanga Canyon to the county line, back when a new tractor cost you maybe $1500. Thorne himself has farmed his small acreage for his own family’s consumption for the past 30 years.
But after a pressure-cooker real estate career, Thorne decided to chuck the corporate life and plunge full-time back to his roots. A couple of years ago, he started commercially farming 15 or so acres in plots around Malibu after he realized, he said, that he wasn’t really happy.
“There’s an old joke about farmers and musicians,” Thorne said. “It asks what would you do if you won the lottery? The answer is, I’d keep on farming (or playing music) till I ran out of money.”
Thorne Family Farm produces a multitude of crops – kale, chard, lettuces, Tuscan broccoli and citrus fruit in winter, with a summer crop of tomatoes, corn, melons, avocados, squashes and strawberries of such sweet, intense nature that local restaurants immediately signed up for weekly deliveries. A cooperative fall climate insures that he can supply well into November.
Thorne says that farming sustainably in his area is not prohibitively difficult, thanks to fertile soil and crop rotation management, and he credits his progenitors with developing techniques that pull the best of the earth’s nutrients while not overtaxing its productivity.
One of his more successful crops, “dry farmed” tomatoes, require that he merely plant seeds in the ground in the absence of any artificial irrigation.
“You don’t need any fertilizer with dry farming and there’s less pests,” Thorne said. “Malibu has its own little micro-climate and the morning fogs provide all the moisture you need.”
The result is tomatoes of concentrated, rich flavor and heartiness. And not a penny in irrigation costs.
Thorne also follows many of his father’s sustainable practices, which were “organic” before the word even meant “extra value” in the American lexicon.
“Dad didn’t have the choice to do anything other than organic,” Thorne said. He admitted that there was a brief period when DDT was popular. “But Dad switched to mineral oil to control corn ear worms. You sprinkle it on when the silk begins to show.”
Nowadays, Thorne introduces beneficial insects, like ladybugs, to his fields or uses organic sprays to help control pests. He plows everything back into the ground to feed the next cycle of crops. And he doesn’t believe in chemical-laden fertilizers to create super-sized vegetables that are long on shiny plumpness, but short on flavor.
“In the 70s, industrial farming came in,” Thorne said. “You got cheap, quick food, but it’s tasteless.”
But the very economy of scale that drove farming to industrial levels also made it difficult for family farms to operate profitably enough to be real businesses. Many smaller family farms are “self sustaining,” but unable to support a whole family in the 21st century, Thorne said.
“What do you mean by self sustaining?” he asked. “You have five hundred dollars left over at the end of the year after all your bills are paid? Five thousand? You need some pretty vast acreage to support a healthy, busy family these days. But we get a lot out of the farm.”
In fact, Thorne, his wife Laurel and two children prepare “farm boxes” each week for local subscribers – like-minded residents up and down the coast who believe in supporting local sustainable businesses, as well as providing their families with food that is fresh, nutritionally superior and which doesn’t contribute largely to the global carbon footprint.
The Thornes hire local high school students to help harvest – further contributing to the local economy – and offer farming classes to neighborhood children during the summer.
At “Farm Camp,” youngsters pick berries and oranges, plant beans and herb gardens, ride a tractor, gather eggs and learn the joys of quietly communing with farm animals in the early morning mists. Or, as the Thornes like to call it, “Play in the Mud.”
The benefit of such an experience is more than just a deliciously dirty playtime. A study reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that kids who are involved in the process of growing their own food are more likely to have healthy diets. This “seed-to-table” education program prepares the next generation of Thorne Family Farm clients, ready to take advantage of their Home Garden Consultation services they offer.
In addition to these programs, Thorne Family Farm supplies a number of local restaurants straight from their fields, produce requested by local chefs that further diminishes carbon impact and promotes nutritionally sound eating that “tastes better.”
But even with such diverse activities linked to his labor, Thorne acknowledges the challenge in family farming.
“It’s always a question of making your income exceed your expenses, especially when you are only farming 15 or 20 acres,” he said. “You can grow enough food for your own family on a half acre of decent land. But commercial farming means equipment and distribution options.”
For the future, Thorne says he is happy to continue with what he knows works.
“I’ll just keep putting one foot in front of another,” he said. “After all, I started doing this 25 years ago just so my kids could have a roadside stand. It’s about a certain peace of mind.”