Organic Farm in Petaluma, CA Finds Success with Lettuces and Leafy Greens, Looks to Expand
November 20, 2012 | Hana Lurie
Before settling down to start his own organic farming operation, County Line Harvest, in Petaluma, CA, David Retsky cut his teeth farming all over the country and internationally through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). His certified organic farms focus primarily on growing lettuces and leafy greens, which the farm provides to local restaurants and sells at 10 farmers markets throughout California each week.
I recently spoke with farmer Zoe Speidel, who works at the farm to learn more about its history, the challenges that it faces, future plans and more.
Q: What is the story of how the farm came to be?
Speidel: David started it in 2000, on a little 11-acre plot. He’s been farming for a long time – all over the state and the country. He started farming through WWOOF, and he also went to the Santa Cruz farm and garden apprenticeship 6-month program. We have two farms now – one in Marin County and one in Riverside County. Between the two, we have about 45 people working in the field.
Q: What do you grow on the farm?
Speidel: We do mostly greens – lettuces are our largest commodity that we grow. We do a lot of root vegetables and leafy greens: spinach, arugula, larger ones like chard and kale. Lots of fresh herbs – basil, parsley, dill and chives. Then we grow seasonal things throughout the year like tomatoes, strawberries, green beans, eggplant, summer squash.
Q: What are some unique, sustainable practices that the farm employs?
Speidel: At the farm in Petaluma, we make our own compost. We are one of the only farms in our area of our size that still does that. In Marin and Sonoma counties, there are a lot of companies that make compost, but we still make our own here on the farm. We gather the stuff all throughout the fall and winter, so we get different inputs like manure, or one year we got grape hummus from a vineyard, because all you do is pay for the trucking. Then we add it to the compost, keep turning it until it’s heated thoroughly enough, and then use it in the spring when we start all of the big plantings for the summer.
Q: Is the farm organic certified?
Speidel: Yes. David has always grown organically, but he’s been certified since 2004. When he got certified, he was still on a fairly small plot, which made [the certification] easier. It gets a little bit more complicated every year, but since we’re already in the system, it’s quite easy.
Q: How does the farm make money?
Speidel: We don’t do a CSA. We sell to farmers markets, direct to restaurants, and through distributors and grocery stores.
Q: Is the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
Speidel: We just recently acquired the other property in Riverside County, so we’re entering the third season of that farm, and the past two years we’ve been investing in infrastructure and equipment and things. So at this point, it’s hard to say. We are certainly making it, but since we essentially started an entire new business down there, we’re just beginning to see the balancing going in our favor. The future looks good.
Q: What are some challenges that you face on the farm?
Speidel: The weed pressure. When you’re organic, there’s a limited amount that you can use against weeds, so there is just a lot of hand labor that goes on. You could have tons of employees, but that brings the cost up really quickly, so those employees need to be able to weed and harvest in an efficient amount of time. So keeping up with that process is a real balancing act – we plant in successions, to make sure that things don’t need to be weeded all at once. For a lot of farms, water can be an issue, but we have a large onsite reservoir, so that has solved our problem in Petaluma. We have two pretty temperate climates, so weather isn’t too much of an issue.
Q: What are the future plans for the farm?
Speidel: For right now, we’re just going to keep on doing what we’re doing. We’re in the third year of a lease for the property down in Riverside, so when that lease is up, we’ll certainly do an evaluation and decide if we want to carry on. We’re not trying to expand so much as we’re trying to get our system down and our planting schedules, since the business has grown a lot in the past few years. We’re just learning how to catch up with that.