With Focus on Innovation and Profit, California Farmer Grows Unique Berries for Every Season
January 21, 2013 | Danielle Davis
It’s 10:30 AM at the Saturday Santa Monica farmer’s market and the 600 plus baskets of Pudwill Farms blackberries and raspberries are already sold out. A few flats of plump, crisp looking blueberries are left but they’re going fast, too. One customer asks when those “incredible alpine strawberries” will be back. “Soon,” promises Roy Soto, the vender, with a knowing wink. It’s the middle of winter and this is why the public and the finest California restaurants revere Pudwill – for producing a varied selection of flavor-boisterous berries year round.
“We’ve got at least 12 varieties of blueberries, 10 or more of red raspberries, six of blackberries, three of golden berries, three of black raspberries, five or six different varieties of currents, and black and white mulberries” says Randy Pudwill, who runs the farm now, his voice brimming with pride. The now 58-acre, 20-person operation was founded in circa 1960 by Randy’s father as a turkey ranch in the unique micro-climate of Nipomo, a town situated 80 miles north of Santa Barbara. When the turkey product craze cooled off and Pudwill Farm’s largest contractor went out of business in 1980, the family was mired in close to a million dollars of loans miss-invested in new facilities. A USDA inspector recommended raspberries to the Pudwills as the new cash crop, and the disastrous turn of events took a twist of poetic justice as the hyper fertile soil, enriched by the biological matter of those thousands of turkeys, helped produce several sweetly productive raspberry seasons that launched the farm into the agricultural spotlight.
Randy touts biological farming practices as a main harbinger of success for the farm. “We start first and foremost with taking care of the ground,” he explains. That necessities extensive initial research: soil and leaf tissue samples are tested to determine what resources the plants have available to them and if and why the plants are stressed. Adjustments to the surrounding ecology are then made accordingly, such as injecting microbes into the soil or laying down molasses to feed the living organisms which then process it into nutrient-rich plant food.
“If the roots are surrounded by these nice biological havens, the plants will pick up the nutrients that are introduced to them…and that fruit is going to be as perfect as the plant was designed to be,” says Randy, this healthy perfection reflected, he asserts, in the robust taste of the fruit.
That precious plant health is protected further with biological methods of pest control. Predator mites like Californicus and Persimilis, which don’t bother the fruit, are introduced to curtail the dangerous spider mite population. Randy has an employee whose sole task it is to hand count both populations in order to ensure that a proper ratio is consistently maintained. More traditional pesticides are used only as a last resort.
“You can spray all you want but they’re going to come back, usually in bigger numbers,” says Randy.
It wasn’t an easy road to reach the level of consistent production of the numerous berry varieties that Pudwill now boasts. Randy has spent the last 28 years building his body of knowledge through good ‘ol trial and error research.
“There’s only so much reading you can do about this stuff, then you just have to go out and try it, put your money where your mouth is,” explains Randy, a practice which, he admits, is sometimes risky. Once, for instance, he lost 15 acres of hoop houses – a million-dollar venture – due to Santa Ana winds he didn’t know would affect that particular plot of land.
“In the beginning it wasn’t educated guesses, it was flat gamble. . . I think we were looking for a plant that could grow without water back then,” he laughs. “But now I’ve built a body of knowledge that allows me to make some pretty reasonable decisions.”
One of the particularly profitable decisions was trying out a Primo Cane blackberry varietal, which doesn’t have a winter chill requirement and can therefore be planted any time of year, allowing for winter berry production. Randy was one of the first growers to put them into use in this way.
“[Randy]’s very enterprising in resourcing cutting edge, high quality varieties that no one is paying attention to among commercial producers,” says David Karp, whose food column “Market Watch” appears weekly in the Los Angeles Times. Randy attributes much of his success to Karp, through helping him locate unusual fruits (Karp convinced him to plant the hugely successful Mara des Bois strawberry, for instance) and by making the public knowledgeable about the health benefits of berries.
Now, the Pudwill Farms name resounds across foodie circles in California. 75 to 80-percent of production is sold in Southern California farmers’ markets, much of that clientele fine-dining restaurants. Napa Valley’s world-renowned French Laundry is a regular Pudwill buyer and has Randy’s name warmly mentioned in their menu. The lead pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck, Sherry Yard, has been a devoted costumer since before she could even afford the berries – her payment checks bounced regularly. Despite all the hotshot clientele and accumulated gastronomical prestige, Randy doesn’t plan on slowing down his efforts for continued innovation. He’s always looking for new fruit varieties or even old ones that need rediscovering – he recently planted a bunch of pink blueberries which he’s sure will “blow people’s minds” – and ultimately plans on developing his very own variety of berry. The specifics of that, of course, are top secret.