High Altitude Organic Farm Thrives on Product Diversity, RSA and Business Model Innovation
March 26, 2013 | Susan Botich
Sierra Valley Farms has found that by being open to new ideas, keeping farming practices simple and diversifying its products, farming sustainably can be successful and rewarding, according to owner Gary Romano.
“I’m a third generation farmer,” Romano says. “My family were flower growers in the Bay Area. My mom’s side of the family were cattle ranchers in the Sierra. When I was a kid growing up, I was raised on the flower farm. We did it the old-fashioned way—allowing cover crops to grow, hand weeding—the natural way. I took that model to use here and it works.”
In 1990, Romano bought the last 65 acres of his family’s ranch, located in the high Sierra of Plumas County, California and decided to turn it into a farm. It was a three-year process for Sierra Valley Farms to become Certified Organic, the only organic farm within 100 miles, according to Romano.
Due to the high altitude and harsh winters, the crops that can grow on his farm differ from those that flourish in the Sacramento Valley or Bay Area. From this, an idea was planted that grew to become the Sierra Valley Farms on-site Farmers Market.
“I started thinking, the Sacramento Valley is only two hours away, where they grow warm season crops,” Romano says. “So, I thought, why don’t I buy from farm stands on my way up to my farm? I wanted to eat the nice peaches, plums and tomatoes from the Bay Area and Sacramento area and I figured other people would, too. So, we set up a farm stand and we got sold out the first day.”
Romano ran more trucks down to the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley to bring the produce up and sell it on his farm.
“In about 10 years, we had so many people coming to the Farmers Market, we thought: why truck it in ourselves? Have farmers bring their own. It’s a great concept. We rent them stalls on our farm—some will have two or three stalls a week. It’s a nice community thing, too. The whole community gets together.”
Romano liked the idea of having enough variety at his Farmers Market to satisfy all the grocery shopping needs of the community, such as a local corner grocery store would have, he says. So, he included locally grown meats and poultry as well as fish from Bodega Bay, along with Sierra Valley Farms produce. Canned goods were also added as well as crafts.
“Some vendors travel for over two hours just to do our market,” he says. “We get 400 to 500 people to come every Friday, so it’s a lot of fun.”
Diversification has been the key element in the farm’s success, according to Romano. Due to the sparse population of the area, offering a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system of selling their products wasn’t really viable, says Romano. So, Sierra Valley Farms began supplying vegetables to local restaurants, starting instead a Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA) network.
“We work with chefs, finding what their needs are, and put together a weekly box for them,” says Romano.
Sierra Valley Farms’ popular summer event series, Dinner In The Barn, began as a one-time benefit for the Project Mana Food Bank.
“It was a huge success,” Romano says. “We raised a lot of money and people asked us to do more dinners like that. Now, we host them once a month, about six to eight through the summer. People come from all over—the Bay Area, Truckee, Reno, Tahoe.”
Romano asserts that, for farming to be successful, it has to be viewed in its proper perspective.
“I look back at my parents, how they farmed, and I think about how you have to not look at farming like you’re working an hourly wage,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle. I think some young people look at farming as they would a corporate model with a bottom line and think it’s not paying enough. When I look at my bottom line at the end of the year, I think: I’m my own boss, I eat well, I can take a vacation when I want, so this is working for me.”
Romano believes that small farms are, indeed, workable if the right perspective is kept. He has recently written two books on the subject, Why I Farm—Risking it All for a Life on the Land, and July and Winter—The Farming Seasons of the Sierra, soon to be published through Bona Fide Books of South Lake Tahoe. Why I Farm is slated to be available in June of this year with the second book scheduled to launch in December.
“People seem to think that I’m some kind of visionary,” Romano says with a laugh. “It’s really been about survival of the fittest, though, and it’s evolved and is still evolving.”