Awareness of Environmental Impact, Embrace of Sustainability, Defines 4th Generation Deardorff Family Farms
August 5, 2013 | Noelle Swan
The Deardorff family has been in the produce business since 1937, helping local farmers in Venice, Hollywood, and Los Angeles distribute their produce. As the city of Los Angeles swelled in the early 1960’s, the Deardorffs followed many of their growers north to Ventura County and began to work the land themselves on their own 50-acre ranch. Since then Deardorff Family Farms has passed through four generations and grown immensely. Today, cousins Scott Deardorff, and Tom Deardorff II farm 2,000 acres of sustainably grown celery, tomatoes, greens, and mixed vegetables throughout Ventura County. They market their produce through wholesale distributors, at local markets, and directly to consumers.
“Sustainability is something that we’ve kind of grown up with. It’s been the company philosophy since our great-grandfather started it. Back in those days, that meant creating sustainable relationships with growers, customers, and employees,” Scott Deardorff said. “As the company grew into growing, that philosophy carried into the whole business of farming practices. Being open and honest, doing the right thing, that’s what’s been passed on from generation to generation.”
The company philosophy centers around environmental and social sustainability, Deardorff explains. In the fields that means employing beneficial insects in integrated pest management programs, utilizing cropping patterns that replenish the soil and reduce disease, and using drip irrigation and water monitoring systems to maximize water efficiency and minimize runoff. The cousins launched a certified-organic line in 2006. Currently, nearly one third of their crops are certified organic.
Their organic offerings include celery, three different kinds of kale, several varieties of chard, collard greens, a selection of lettuces, cilantro, parsley, cabbage cauliflower, broccoli, and tomatoes. “Deardorff Organics was really a logical extension of what we were already doing. We have always been mindful of the impact of our operations,” said Tom Deardorff II.
Finding organically certifiable land has been a challenge. They were able to convert their 50-acre ranch to organic right away, but it can be difficult to find organic ground available to lease, Scott Deardorff said. The process of getting the plot certified takes a fair amount of investment, which can be tough to swallow for a short-term lease. However, they have been able to partner with a number of organic strawberry growers looking for tenant-farmers to help with crop rotations, he said. They plant vegetables after the strawberries have been harvested and then turn newly enriched ground back to the strawberry farmers.
The Deardorff’s extend their environmental considerations in all areas of production, including post-harvest. All of their packaging is either compostable or recyclable. Box configurations are designed to fit on standard, reusable palates, Deardorff said. In 2012, they completed construction of a new cooling and shipping facility. They are in the process of getting LEED certified, and anticipate a Gold level certification, Deardorff said. The Deardorffs considered environmental impacts in every phase of the building process. When selecting the site, they wanted to make sure that they were not taking any arable land out of production, so they purposefully chose an existing industrial park. They sought environmentally friendly insulation, building materials, and paints. They hired a refrigeration engineer to design a computerized cooling system that can automatically adjust the fans and compressors based on what is in the cooler. Their energy reduction efforts have qualified them for some rebates from Southern California Edison.
Their commitment to sustainability doesn’t only apply to produce, but extends to their relationships with their 500 employees and into the community. “For us, sustainability is such a wide net. We try to not only farm sustainably, but also to maintain sustainable relationships with employees. We have always provided health insurance for all employees, whether they are seasonal, temporary, or full time. That’s something that we’ve tried to do throughout the generations,” Deardorff said. The farm also supports several farming scholarships, donates personnel, and seedlings to school gardens and produce to school salad bars and after school programs.
“I don’t think sustainability is a one size fits all kind of thing. It’s a philosophy that can move in different directions. At the end of the day, it’s trying to do the right thing with your customer base and your community while managing to run in the black,” Deardorff said.