Our friends and kindred spirits at CUESA recently shared the story of one of our clients, New Family Farm. We're grateful to be working alongside CUESA in spreading the stories of our Bay Area farms and supporting their thriving operations.
By Kayla Abe, CUESA Staff
As two outdoorsy college students at UC Santa Cruz, Ryan Powers and Adam Davidoff, the founders of New Family Farm in Sebastopol, never saw conventional office jobs in their futures. Exposed to issues of environmental degradation and justice in their studies, the burgeoning revolutionaries were moved to action. “We both felt committed to making change in our own lives using all that we have: our bodies and our time,” recalls Ryan.
The two friends each settled on agriculture as their path of environmental advocacy and social transformation. “Farming in the way we have chosen to farm is activism,” Ryan continues. “We need as many people as possible working toward causes in whatever way they want to. And we chose to farm.”
A Plot of Their Own
After attending both high school and college together, they parted ways. Adam worked as an apprentice on various farms across the county, and Ryan started a farm in Tennessee. With parallel life trajectories, Ryan and Adam seemed destined to pursue a project together, and years later, following a serendipitous reunion working on the same New Mexico farm, they moved to Sebastopol to begin their own farm.
The two initially farmed on multiple sites around town, offered up by members of the local community who were eager to support the first-generation farmers. Ryan recalls the challenges of juggling multiple plots: “There’s what we call ‘the tool shuffle of death.’ You’re at one site and you think, ‘Oh, I need this tool.’ And then you realize that you left it at the other site!”
The two forged on, writing letters to family, friends, and relatives in search of leads for their own land. In 2010, an employee at what is now one of their two main sites answered their call. With help from California FarmLink to secure the lease, coupled with business and financial planning consulting from Kitchen Table Advisors, Ryan and Adam were ready to hit the field. “We would not be here if it weren’t for the community around us, hands down,” says Ryan.
Integrating low-tech sustainable techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation, and dry-farming, Ryan and Adam operate their farm with hands-on care and a nostalgia for simpler times. Their first four years, they even experimented with using draft horses in place of tractors as homage to early farming traditions. “We use beauty as a standard,” states Ryan. “I think that what appears beautiful to us as natural and ecological organisms, as humans, is what’s good for the earth and for our bodies. It’s an intuitive criteria.”
Taking advantage of the coastal climate, New Family Farm focuses on cool-weather crops like lettuces, carrots, kale, and beets. They’ve also had success with dry-farming, a method by which crops are given little to no water. In addition to juicy dry-farmed tomatoes, Ryan and Adam produce dry-farmed quinoa, with their crop last season yielding over one ton per acre. “There’s definitely room for improvement, but that was without a single drop of water in the worst drought year in 600 years,” says Ryan. “For California during a water crisis, that’s a big deal.”
Feeding the Food Revolution
Growing tomatoes or quinoa without water is no small feat, but for Ryan and Adam, the most challenging work isn’t in the fields, but rather in the grocery aisle. “Americans have an insane dedication to food being the cheapest thing there is,” says Ryan. Comparing an industrially farmed tomato with one from a small organic farm, many customers see only the difference in sticker price. But behind the dollar signs are vast differences in growing practices and values.
Telling their story to produce buyers and distributors became a mandatory side project for the young farmers. “For years, I was calling stores twice a week saying, ‘Buy from me. Buy from me. This is why. I have all this good stuff. If you don’t like it, tell me why and I’ll make it better,’” recalls Ryan. “It took time for them to get it, but it’s clicking now. All the stores in Sonoma County are thumbs-up for local now.”
Finding Richness in the Margins
Ultimately, purchasing choices rest with shoppers, which is why Ryan and Adam like to connect directly with the public at farmers markets. As the young farmers feed the land and their community, the best way Bay Area eaters can give back is by showing up at their stand. Ryan admits that requesting that shoppers buy their food “sounds sort of capitalist,” but money spent on their produce is also an endorsement of values like supporting first-generation farmers and advocating for sustainable agriculture.
“As a farmer, I would prefer that all my sales were at farmers markets, and if everyone showed up, that’s how it would be,” he says. “Food is a really great place to start if you want to change something, change your life, change the world.”
“My friend once said, ‘The margins are thin in farming, but there is a richness in the margins,’” quotes Ryan. “There is a richness in what we do that cannot be bought or sold. What I’m growing is valuable, and I’m proud of it. There’s love and intention and respect that’s going into it. We’re making our little corner of the world more beautiful, and you can support that.”
Support New Family Farm on Tuesdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco or Sundays at the Sebastopol Farmers Market.
This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities, and in-depth business and financial advising.
Photos courtesy New Family Farm and Kitchen Table Advisors/Jonathan Fong.
This feature was originally posted on CUESA's website on August 12, 2016. View it here.