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Five Principles of Agricultural Diversification

By Warren Weber - owner, Star Route Farms, and pioneering organic farmer

Knowing that row crops have always been something of a step-child to the Marin livestock and dairy industry, I was surprised by the invitation to speak at the recent event titled, "Honoring Agricultural Diversification." After all, isn’t Marin all about grass? In fact, I think that early on in my farm, some ranchers thought I was just going to grow another kind of grass. What is that long-hair doing down there? Yet even though we don’t have much prime soils, Marin has never been just about grass. Here are some facts from the fringe:

  • When I began in 1974, no vegetables were in the crop report. $17,000 was the total for fruits and nuts. Nursery crops were $873,100. Total livestock and forage in 1974 was $21,753,800.
  • Today total livestock and forage value is $84,285,600. That is, an increase of 400% over 40 years. Parenthetically, nursery products have fallen 223%. By contrast, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has risen 1,988% over 40 years.
  • And in our little neck of the woods, fruits and vegetables have gone from $17,000 to $5.7 million (including $700,000 of wine grapes). That friends is a 33,529% increase. Maybe we should be speculating in a row crop index?
  • What is equally interesting to me is looking back a further 40 years, to 1935. That year’s crop report says produce was $95,582: which included 875 acres of artichokes, 514 acres of peas, 415 acres of potatoes, and 31 acres of tomatoes. The report also mentions grapes, pears, prunes, chestnuts, melons and small fruits (bush berries). It seems that there were close to 2,000 acres in produce in 1935, which may be more than we have today. So there is still more to do.

Warren Weber delivering keynote address
Warren Weber delivering keynote address
My farming background before coming to Marin in 1974 was pretty sketchy. I had worked summers since I was 15 years old on 30-cow dairy farms, which was the norm on the east coast in the '50s. I also spent some time on a Red Angus ranch in Wyoming. When my wife and I found the 45-acre irrigated pasture in Bolinas that was in replacement heifers, we began with a lot of “long-haired passion” but little knowledge about row crops.

We started somewhere back in the 19th century, with one draft horse, and then a Percheron team pulling disks and a sulky two-way plow. When I realized I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to work the horses, I got a tractor and started down a more production-ag based approach. We went organic from day one, because it just seemed the right thing to do. We had read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and many of the Rodale publications on organic farming. And of course, there was huge support from the natural food stores springing up in Marin. Do you remember Our Store and Campolindos in San Anselmo, Living Foods in Mill Valley, and of course Good Earth in Fairfax? All anxious to buy directly from local organic producers.

We started on one acre growing cherry tomatoes, which we put in too late and had only 6 weeks of harvest when you really need 8 weeks. Today our 2015 crop list shows the diversity of crops we now have – almost everything that can be commercially grown in our soils and climate zone. The effort getting there hasn’t always been easy or intuitive.

Besides the tight group of other farmers in Northern California trying to do what we were, I had an incredible find: a complete set of USDA bulletins going back the mid-1800s. I want to highlight one selection because it relates to our discovery of what to plant and our current crop list.  It says:

Farming is a perpetual trying of experiments with soils, manures, and crops; with cattle and cattle food; with with milk, butter, and cheese; with plows, harrows, and harversters; with an almost endless list of things. The most successful farmers - those who get the most out of their land, their cattle, their crops, their fertilizers, their implements, and their labor - are those who experiment themselves most industriously, most skillfully, and most intelligently, and who take the fullest advantage of the experiments of others. The best agriculture is that which, in old countries, on worn and intractable soils, has learned by long-continued and varied experiment to make the gain of farming sure.

I read through these bulletins religiously every night, gleaning whatever I could to our purpose. There was one bulletin, for example, that showed where peas were grown in Marin and the North Bay the 1920s. It showed nine canneries in the area, before they moved to Michigan after the Depression. Some of you may know a lot more about that than I do, but clearly dry farmed (Winter) peas for canning was profitable here at one time as suggested in the 1935 report. Why not now?

Warren Weber discussing his
Warren Weber discussing his "Five Principles of Farming"
At any rate, our approach was to try whatever our soils and climate allowed and see who wanted it. In the '70s we sold to local stores, distributors in San Francisco, produce district houses, and natural food stores in other states. Marketing was all trial and error, as were the crops themselves. For example, we could grow green garlic, but not reliably clove garlic. Our potatoes never met the competition away from the coast. We gave up on tomatoes. If it needs warm nights, forget it. Almost by accident we learned that having to try many crops had a beneficial side-effect: it meant that we were spreading crop damage risk among different crops that each had a somewhat different biological vulnerability. From this came Principle #1: hedge the biological risk.

Another principle we learned, spreading the financial risk, came the hard way. We did have a huge bit of luck going for us: the organic market was growing 20% per year through the '70s, '80s, and '90s, an incredible doubling about every three and half years. The industry was comprised of 5-50 acre farms in the '70s, a renaissance of small commercial farms that California enjoyed back in the '50s, when 20% of the commercial farms were under 20 acres (another fact from the USDA bulletins).

So with this amazing growth, many of us expanded rapidly in the '80s, borrowing capital, starting to farm a few hundred acres in order to supply the increasing demand from distributors. Star Route Farms went down to the Coachella Valley in the late '80s and farmed a hundred acres of fresh vegetables for a time, first leasing and then buying the ground. I had friends doing more than that, some even building processing plants to produce the spring mixes that were all the fashion.

And then something ugly happened in the late '90s. The large, 5-10,000 acre conventional grower/shippers had decided that it was their turn to go organic and get shelf space in Whole Foods, Bread and Circus, and the other large natural food stores. They could devote 2% of their operating cost to organics and afford to give their production away in order to capture the shelf space. One of these companies was Grimmway Farms, which grew 40% of the country’s conventional carrots, and now has a major share of every organic vegetable. It happened very fast, within two years. Spring mix, for example, went from $11 per box to $5, way below our costs of $9. And they wouldn’t buy it unless we could fill a semi each time. I had two friends who went bankrupt with their processing plants. Star Route lost a bunch of money trying to hang on, and we learned Principle #2: hedge your financial risk the hard way. You can do this by selling in diverse markets including distributors, processors, retail stores, farmers markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). Or you can do this by selling to many in the same market, as we do now, selling to some 80 restaurants.

Forced to retrench our production, I decided on Principle #3: don’t chase every dollar; and more importantly, Principle #4: ask the question “who really wants what we do?” Answering this question transformed everything for us. It broadened our production, diversified our marketing, and lifted our spirits. We decided to cut out all distributors, sell and deliver ourselves to the end user, which turned out to be restaurants and consumers at farmers markets. We are now farming on fewer acres than in the '90s with larger revenue and net profit. We promote the business one-to-one, person-to-person. Maybe that’s a 5th principle, which was reinforced for me 30 years ago at a dinner with Robert Mondavi who told me to “build it from the ground up without advertising”. So, Principle 5: don’t advertise.

Perhaps the best benefit of our debacle and retrenching in the late '90s was realizing not only who we really should sell to, but who could support the new direction we wanted to take. It became clear that we wanted long term support from our community. Ag Commissioner Stacy Carlsen’s embracing organic certification, UCCE Marin Farm Advisor Ellie Rilla’s promoting organic practices, and Steve Kinsey’s and the other Supervisors’ programmatic support all created a great psychological backstop for all our farming efforts. And in fact all were very helpful when our farm was unfairly put upon by certain activists.

In essence, what I am trying to say is that diversity is not just about selection of crops and livestock. It is also about farming methods and practices, business principles and values, and of course, the people in our community.

Star Route Farms, 40 years in organic operation
Star Route Farms, 40 years in organic operation

About the Author: In 1975 Warren Weber started Star Route Farms with his wife in Bolinas, California. Star Route Farms is the longest continuously certified organic grower in California. Accordingly, Warren is recognized regionally and nationally as a pioneer and leader in organic farming.

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