By Vera Chang, West Coast Fellow, Bon Appétit Management Company Foundation
Since I attended the 2010 Eco Farm Conference session, “Is Small the Only Beautiful?” I have reflected on this question. My headed turned from side to side during the closing plenary as Eliot Coleman and Gary Hirschberg spoke, two East Coasters with contrary farming philosophies. Coleman is an organic farmer, author, and proponent of small-scale farming while Hirschberg is the Stonyfield Farm CEO and proponent of offering large-scale support for organic production.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove through California’s Central Valley, a 450 mile region home to California’s most productive agriculture. The area is dominated by large-scale agriculture. It is not uncommon for a single farm to be several thousand acres. Collectively grossing $27 billion in revenues last year, the Central Valley provides roughly one quarter of the food eaten by Americans. I was driving to present The Story Behind The Food in Claremont, CA at Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna Colleges on Tuesday evening. Then on Wednesday in nearby Redlands, CA, I was going to visit Three Sisters Farm, which supplies a diverse array of vegetables to Bon Appétit at University of Redlands.
Meet Abby and Jason Harned. They are a young couple with a daughter and son. They live in a straw bale house they built themselves and are the owners and sole employees of Three Sisters Farm. Three Sisters Farm is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the only organic farm in Redlands. The farm is a gem in the desert. It is also tiny compared with the many several-thousand-acre farms I passed on my drive South.
“Three Sister Farm is only one-acre?” I ask astounded. The largest Bon Appétit farm I have visited is 250-acres and still considered a ‘small farm.’ Thinking about the enormous farms I drove past mile after mile, hour after hour on my way down, I wondered how Abby and Jason could stay in business.
Friends and customers keep suggesting that Abby and Jason outsource labor and expand their farm. A concerned friend of theirs actually asked them whether, they felt poor since quitting their nine-to-five jobs and starting a farm. Their answer? Absolutely not. For now, Abby and Jason say, one-acre is the perfect. Actually, I now see why.
Abby and Jason are starting out small and slowly. Their first priority is to feed and sustain their family, which they do. And they eat very well. Abby and Jason grow 141 varieties of vegetables year-round in their small canyon plot. I have visited some larger farms that, due to vagaries of the weather and the market, struggle to make ends meet. Abby and Jason not only have enough food to feed their family but they also have enough to introduce organic food to the Redlands community. Their future plans for growth? To install demonstration gardens and host workshops to share knowledge with the local community.
I leave Three Sisters Farm, swept away by the charm of their small farm with mountain views and sunny skies. Abby and Jason’s daughter Laurel is picking berries, twirling around, and pushing her child-sized wheel barrow down the row of strawberries. Even if small is not the only beautiful, it is certainly beautiful. And seems like a great place to start.