Breaking new ground over and over

Jim Cochran and his son, Jimmy.

When Jim Cochran and a partner began farming on 4 acres of land near Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1983, he knew exactly what he wanted, says Sandy Brown, spokesperson for the farm. He wanted to grow organic strawberries, and help aspiring farmers with little capital become part-owners of the farm.

The partner moved on, but Cochran reached his goal in 1987 when Swanton Berry Farm became the first organic strawberry farm in California. In 2002, it won the EPA’s Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for pioneering the growing of strawberries without methyl bromide. In 2005, Cochran began offering an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) to his employees.

Land management

Cochran leases about 200 acres of land in five locations. They include one farm in a state park, two on land that is privately owned and two on land owned by the Trust for Public Land.

“We piece it together,” Brown says.

The North Coast of Santa Cruz County isn’t as conducive to strawberry-growing as other parts of the county; that’s why Cochran started there, she says. It’s easier to get access to land.

Through the years, he has focused on two methods to build up the soil: crop rotation and adding organic compost. They use some commercial fertilizer, but as little as possible.

Farm stand truck.

They also use as little water as possible, partly because it’s a scarce resource and it’s expensive—their biggest expense after labor, she says. It’s also because strawberries grown with less water have more intense flavor.

“We notice after the rains, it takes our berries time to regain their flavor,” Brown says.

Crops

Although they lease 200 acres, they only grow about 20 acres of strawberries a season. About 45 acres are grown with other fruit, including kiwis, olallieberries and blackberries, and vegetables. The rest of the land is in cover crops or dry-fallow.

It takes about two years to prepare the soil for strawberries. They add compost several times, and they grow cover crops of legumes, mustard or grasses, which they disc in, and then they leave the ground fallow. Finally, they plant at least one crop of broccoli. When the soil is ready they add nutrients and some water, which helps decompose the cover crop.

They buy bare-root strawberry transplants from a nursery in the Pacific Northwest where the starts receive just the right amount of chilling to produce vigorous plants. They plant in the fall. Harvesting begins in April and continues until October, and even into November if they’re lucky, Brown says. Although most commercial strawberries are grown as annuals, they grow some for a second year at the farm to sell at farmers’ markets.

They grow winter vegetables to extend the growing season. They plant artichokes, cauliflower, pumpkins, peas and broccoli in winter/spring and harvest them in the summer and fall.

“Jim began growing broccoli to extend the growing season,” Brown says. He started to notice that Verticillium wilt wasn’t affecting strawberries in the fields where broccoli had grown. He began rotating it with strawberries and became convinced that broccoli inhibited the disease.

According to the farm’s Web site, the University of California and the California Strawberry Commission didn’t show any interest when he asked them to study the possibility about 20 years ago, although the Agroecology Department at the Santa Cruz campus was supportive. The university began looking into it about eight years ago and confirmed that broccoli does suppress some soil diseases.

“They’ve come around,” Brown says. “They realize there’s money to be made in organic farming, and everybody understands that methyl bromide is on its way out.”

Other pests and disease

Crop rotation also keeps pathogens and the farm’s two main insect pests—the two-spotted spider mite, which lives on strawberry leaves, and the lygus bug, which lives on the flowers—from converging on the plants.

They use other strategies on the pests, too. They monitor the plants, and at the first sign of an outbreak, they release predator mites to attack them. They plant mustard on the perimeter of the fields as a decoy for the lygus bug, and they apply organic pesticides, including neem oil. They even vacuum them off, she says.

Since they don’t fumigate the soil, weeds are another problem. According to the farm’s Web site, they use drip irrigation to deliver water only to the crops. Sometimes they irrigate to sprout weeds and then run over them with a tractor. They burn them with a flamer and cover them with black plastic mulch. They hand-weed about six times between planting and harvesting.

Planting strawberry transplants.

They deter deer and wild pigs by planting peas for them to eat instead, and applying mountain lion scent near the strawberries. They hand-pick snails. Birds eat the strawberries early in the season, but they lose interest in them later on.

Markets

The farm’s strawberries are harvested at their peak of ripeness, and they aren’t chilled after harvesting because it affects their flavor and integrity. Because these conditions produce very delicate berries, the farm’s distribution channels are limited.

“The berries start to break down quickly. We can only sell in our immediate vicinity,” Brown says.

They have a farm stand that is open year-round and two U-pick locations. They also sell to grocery markets in San Francisco, including Rainbow Market and Whole Foods, and many Bay area restaurants.

Customers are willing to pay a premium for the berries because of their quality, she says, but that’s relative to conventionally-grown berries, which cost less to grow. The premium allows Cochran to provide the benefits to the farm’s workers.

Pruning kiwi vines.

Labor

In 1998, Swanton became the first strawberry farm—and the first organic farm—to sign a contract with the United Farm-workers of America, AFL-CIO.

The farm employs about 60 people during its peak season, Brown says, mostly full-time workers in production and part-time ones in sales. In the winter, the number goes down to about 35. They’re all in the union except for a few managers.

“Being unionized does make operating the farm more expensive,” she says. “But, the starting wage rate is not that much higher than the industry average.”

Tying ollalieberries.

Union wages are only the beginning of the expenses.

The main reason Cochran expanded the farm was because it allowed him to establish a health plan and pension plan for workers, Brown says. He also provides vacation pay, holiday pay and low-cost housing on-site.

In the stock ownership plan, all employees receive stock based on the number of hours they work each year. As co-owners, these employees elect a board for the ESOP to make decisions at the farm. The plan is relatively new and hasn’t had a major impact because no one is vested yet. The impact will be easier to see over time, Brown says.

Word of Cochran’s business model is spreading. According to the farm’s Web site, in 2003, the farm underwent a pilot audit of labor practices toward the goal of establishing international labor standards for small farms. In 2004, Cochran and Brown made a presentation in Rome about labor standards at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

The future

The farm’s challenges aren’t over yet. They’re experiencing increasing competition as more small farmers begin growing quality organic berries, without having the same labor costs, Brown says.

Swanton Berry Farm jams with a tractor in the background.

The Trust for Public Land is in the process of transferring the two locations it leases to the farm to a nonprofit affiliated with the California Farm Bureau. One of them is the farm’s main location, Brown says, with the farm stand, the kitchen, barns, a large shop, an office and housing for about 20 employees.

Although the land will be held as agricultural land in perpetuity, they aren’t sure Swanton Farm will be able to continue farming it. They are “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll be able to get a long-term lease once the title is transferred, she says.

That optimism is the hallmark of the farm.

“Jim started the farm with the intention to do something that everyone said couldn’t be done,” she says. “I think he’s used it to demonstrate that it can.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.