Organic is hip. Locally grown organic is even hipper, and, minus the bling and attitude, local organic farmers are the new, off-the-grid rock stars. But stardom did not come overnight. For although the lion’s share of the multibillion-dollar organic produce industry goes to large-scale industrial organic farmers, small-scale organic farmers have found a stronghold in the Farmers Markets. This niche has enabled many farmers to hold onto one version of the American dream: making a living off the land.
Los Olivos Roots Organic Farm is a prime example. Jacob Grant, a 33-year-old California native, started Roots in 2002, and it’s small even for a small farm, with only 10-15 acres planted at one time. In a very short time, Roots gained favor for its sweet carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, and melons, and now supplies some of the area’s prized restaurants, including Hungry Cat and Hitching Post. Roots sells at six Farmers Markets a week, and seasonally supplies a number of restaurants and grocers, all within 50 miles of the farm.
And as to the rock star status? Grant himself made the reference. “Sometimes I go to social gatherings and I feel like a rock star, especially in L.A. where people are so far removed from their food source,” he explained. “I had no anticipation of that when I got into it. There was no fame involved with the organic farmers I knew.” No fame, and not much fortune, but even that is changing a little.
“The Farmers Markets have been built up by that older generation and I am really thankful for that because I became involved in it just at that critical moment when it started to take off,” said Grant. “I remember going to Farmers Markets and making $50. I don’t do that anymore.” Roots isn’t the only small-scale farm to enjoy rising popularity. A 2007 study by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program reported that Farmers Markets nationwide have increased 1190 percent between 1970 and 2006, from approximately 340 to 4,385 markets nationwide. But not all Farmers Markets are equal.
“I can make a living as a small farmer because of Santa Barbara County,” explained Grant, whose farm supports himself, his wife Genevieve Herrick, and their toddler son Orin. “We have a great climate, and there’s a profitable crop that can be grown 12 months a year.”
The economic model of the Farmers Market is also a key to success. Rather than selling produce to a “cooler,” or a middle man for low commodity prices, the farmers sell directly from their stand to the customer, receiving retail prices rather than just pennies to the dollar. This method takes skill, commitment, and a bit of passion.
Although mild-mannered in demeanor, Grant was clearly excited while talking about his produce. “Flavor is the paramount that I’m trying to achieve,” he said. “It’s really satisfying to me to have customers respond to that. I had a French guy last summer tell me that my tomatoes made him cry. He hadn’t had tomatoes that tasted like that since he was a kid.”
Grant credits his early interest in farming to his mother’s “really good vegetable garden.” When he was 18, he decided to explore his growing interest by approaching family friend and organic farmer Shu Takikawa. Takikawa agreed to become his mentor, but set some ground rules. He would not explain to Grant what to do, but he would answer any questions. This subtle approach meant Grant had to think about the process of organic farming before formulating his questions. Two years later, he had a strong grasp of the practice.
On a bicycle tour across the U.S., Grant fully realized his passion for farming. While cycling through hundreds of miles of corn and soybean crops in the Midwest, he came upon a farmer, also on a bicycle, and they struck up a conversation. “The catalyst moment was when the farmer said he doesn’t eat the corn that he grows because of the chemicals he used on it,” Grant remembered. “He said he can sleep at night because he believes his corn goes to the feed lot. A lot of it probably gets processed as well, and even the food lot is food. Right after I finished that bike trip is when I got back into hands-on farming.”
Although he farmed on and off for the next few years, it wasn’t until late 2002, when he rented a five-acre parcel, that Los Olivos Organic Roots was born. By putting in 10-hour days, six days a week, with part-time help during the summer, he was able to make enough to support himself the first year. Each year he added another acre until he was leasing a 15-acre plot with a barn. Last year was his largest expansion, when he added a 10-acre field, raising total acreage to 25 acres.
When asked about future crops, Grant explained happily, “It’s like having a chalkboard. You can just scribble all over it and erase it and start over.”
You can find Jacob Grant selling his produce from the Los Olivos Roots Organic Farm at any of the Santa Barbara Farmers Markets. See sbfarmersmarket.org.