Fresh strawberries line the pathways. Squash spills onto the dusty route. Fresh lettuce and spinach grow wildly. Goats, tame as domesticated dogs, entertain young children.
It sounds like a sweet dream, but for Tom Shepherd, it’s a way of life. A fifth-generation Santa Barbaran, Shepherd has been farming organically since 1973. The owner of Shepherd Farms started his first garden, which he intended for use as a community garden for members of All Saints by the Sea, on a plot of land near the church. Unfortunately, no one from the church community expressed interest, so Shepherd developed the space into his own personal garden. Over the next few years, he continued establishing small farms all over Santa Barbara.
“I used to ride my bicycle around and look for open land,” Shepherd said. “I would approach the owners and ask if I could farm there. I would give them all the food they could eat and pay their water bill. They were almost always agreeable. They didn’t get any income, but I offered them something aesthetic, and food they needed.”
Since his days of hunting for farmland via bicycle, Shepherd’s ventures have grown vastly. He is currently farming at Yule Lake, a 40-acre plot of land in Carpinteria, as well as on Sedgwick Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley.
The Santa Barbara Farmers Market claims Shepherd as one of its earliest vendors, and the familiar face still makes a biweekly appearance in Santa Barbara, as well a weekly trip to the Carpinteria market.
Shepherd is passionate about promoting the idea of protecting Santa Barbara’s precious farmland. “What are we going to do when we have no farms left and all we have is houses and malls covering the most fertile land in our country, maybe even world?” he demanded.
Shepherd has always been very conscious about health issues, and started farming on his own out of concern over the abundance of chemicals on the majority of mass-produced foods. He swears by the high nutritional value of local produce, which retains more of its content when eaten fresh.
“The food loses vitality when it sits around for a few days,” Shepherd said. “And when it comes from Mexico or Argentina, it’s just dead. It’s filler. It’s like chips.”
In May, Shepherd Farms entered a new realm in the locally grown foods movement-Community Supported Agriculture, or “CSA.” Such farms operate by way of subscriptions from local families and individuals. Members who have purchased a “share” receive a box of the farmer’s seasonal produce on a weekly basis.
Shepherd said he has been “doing really well” with this strategy and already has 50 members. Those in Santa Barbara can pick up their weekly shares at Backyard Bowls on lower State Street, or they can venture down to Carpinteria to get them straight from the farm. Shepherd also runs a food cart on the property on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from which he sells fruit picked the very same day. He hopes to establish a relationship with Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara to further expand his CSA.
Shepherd appreciates the personable, community aspect of being a local farmer. He specifically likes the fact that through developing relationships with consumers, he can educate people about local and organic farming.
“The CSA people can walk around the farm,” he said. “I encourage that. Come, spend an hour, and just walk around and get the vibe of what this is all about. A lot of people really have no idea what farming is. They don’t know the beauty of it.”
Shepherd seems content as he overlooks the beautiful piece of property on which he farms. The vast expanse of farmland is a long stretch from his small plot near All Saints by the Sea more than 30 years ago. His fresh produce reaches hordes of Santa Barbara families every week through local farmers’ markets, his produce stand, and the farm’s new CSA. His mission of making local, organic food readily available has become a reality.
Shepherd works at the Farmers Market on lower State Street every Tuesday, and at the Saturday market at the corner of Cota and Santa Barbara streets. Membership for the CSA is $1,000 per year, or $300 quarterly. For more information go to shepherdfarmscsa.com.