Our friend Aubrey White, aka Bobby Beers, aka Cheddah, has a degree in community planning and a master gardener trowel. So we were surprised but less than shocked when she broached a new venture idea last year over cold pints: Should she invest as a stakeholder in a small organic farm? She got a lot of back slaps, high-fives and “duhs” but in the harsh light of morning it obviously would be a tougher call. Bobby bucked up, and she bought the farm … not that way.
Cloverleaf Farms is a 4.5-acre orchard of peaches, nectarines, apricots and figs with a 1.5-acre plot of roots, fruits and vegetables. It got its start with two founders in 2011 through the help of an organization called Farmlink that matches landowners with land seekers. Since then, there have been pests and poor yields and tough math. But so far so good. We can say that firsthand: On the first real hot spell of the summer, Evan hit Cloverleaf Farms armed with a cellphone, dumb questions and a floppy hat. Afterward, he asked Aubrey (blogger at Smart Farm) to tell us all bout the life of a part-time farmer…
HK: Tell us a little bit about the farmers behind Cloverleaf.
Aubrey: We are now four ladies strong with enough work for at least twice as many of us to accomplish. We all work close to full-time jobs alongside the farm, so our days are full and weekends busy. We’re outside Davis, CA, a university town overflowing with foodies and interest in local food. And we’re in good company. I know of at least eight other farms in the area starting up.
HK: We’ve heard a lot in recent years about college and graduate students deciding against office jobs and in favor of small-scale agriculture. What made you buy into a farm?
Aubrey: I think people move towards farming for a lot of reasons, and sometimes I think that it’s a matter of the sum being greater than the parts. I’m attracted to the physical work. Really, I like to lift heavy shit. And I’d rather my back be tired than my eyes. But more than that, a farm is a puzzle. You have to be part soil scientist, part carpenter, part salesman. I think the challenge of creating that kind of project, with an end result that makes people insanely happy (peaches, please) is compelling and rewarding for people. Too, it is exciting to find your own little place in the food system.
HK: On top of managing the farm, you guys run a CSA serving a few dozen families. What’s the business model?
Aubrey: Literally dozens! The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model is a popular one, which is mostly functioning. Community members sign up at the beginning of the season and pay for their produce in advance. Each week, we harvest like mad men and prepare lovely little boxes of food that customers pick up. For the farm, it means upfront cash at a time of year when you’re putting a lot of money into the season. For the customer, it means a box of surprises each week (and hopefully encourages some adventurous cooking). But for us the CSA also means customers essentially own a share of the farm, and acknowledge that their share may change in value depending on our success. For us, we had a few crop failures at the beginning of the season, so sometimes boxes were a bit slim. But if everyone understands the model and supports it, then we still have a customer base that knows we’re doing our damndest to grow tasty tomatoes and melons.
HK: How has the first year gone, what have been your biggest successes and obstacles?
Aubrey: Oh my god it’s so hard. That’s the thing you hear from farmers, right? We like to let everyone know how hard it is. This year was all about setting up systems that make our farm a functioning business. And navigating those new systems has sometimes impossible sometimes. Sure you can grow the food, but can you sell it? Yes, you probably can, but it means the weeds in your orchard will look like a forest by the end of the summer. If you get used to operating always behind schedule, then you can settle into that a bit. The biggest success? Peaches. For months we tended the orchard, crossing our fingers that our work would produce some tasty fruit and I have to say that I was blown away by the flavor of our fruit. I am officially peach-spoiled. When we landed a small grocery store in San Francisco as a customer and saw our peaches on the shelf, I felt so rewarded for the work.
HK: Knowing what you know now having worked the soil, what are the lessons you’d want to pass along to U.S. shoppers and like-minded eaters?
Aubrey: Oh man, that’s tricky. I guess sometimes I feel like there is a Hollywood complex when it comes to our produce. That is, it’s gotta be beautiful or it ain’t shit. Sometimes we lose a lot of produce because it’s less than gorgeous, but customer expectations are through the roof when it comes to pretty produce. Sometimes that ugly produce actually means that your farmer refused to spray for pests and accepted the superficial damage instead. Which is a good thing, right?