Blue House Farm: Caring for the Land and Workers
By Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
October 4, 2018
As home to some of most expensive real estate in the country, the Bay Area can be a challenging place to farm. “It’s great being close to San Francisco because consumers are so well-educated about organic and buying locally,” says Ryan Casey of Blue House Farm in Pescadero. “But there is no doubt that the high cost of doing business makes it a mixed blessing.”
By leasing land from and collaborating with the Peninsula Open Land Trust (POST), Blue House Farm has established an economically sustainable model of farming that provides local food, values farm workers, and protects ecosystems.
Putting Down Roots with POST
Ryan, a first-generation farmer from San Diego, became interested in farming in college while taking agriculture courses at U.C. Santa Cruz. After completing a Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems internship and working on several farms, he decided to start his own operation with Ned Conwell, a childhood friend.
But finding affordable farmland was a daunting prospect for two young farmers. In 2005, Ryan and Ned lucked out when POST awarded them a lease on four acres in Pescadero. A blue building on the property inspired the name Blue House Farm.
In the past thirteen years, Blue House Farm has grown substantially through leasing two other POST properties. In 2010, after purchasing Ned’s portion of the business, Ryan entered into a lease on a 50-acre private ranch in Pescadero protected by a POST easement. Five years later, Blue House Farm expanded again by entering into a long-term agricultural lease with an option to purchase on a 74-acre ranch in San Gregorio, property recently purchased by POST.
“The neat thing about Ryan is that it is through POST’s protected farmland that he has been able to grow and now own land for his farm,” says Laura O’Leary, Farmland Senior Project Manager at POST.
A Win-Win: Preserving Land and Helping Farmers
Since 1977, POST has protected over 75,000 acres of open space and parkland in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties from development by a combination of purchasing and placing agricultural conservation easements on land. (An easement ensures that land will remain in farming rather than being developed for other purposes.)
In 2016, POST launched the Farmland Futures Initiative to reverse the trend of disappearing farms in San Mateo County, which has lost 35% of its farms since the 1980s. The initiative’s goal is to increase the acreage of protected farmland from 750 to 2,250, and triple the number of farms from 11 to 33, over the next decade.
“Farms are an iconic part of the San Mateo coast, a deep part of its heritage,” says Ben Wright, Senior Conservation Manager at POST. “We recognize that farmers are fantastic stewards of the land. Farms, parks, open space—they are all part of this gradient of conservation.”
Ryan satisfied several important criteria that the land trust wanted in a tenant, in terms of conservation and community values. “POST was looking for a farmer who was interested in eventually purchasing the land and also willing to partner with different conservation agencies to do restoration work along the creek and in the riparian area,” says Ryan. Blue House gives back to the community by donating food to the local schools and Puente [a nonprofit that provides health and social services].
By obtaining funding, assisting with permitting, and working with contractors, POST has supported Blue House Farm in building important farm infrastructure, such as greenhouses, a barn, and worker housing, which have proven vital to the farm’s success.
“Just running a farm business is challenging enough. Doing the paper work would be nearly impossible,” says Ryan. “POST realizes that they have better capacity to facilitate infrastructure improvements and has done the legwork to organize and coordinate this work,” says Ryan.
Growing Organically While Protecting Water and Wildlife
Farming in two different microclimates allows Blue House Farm to grow over 50 types of certified organic farm products, including vegetables, fruit, and cut flowers. Cool-weather crops like lettuce, artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and strawberries thrive in the foggy weather on their San Gregorio property, just one mile from the coast. The Pescadero ranch, located five miles inland, has a sunny climate for heat-loving crops like tomatoes, pepper, sweet potatoes, and melons. “The two properties complement each other very well,” observes Ryan.
In addition to selling at CUESA’s Mission Community Market, Blue House sells at six other farmers market, has a CSA program, and sells directly to stores, local wholesalers, and restaurants.
Environmental sustainability is at the heart of Ryan’s organic farming practices. “One responsibility that I take really seriously is the farm’s impact on the immediate environment. Our goal is to improve the soil from year to year and provide habitat for birds, insects, and wildlife. In places where the farm is adjacent to riparian areas, we are sensitive to leaching, run-off, anything that would negatively impact riparian areas,” says Ryan.
To protect the local watershed, Blue House Farm has partnered with the San Mateo Resource Conservation District to create a 30-acre-foot irrigation pond, so that the farm will not need to pump from the San Gregorio Creek after July. This leaves water in the creek for endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout.
Prioritizing Farm Workers
Another core value of Ryan’s farming philosophy is providing good jobs for the farm’s 30 workers, most of whom the farm employs year-round. Prioritizing the health and safety of his workers, Ryan realized that providing low-cost housing was essential to his employees’ wellbeing and the farm’s success.
“One of the major factors in growing the business is finding and retaining sufficient labor,” says Ryan. “An impediment to that is limited availability of housing for farm workers. Property values in Silicon Valley have increased so much that housing is really tight. The only way that I could see stabilizing the business was providing housing for the field crew on the farm.”
POST partnered with San Mateo County’s Department of Housing to obtain $300,000 in funding through the County’s Agricultural Workforce Housing Pilot Loan Program to purchase and install two mobile homes, with three bedrooms each, on the San Gregorio farm. Blue House Farm purchased two additional mobile homes. “Ryan’s desire to provide workers with a nice place to live is pretty unique,” says Laura at POST. “Adding 12 bedrooms to the coast is a big deal.”
Since Ryan is one of the first farmers to participate in POST’s Farmland Futures Initiative program, lessons learned on Blue House Farm will benefit other farms as well. “We needed somebody flexible, who is willing to learn and work with us. Ryan is fantastic,” praises Ben.
“I’m kind of a guinea pig,” says Ryan. “Our work is a model that they are hoping to replicate other places.”
Support Blue House Farm at Mission Community Market on Thursdays (4-8pm).
All photos courtesy of Blue House Farm, except market photo by Amanda Lynn Photography.