Built on Excellent Soil and Gratitude: Ground Stew Farms

By Monika V.I. Kunz, Kitchen Table Advisors Volunteer
September 9, 2016

If you have the lucky opportunity to speak with Sergio Jimenez on his five-and-a-half acres at Ground Stew Farms or at one of his five weekly farmers markets, you’ll be struck immediately by his bright smile and humility. He’ll probably offer you a taste of his stunning produce while speaking about the immense gratitude he has for all who’ve helped make his farm in San Martin, California, a success. He will likely also find a way to weave into the conversation that quality soil is at the heart of good farming.

Finding His Way Back to the Family Business

Sergio hails from Oaxaca, Mexico, where his father was a successful farmer. He didn’t immediately fall into the family business, however. As a child, he recalls working long, hard hours helping on the farm while also attending school full time. He couldn’t picture his adult self as a farmer.

Fast-forward to his life in California: Sergio had a number of careers outside of farming, including roles with a manufacturing company and in real estate. The real estate work was incredibly stressful for Sergio. At that time, he had a large backyard and, with little effort, began growing things in his garden for fun and to help relieve stress. Farming in his garden came easily to him, and he soon realized the passion that he had for working the land.

Growing Soil

A relative told him to look into ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association) in Salinas. He immediately signed up for classes with them, and learned how to both farm organically and run a business. As part of this program, he was able to lease land at a reasonable price so he could get his business off the ground. His first year (2012), he leased two and a half acres, and in the last two years he has expanded to five and a half acres.

The current home of Sergio’s farm is ALBA’s Triple M Ranch, located in Northern Monterey County. The ranch is on a 195-acre farm, only 60 acres of which can be cultivated due to a natural land easement, with the rest zoned for conservation in the environmentally sensitive Elkhorn Slough watershed. Being in the slough, Sergio’s farm is not only a haven for beautiful produce, but also a mix of native frog species that include American Bullfrog, California Red-Legged Frog, and Pacific Tree Frog. Ground Stew and the resident frogs have built a harmonious life together in the watershed.

Sergio grows many kinds of certified organic fruits and vegetables, and the stars of the current summer season are his strawberries. Customers buy them weekly because of their incredible flavor. Late summer is tremendously busy for him, like most farmers. Tomatoes, kale, and zucchini are other top sellers at the farmers market. (Insider tip: You may see some of his perfectly delicate Little Gem lettuce in local restaurants soon.)

Sergio avoids using pesticides—even organic ones—on his crops whenever possible. He prefers to grow a large variety of plants, and “naturally confuse the pests.” In other words, Sergio is committed to integrated pest management, which means building biodiversity and employing a combination of natural tactics, like disrupting a pest’s living conditions, to reduce pest levels.

At the core of his farming philosophy, he believes in creating a strong base for the roots of his plants. “I grow soil first before I grow plants,” he says. “It’s very important for me to enhance the soil where I’m growing. I use a lot of compost and cover crops over the winter. Many people use organic practices, but I believe establishing healthy soil is the key.”

When you bite into one of his sweet-like-candy yellow tomatoes as I did this week, you will agree that whatever he’s doing to that soil is the right approach.

Struggles and Support

When asked about the biggest struggle he faces as a farmer, Sergio doesn’t complain about the exhausting work, the extensive hours, or anything one might expect. Instead, he shared that the lack of labor is the biggest challenge that he and other farmers face.

“This is what keeps me from expanding further: lack of labor,” he says. “There aren’t enough people who want to work on a small farm like mine. I’m not sure why exactly. We depend on immigrants a lot, and the tightening of the border may be one cause of this. This happens to all farmers—both small and large commercial farmers. Signs all over the area advertise for more workers.”

Sergio shares that most farm workers get paid minimum wage, but he pays his folks more because he appreciates their work and hopes to earn their loyalty. He speaks of one smart and responsible worker with leadership skills that he helped develop recently. Sergio noticed a neighboring farmer trying to lure this employee away, which sadly seems to be all too common in times of labor shortage.

We don’t linger on this subject for too long. Sergio would rather speak about the support he’s received than focus on the negatives. He couldn’t say enough wonderful things about the connections he’s made through ALBA, Kitchen Table Advisors, and CUESA. He also has great love for Oakland and San Francisco farmers market shoppers, because they are “very knowledgeable about how eating organic food positively impacts people and the environment.”

“Kitchen Table Advisors helped me get the farm’s financials organized,” he says. “That’s still a challenge, but we are getting there! It’s hard to juggle farming, going to markets, and the books.” He also appreciates CUESA’s oversight of their farmers markets. “They are truly there to help and support small farmers, not just to collect a stall fee.”

Find Ground Stew at the Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays, and at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Photos by Kitchen Table Advisors/Sarah Trent; Tory Putnam; and Caitlin Crow, Orange Photography.

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