Farming by Accident? The Story of Knoll Farms

July 9, 2004

This week’s feature is a talk given by Kristie Knoll of Tairwa’ Knoll Farms at ISEC’s “Ripe for Change” report release on May 4, an event that was co-sponsored by Foodwise (formerly CUESA).

My partner Rick and I bought a weedy, 10-acre alfalfa field in June of 1979. We escaped suburbia, determined to grow more of our own food than we’d been able to grow in our 50×50-foot back yard in Santa Ana.

The local farmers watched us, shaking their heads. They wagged their fingers at us saying we’d never be able to make a living farming 10 acres. “No problem,” we said. “We’re just gardening- you know -like growing our OWN food? Heavens! He’s a research chemist and I’m a legal secretary! Farm? I don’t think so!” Because natural food stores and organic produce were not easily accessible in our area, we wanted to play it safe. So we expanded our garden in the winter of ‘81 by planting 600 assorted fruit trees. A couple of months later, we planted a 2-acre patch of Crenshaw melons. It seemed like good insurance.

Later that summer when we were buried in crenshaws, I was on roller skates, hawking melons on Friday and Saturday at the Alemany Farmers Market and on Sunday at The Heart-of-the-City Farmers Market. We were also selling farmers-market-melon overflow to Veritable Vegetable and Monterey Market.
By 1986, the melon patch was a fond memory. The stark reality in the present was that 600 fruit trees were burying us in tree-ripened fruit and it seemed a shame to waste it. In the not-so-distant past, we had spent a lot of our hard-earned money buying organically grown produce in Orange County natural food stores. It occurred to us that we could make some extra dough selling fruit. So, degenerates that we were, we started selling it to whoever was interested.

We fantasized about retiring from our “day” jobs. Trouble was, we couldn’t make the summer fruit bucks last thru the winter and spring that followed. So my partner Rick, the visionary, started dreaming up crops to provide winter and spring bucks that would carry us up to the next summer’s fruit harvest. I think it was then that we realized–in horror–that we’d been bitten AND infected by the farming bug. By late 1989, we were pretty much self-employed by our own farm. The farm was in control and we were along for the ride.

As we met contacts at farmers markets, our customer base evolved toward those who courted and valued small-scale growers: Mom-n-Pop health food stores, a handful of progressive restaurants and a specialty-foods distributor here and there.

As organic became more mainstream, Whole Foods Market played Pac-Man: they systematically gobbled up Mom-n-Pop stores and courted corporate organic growers. As our Mom-n-Pop base waned, restaurants and distributors who serve the restaurant trade waxed.

Basically, we’ve built our business on a local (Bay Area “foodies”) audience and the shortest distance possible from field to table. We figured that the foodies would value our product more highly than most and the short distance from field to table would give us the best quality control: the fewer hands it passed thru on the way to people’s mouths translated into a tastier, healthier product with fewer chances of being compromised by the way others might store or handle it.

We still adhere to that tenet. For many years now, we’ve done two wholesale deliveries and one farmers market per week. Currently, we deliver on Monday and Thursday evenings and do the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday. We take orders on Sunday and Monday and Wednesday and Thursday. We send our crew out to pick on Monday and Thursday. What get’s picked and packed is what goes on the truck for the Monday and Thursday deliveries. We pick Friday for the Saturday market. So in most cases, our product is out of the field and on the produce rack at the store, on the menu at the restaurant, on the delivery truck of the distributor or in your bag at the farmers market within 12 to 36 hours after it is picked.

Our goal has always been to market the bulk of our produce within about a 50-mile radius of the farm, although on occasion, we might go as far afield as 100 miles. We would have sold it all in Brentwood, but early on the locals were suspicious of expensive, organic food, especially when it was peddled by newcomers who didn’t have clue one about how a REAL farmer farms!

So that’s our condensed farming history. I like to say that we’re farming “by accident” because farming-as-an-occupation was about the farthest thing from our minds when we bought the farm. It was not an occupation to which we aspired. Apparently, many others share this view because farming is no longer on the census as an occupation. Since 1935, the U.S. has lost 4.7 million farms; fewer than one million Americans now claim farming as a primary occupation. Actually, that’s almost a million too many because we really should be where we were 228 years ago: we should ALL be growing our OWN food. It’s ironic that when this country was founded, the dream of many early settlers was a plot of ground which they could call their own, and off of which they could extract their sustenance and a livelihood. And here we are 228 years later: happy as clams to contract the growing of our food not only to other people in our immediate area but to people half a world away.

 …If we place “Growing Our Own Food” on a continuum, with “growing all our own food” on the left and “growing none of our own food” on the right, we can easily see that most of us- – whether we’re “farmers” or “consumers,”   will fall somewhere to the right of far left.  We can view this continuum from different levels:  personal, community, national, global.

Globally, it could be argued that we grow all our own food.  Is anyone aware of any alien or intergalactic food sources.  As nations, communities and individuals, I think we fall WAY short of growing all our own food and I’m not even sure we’d want to have that as a goal.  We enjoy much cultural richness by having access to diverse foods.  So, how can we, as individuals, communities and nations, have access to that rich and WONDERFUL multicultural diversity of global foods without compromising the environment or our ability to feed ourselves?  Is it possible?  I wish I knew.  I believe that fair trade practices have helped coffee and cacao producers grow for an export market while minimizing detriment to the environment and the producers’ ability to feed their families.  This may not SEEM like a big deal, but the ability to feed oneself and one’s family is about as big as it gets.  If people are denied the basic right and privilege of feeding themselves, what kind of quality of life can there POSSIBLY be??  But, you know, that’s a whole ‘nother seminar. 

I know we’re here to rethink California agriculture, in a local vs. global sense.  In a larger sense, I think we need to think about global agricultural systems: we’re all in this together and we need to figure out how to COOPERATE with one another and foster WIN-WIN situations for what are now competing systems. We can isolate each agricultural component of the global village and inspect it in a reductionist manner; but only when we study the way each of the components FUNCTIONS in relation to the others and the synergies that arise out of those interactions can we begin to understand the complexities of global agriculture and THEN begin to construct systems that are mutually beneficial for producers AND consumers, rather than systems that are mutually devastating-a lá all our swell free trade agreements.  Have you ever wondered WHY they call them “free” trade agreements??  Is it because the producers work for “free?”  Is it because the corporations ride on the backs of the producers and consumers for “free?”  Alas, I digress. 

If we can agree that we are ALL inextricably interconnected-much like links on a circular chain-we can perhaps also agree that we are only as strong as our weakest link. No matter what level of the continuum we examine-personal, community, national, global-it makes sense for each link of the chain to be as strong as possible.  As each link improves its own integrity, the integrity of the whole is raised. I think that’s how we must view our food systems. We need many small food systems serving predominantly local markets.  After everyone’s local needs are met, is there harm in exploring export markets using fair-trade practices? Another question for which I don’t have an answer. 

My partner likes to say that we have some of the few remaining fuji apples in Brentwood.  The other Brentwood fuji growers yanked their fujis out of the ground-or left them to die a slow death-when the Asian fujis hit the U.S.  Somehow, the Asian fujis were cultivated, harvested, packed, stored in controlled atmosphere, placed in sea-going containers and shipped half-way around the globe to U.S. markets and the price for the Asian fujis was SO far below what Brentwood growers were getting that it trashed the Brentwood fuji market.  I seriously doubt that the Brentwood growers were getting a very high price for their apples because everyone still has the “commodity” mentality and things are sold by the TON.  To a small grower, this is sheer insanity.  We sell stuff by the pound or by the box.  Maybe larger small growers sell things by the pallet?  I don’t know.  I don’t have a clue what the price was for a TON fujis but I have a farmer friend who leases his 25 acres of apricots to a local farmer who grows them for the overseas dried-fruit market.  This grower gets $300 for each TON of fresh apricots. Now, we sell apricots, too.  But we sell ‘em for $20 to $25 per 10-POUND BOX, depending on their variety and grade.  So, a commodity apricot grower-and this guy grows Blenheims, by the way-gets the princely sum of 15 CENTS for a pound of his ‘cots.  We small-farm ‘cot growers get $2.00 to $2.50 on the wholesale market and $3.00 per POUND at the farmers market. Now, I have a Bachelors of Music in Vocal Performance not a Masters in Economics, but it’s like SOMETHING doesn’t “compute” here.  This whole “commodity” mentality is one reason I’m glad we’re small farmers.  If that’s the thanks you get for being big, we’ll STAY small!  AND diverse!  I personally think the big-farm systems enrich corporations, impoverish farmers, gouge consumers and degrade the environment-and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  But as an accidental farmer, I doubt that my opinion counts for much. 

Two of our other farmer friends grow some of the best corn in Brentwood.  Farming is all they know and farming is what they want to do. They’re not interested in selling out to development, thank you very much. When the corn get to a certain age, they spray it with lannate every three days. They walk their corn fields DAILY and they agonize that they come out of the field reeking of lannate. These two guys are from farming families and two of their elders died in their 50s of cancer.  One cousin is late 30s, the other mid 40s and they’re wondering how long it’s gonna be until THEY have cancer. They’d LOVE to quit spraying lannate, but the corporations who buy their corn will kick it if they find earworms in it.  Everyone knows consumers faint dead away at the sight of an earworm in an ear of corn, and of course,  they’ll NEVER buy corn again.  The cousins are just barely making ends meet growing for the commodity market; they’re degrading the environment and compromising their health.  They want to believe that there’s a better system but they’re really afraid to have it all hanging out there.  They talk about just saying “NO!” to lannate, and lopping off the ends of the ears of corn.  But they’re afraid they might not get every worm in the process-and then, WHERE would they be?  We need to re-educate consumers and producers so that we can eventually get our farms off drugs! 

Maybe the Reader’s Digest condensed version of THIS farmer’s perspective would be:  “If we weren’t small and if we weren’t local and if we weren’t diverse, we wouldn’t STILL be accidentally farming!  We’d be broke!”

Knoll Farm sells at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market every Saturday.

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