Fifth Crow Farm Forges Their Own Path to Sustainability

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
September 1, 2017

Though John Vars, Teresa Kurtak, and Mike Irving are approaching their tenth year farming together, the three young farmers of Fifth Crow Farm are spring chickens by farmer standards.

According to the US Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farm operator is 58 and rising. From 2007 to 2012, the number of new farmers, who have been farming for less than 10 years, declined by 20 percent. New farmers are needed now more than ever, and Fifth Crow offers a hopeful model for the next generation.

Fifth Crow is building a successful farm on an ethos of sustainability and community. “We have our own way of doing things, and we’ve found a way to make it work,” says John.

“Being a new farmer, you’re more willing to try new things. When you’ve got many decades of experience coming down from your father or your grandfather, you’re not going to necessarily buck the system and try to go organic if you’ve been told that doesn’t work.” He speculates, “I think we wouldn’t have been able to find that path if we had the experience to tell us not to do it.”

Turning Learning into Practice

As a young environmentalist and undergrad at Brown University, John studied geology and Latin American studies, which led him to travels in Ecuador. Working with coffee growers transitioning to ecological farming methods, he became interested in agriculture as a route to sustainable development.

“I came to learn that the United States is often the exporter of unsustainable farming, techniques, and that many places are already closer to practicing sustainable agriculture than we are,” says John. He fell in love with the process of growing food, and resolved to create change in the world by becoming an organic farmer.

In 2002, he enrolled in UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) farm and garden program, where he became “radicalized” in sustainable farming practices. A training ground for young organic farmers, the program has graduated more than 1,400 students since it was founded in 1967—including farmers from Dirty Girl Produce, Bluma Farm, and Oya Organics, to name a few.

Beginner’s Mind

At CASFS, John met Mike, a UMass Amherst graduate with dual degrees in pre-med and history. Mike’s future wife, Teresa Kurtak, who had grown up on a cattle ranching homestead, completed the CASFS program a couple years later.

After stints working at other farms, John, Mike, and Teresa reconnected in 2008, when they were introduced to a family that had farmland to lease in Pescadero and was interested in supporting organic agriculture. That year, the three founded Fifth Crow Farm on a shoestring budget, with a shared vision for a highly diversified organic farm growing food directly for the community.

From the beginning, they were met with skepticism from neighboring farmers, who grew large swaths of monocrops for conventional distribution channels. “With the amount of diversity that we’re doing, I think some of the old-timers thought we were crazy,” says John. “We’re less efficient about certain things, but that opens up the possibility of showing up at a farmers market with 32 different items every week.”

The farm has become known for its baby head lettuces, but it aims to be a “one-stop shop” at the farmers market, where people can buy their fresh vegetables, dried beans, pasture-raised eggs, berries, apples, and cut flowers, all certified organic.

It Takes a Community

A decade later, Teresa and Mike, and John and his wife, Maggie, are now parents, with toddlers running through the fields. The trio founded their farm on principles inspired by UC Santa Cruz farm and garden program: that sustainable food systems must be ecologically sound, socially just, and economically viable.

Resources such as the Peninsula Open Space Trust (from which they lease land) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service have supported the farm in its journey. Fifth Crow was also one of the original alumni of Kitchen Table Advisors, a nonprofit that helped them develop a business strategy to lay the foundations for growth.

Now 25 employees strong, the team strives to create a just work environment that pays workers fairly, and as the business, grows, they aim to offer year-round employment and benefits.

For John, the relationships formed at the farmers market represent the core values that sustain Fifth Crow. “Community is one of the fundamental supports for sustainable agriculture, at least the way we’ve done it,” says John. Fifth Crow’s customers, landlord, and neighbors are all partners in the farm’s success.

“We’re all intimately connected to the food system, whether we are aware of it or not,” he says. “Finding greater awareness allows you to make more conscious decisions and be part of creating an agricultural system that you are happy with and want to be a part of.”

Find Fifth Crow Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. Visit Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero on our upcoming farm tour on September 16. Register here.

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 courtesy of Fifth Crow Farm.

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