Introducing Thomas Farm
August 27, 2009
This week’s feature is by CUESA intern, Becky Tsang
Being born into a farming legacy comes with certain expectations. Case in point: when Josh Thomas was in college, a coach looked on in horror as the oldest Thomas son went to Burger King. The coach is still a customer at the Thomas Farm stand and has never stopped giving Josh flack about the incident. “He just could not believe it,” remembers Josh.
Josh’s parents, Jean and Jerry, started Thomas Farm back in 1971, and Josh and his younger brother Patrick grew up helping to run it sustainably long before that was trendy or marketable. But following in his father’s footsteps was not always in his plans; farming had always seemed like too much work. Like many of today’s second wave of organic farmers, Josh and his wife Kari took over the farm in 2004 because there was no one else to keep it running.
“My dad announced that he was in his last year, so I was either going to do it, or it would fade into the sunset,” he remembers. Josh had spent years pursuing a filmmaking career while working on the farm, but he also realized he had an entrepreneurial streak, and farming was a way to avoid having to work for someone else. “I decided to go for it,” he says.
In an industry where the average age is 57, second-wavers willing to continue what their parents leave off are seen by many as crucial to maintaining the availability of sustainable food. Like Josh, today’s new farmers have smaller operations than average, and are more likely to hold off-farm jobs then earlier generations. “I think everyone has something else that they do, or they kind of go crazy,” he says. Josh still works on films in winter, when the farm work slows down; his documentary, “Farm Show,” about the largest agriculture expo in the country, screened at the Santa Cruz Film Festival in 2004.
Father Jerry Thomas was a founding member of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). No chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides of any kind have been used on the Thomas farm – instead, a regular stream of rich compost builds up the soil, and natural predators control pests. Another key ingredient is biological diversity; the Thomases started out growing apples, but Jerry had an experimental streak and broadened the scope after the apple crash of the late 1970s. Today the farm has the longest grower certification list in Santa Cruz County, with everything from Brazilian feijoas to Korean red hot garlic in the mix.
That diversity makes for a flexible business model. On top of fruit and vegetables, the Thomases have devoted half of their acreage to cut flowers, which have a higher profit margin than produce and provide a buffer when the economy is good. Produce sales, on the other hand, balance weak flower sales in recession years.
Locally grown, organic flowers offer many of the same benefits as their edible counterparts — reductions in chemical exposure, lower fuel emissions, and safer conditions for farmworkers — but are less likely to be in the spotlight. In the US, 62.4% of flowers are imported, mostly from South America, where damaging floriculture leads to water pollution and sick workers. In part, as an effort to bolster the local flower market, the Thomases have discussed transitioning to growing only flowers, but in the end, their stomachs have the final say. “We like to eat the food we grow,” says Josh, “and it’s just good to have both.”
Is farming as much work as Josh thought it would be before he took over Thomas Farm? Yes. “It’s always that feeling of one more thing to do than you have time for in a day,” he says. “But it is rewarding — and that’s the aspect that, when I was younger, I didn’t really see.”
You can find Thomas Farm at the Thursday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, or at nine other markets around the Bay Area.