Organic Pioneers: Growing the Next Generation at Four Sisters Farm
Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
May 20, 2016
When Nancy and Robin Gammons started farming in the 197os, they had their eyes on the future, like so many young people of their generation: the future of food, the future of the earth, the future of their community, and their children’s future.
Today, Four Sisters Farm is known at farmers markets around the Bay Area for their organic kiwifruit, avocados, bouquets, and nutritious specialty greens like miner’s lettuce, amaranth, sorrel, and watercress.
But as forward-thinking as they were in their farming methods, Robin and Nancy were not able to save enough money to plan for their own future. Now in their seventies, they are faced with difficult questions about how the farm they have nurtured for nearly 40 years will continue. “We love the farm,” says Nancy. “At this point, I don’t know what else we’d do. We want to keep going, and we want to pass it on to our children.”
To make necessary upgrades to their farm, they recently launched a fundraising campaign on Barnraiser, a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding platform focused on sustainable farmers and food producers. With support from the community they’ve been feeding all these years, Nancy and Robin will be able to build a sustainable future for their farm and family.
Growing the Wild
As a child growing up surrounded by big agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s, Nancy remembers experiencing health problems from the toxic industrial farming practices.
“I had all these lung-related illnesses,” she recalls. “I would see people spraying their crops, and I started thinking, ‘If farmers want to feed people healthy food, why would they put poison on it?’”
She knew there had to be a healthier way. In the 1960s, she learned about the organic movement through the Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Farming. In 1970, she met Robin, who had also grown up around agriculture in the Salinas Valley. Though neither came from farming families, they quickly bonded over their shared love of gardening.
They had four daughters in five years: Lucy, Jill, Dusty, and Prema. In 1977, Robin’s father helped them purchase five hilly acres in Aromas, near Watsonville, which became Four Sisters Farm. They taught themselves to farm using organic methods and were later certified by CCOF in 1988.
“The reason we’ve always been organic is that it’s the moral thing to do,” says Nancy. “If we want a clean world, everything has to be grown that way.”
Over the decades, the farm has developed like a wild garden, undiscriminating of weeds, impervious to pests, and rich with more than three feet of organic topsoil—all the result of Nancy and Robin’s hard work and cultivation.
In the late 1980s, Nancy started growing and selling organic flowers at a time when organic flowers were an even newer concept than organic food. She has also mentored other women, who have gone on to start their own flower farming projects.
“My parents were organic long before it was sexy and marketable,” says daughter Jill. “They always had the intention to make things better and build upon something, as opposed to just using or taking away from the land.”
Jill recalls picking kiwifruit with her three sisters and selling her family’s produce at farmers markets at an early age. When she was 16, she started working on the farm and enjoyed helping her mother with the flowers. She left the farm for several years to attend school, but she later returned to start her own flower project on the farm, while raising three children with her husband.
Her three sisters have full-time jobs and families of their own, but they keep close ties. “I seem to be the one who is set to take over the farm, which I probably will because I know about agriculture and I’m interested in it,” says Jill.
You’ll see her on Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where Four Sisters started selling in 2003. Staying in close contact with customers has been one of the cornerstones of the family business. “I love my customers,” says Jill. “It’s such a beautiful market, and the community is so supportive.”
Barnraising for the Future
As Nancy and Robin enter their seventies, the need for a transition plan has become increasingly urgent. “My parents have raised four daughters with organic farming, which is amazing, but they have no pension because they own their own business,” says Jill. “They never put anything into retirement because they never made enough.”
With the average age of U.S. farmers at 58 and climbing, the Gammonses are not alone. Nancy observes, “I see other farmers that we’ve known for years who are around our ages, and they’re faced with the same kind of decision-making that we are. They were pioneers in the organic movement.”
Robin and Nancy intend to stay active on the farm as long as they’re able while training Jill to take over operations. She hopes to increase productivity at the farm, so that the family can bring more fruit, greens, and flowers to market.
Funds from the Barnraiser campaign will help the Gammonses plant more kiwifruit and avocado trees, which are less labor-intensive and more lucrative than row crops, with less competition from local farms. Barnraiser funds will also help them pay for new equipment, infrastructure, and labor.
Community help is critical in sustaining the farm, so that the Gammonses can continue to care for the land and grow healthy food. “Farming is not an easy way to make a living,” says Jill. “If you are concerned about the environment, if you think climate change is an issue for you or your children, then it’s important to help small family farms stay alive.”
For Nancy, asking for funds has been difficult, but also affirming of the deep roots their farm has grown in the community. “One of the reasons this Barnraiser application was so hard for us is because we’ve always done it on our own,” she says. “It has been a really humbling experience, but I’m so filled with gratitude to see that people are responding to it.”
Find the Four Sisters Farm stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. Support organic farming by contributing to the Gammons’ Barnraiser campaign. They need to raise $10,800 by June 16.