Save Tierra Vegetables

July 9, 2021

For sister-and-brother team Lee and Wayne James of Tierra Vegetables, the last few years have been one emergency after another. Starting with the Tubbs Fire in 2017, Sonoma County’s devastating wildfires have chipped away at their production capabilities and customer base, while the pandemic reduced their farmers market sales by over half, as restaurants closed their doors. Adding to this “perfect storm” of factors, the farm’s water pump broke two years ago, significantly reducing their well’s irrigation output and the amount of crops they could grow.

Now after 40 years of farming, they are fighting to keep the 20-acre sustainable farm with its remarkable diversity of heirloom crops afloat, so they can transition it to the next generation. This week they launched a GoFundMe campaign, asking their community for help to repair the well and get the farm on stable ground.

“I want people to understand that it’s the farm that needs support, not just Wayne and me” says Lee. “We could give up on the farm right now and just retire, but we don’t want that to happen. We need the farm to sustain itself. We need a younger generation of farmers in there to continue the farm.” Tierra Vegetables currently supports 11 families who rely it for their livelihoods.

Growing up with parents in the nursery business, Lee and Wayne began farming on their own in 1980, inspired by a deep passion for environmental stewardship. Tierra Vegetables became one of the founding farms of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in 1993. The team has grown Tierra Vegetables into a multifaceted business known for its diversity of heirloom crops, complete with a CSA, a farmstand, and a commercial kitchen that allows them to preserve and transform their heirloom corn and chile peppers into tortillas, cornmeal, hot sauces, chile jams, and other unique value-add products. Pre-pandemic, they hosted classes, celebrations, and meals at the farm to share food knowledge and connect the community with the land.

Amidst the recent challenges of the pandemic, wildfires, and drought, Lee and Wayne are also looking forward to retirement. Though they have mentored young farmers over the years, neither Lee or Wayne have children of their own. “I’m going to be 70 next year, and I’m getting a little tired,” Lee adds.

The average age of a farmer is 57.5 and rising, which means that ensuring paths to farm ownership for the next generation and preserving sustainable farmland are more important than ever.

While Lee and Wayne are committed in finishing out the season, they are working with California FarmLink, a nonprofit that connects farmers with landholders, finding the farm’s next stewards, so they can begin leasing and transitioning the farm next year.

“We’re asking for help to get the farm financially stable and functional so that somebody else can continue it,” explains Lee. “If someone were to take over right now, they would have to fix the water situation. We need the farm to be in a situation where they can just farm, and the farm will be profitable for them. As a new farmer, you can’t start out with a huge debt.”

For decades, Tierra Vegetables has been a sustainable food access point and educational resource for Sonoma residents and the greater Bay Area. And while California’s worsening drought has made farming increasingly untenable for small farms, the property’s water reserves make it ripe for a new generation to continue.

“The farm needs to be there,” says Lee. “It’s important to preserve because of all of the unique things we have, such as the corn and chiles, as well as the kitchen and processing. There is water there, so it can produce a lot of food. It’s easily accessible in a central location, and I think it’s important for local food security.”

She continues, “The word legacy. Everyone wants to leave a legacy. We’ve put a lot of work into it. To just walk away from it would be devastating.”

Learn more and support Tierra Vegetables’ GoFundMe campaign. Support Tierra Vegetables at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.