Starting a New Organic Legacy: Next-Generation Farmers at McGinnis Ranch

Kayla Abe, CUESA Staff
March 4, 2016

Tulips from McGinnis Ranch are always one of the first signs of spring at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Come February, vibrant crimsons, peaches, and golds radiate from their stall, garnering smiles from passersby and serving as a bright reminder that spring berries are soon to come.

While some aspects of the market are as consistent as the changing of the seasons, you may have noticed some fresh faces behind the flowers and vegetables at McGinnis’s market stall recently. As Sandi McGinnis-Garcia and her niece, Sara Evett, take over the legacy created by retiring farmer Howard McGinnis, they are also ushering in a new era for the fourth-generation family farm, transitioning to organic and establishing a voice in the boy’s club of agriculture.

Growing a Family Heirloom

Stone fruit is not a product many customers associate with McGinnis Ranch, at least not since Howard McGinnis took over the farm from his parents in 1968. In 1944, his parents purchased the land for growing apricots (which they sold both fresh and dried) as well as daffodils. After the San Luis Reservoir was built in 1962, however, the climate was so drastically altered that the area was no longer conducive to growing apricots.

Though technically a second-generation farmer, Howard learned the nuts and bolts of the trade first-hand while transitioning the land from fruit to vegetable farming. “Most of it was just trial and error,” says Howard.

Howard’s successes soon outweighed the errors after he left his day job at PG&E to run the farm full-time. His 100 acres supplied produce for retailers Lucky and Raley’s, until stiff competition for contracts with major distributors eventually moved Howard to try farmers markets as a more reliable sales channel.

But even in the couple red ink years when the farm didn’t break even, Howard has always found farming rewarding. “I guess, at heart, I’m a gambler,” he laughs.

Howard had no trouble building McGinnis Ranch’s following selling direct to customers. “He has always had a really good name,” says  Howard’s daughter, Sandi. “People want his zucchini over the others because of the quality at a reasonable price,” the same reasons customers stay steadfast to McGinnis Ranch today.

Back to the Land

After nearly five decades of maintaining the farm, Howard is finally ready to retire. “I’m getting old!” says Howard. “I’m 77 years old. I have a car that’s one year older than I am, so my wife and I are going to go to car shows with it. We’re going to travel since we haven’t been able to much with the farm.”

Until recently, there wasn’t a clear farm succession plan for Howard’s retirement. Sandi always had fond memories of growing up on the farm—driving the family tractor at nine years old, and selling at the Alemany and Monterey farmers markets—but taking it over was not on her agenda. After leaving the farm to start a successful wholesale flower business, Sandi has decided to return to her roots in farming. “It’s the labor of love,” Sandi says. “It’s just in my blood.”

A tipping point in Sandi’s decision was attending the EcoFarm Conference, an annual convergence of sustainable farmers, earlier this year. “It was really inspiring,” she says. “It was an eye-opener learning about the different sustainability practices that are available to farmers.”

For Howard’s granddaughter, Sara, the prospect of running the farm has been on her mind for years. “It was always a weird dream that I had of taking over the farm some day, but I never actually thought it would come to fruition until last year,” she says. Visits to her grandfather’s farm were a formative part of Sara’s youth as well. “A lot of my early memories are of the farm,” Sara reminisces. “Playing in the shed, riding around on the forklift, picking blackberries.”

She gave city life a run in her twenties, but found herself nostalgic for the farm and returned to fulfill her dream of living and working full-time at McGinnis Ranch.

With the average age of US farmers exceeding 58, keeping family farms in production and passing them onto the next generation has become more urgent than ever to ensure a food secure future, which makes Sandi and Sara’s decision especially well-timed.

Howard has high hopes for them but is also cognizant of the difficulties inherent to the profession. “It’s always a challenge keeping everything going,” he says. “They have their ideas for maintaining the farm that are probably a little different from mine, but I’m going to advise them the best I can.”

Committing to Organic

As if taking over farm operations weren’t a huge undertaking in itself, Sandi and Sara are also in the early stages of transitioning to organic. According to Sandi, they’re well on their way, though the certification will require some changes in their practices and many site visits, applications, and soil checks.

“A lot of the techniques and inputs we used on our farm at the end of last year were already organic because we found that they actually work better,” she explains. “[Howard] has been using beneficial insects and organic chicken manure for a few years.”

The biggest hurdle in this transition process? “All the paperwork!” exclaims Sandi. They expect to complete their organic certification by 2018, keeping the same crops they presently offer and trialing new beet varieties, fennel, and additional cut flowers.

Storming the Boy’s Club

Sandi and Sara will continue to employ the six full-time employees at the farm, some of whom have worked with Howard for 25 years. But even for McGinnis Ranch’s long-time employees, there are new concepts to adapt to in this time of transition: getting used to two women in charge. “All our employees are all men,” says Sandi. “They’re great, but it’s an interesting dynamic.”

At a time when female farmers control only 7 percent of all farmland in the US, women entering the field are still considered pioneers and are often forced to justify themselves to their male counterparts. But high risks and hard, manual labor are nothing new for Sandi and Sara.

“When we go to any agricultural meetings, people look at us like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Sandi says with a sigh. “There are a few women farmers that we see on a regular basis, but for the most part, it’s a male-dominated industry.”

While McGinnis Ranch already has a long, rich history, Sandi and Sara are excited to write a new chapter. “Giving back to the land but also providing people with fresh food feels good at the end of the day,” says Sara. “I think a lot of people think that it would be a thankless job, but it is not at all. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Pick up spring flowers and support the next generation at McGinnis Ranch on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Farm photos courtesy of McGinnis Ranch.