Sunshine Organics Keeps Sustainable Farming in the Family

August 14, 2020

Thirty-five-year-old organic farmer Gladys Mondragon and her family represent the next generation of farming our world needs. Together with her parents and husband, Rafael, she farms certified organic vegetables and berries, bringing a diversified approach to caring for the land at Sunshine Organics⁠—one of the newest additions to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market⁠.

Between farming, parenting, managing careers in education, and working toward their master’s degrees, Gladys’s and Rafael’s lives are very full, but sharing their work and passion within the family has made all the difference. Gladys’s brother, Adrian, also farms nearby at his own operation, Urban Organics, while her other siblings pitch in to help at the farm and markets. Gladys and Rafael also have two children, one-year-old Gael and five-year-old Camila, who has become a spokesperson for the farm in her own right.

We spoke with Gladys to learn more about Sunshine Organics, how her family has been adapting and planning through the pandemic, and what keeps her hopeful about the future.

CUESA: Tell us about how you got started farming.

Gladys Mondragon: I grew up in farming, and my parents have done it all their life. My dad always grew vegetables and strawberries, farming in different locations and selling the produce to big companies. Once I was in middle school, I started helping out on the farm, picking berries.

We made our farm official in 2007 when we started doing farmers markets and became certified organic. We have two locations in Monterey County and Santa Cruz County, where we grow different types of organic vegetables as well as strawberries and cane berries [such as raspberries and blackberries], and rotate crops to maintain the soil quality. My family was finally able to buy one of the farms, and we lease the other. We have two year-round workers, who have also become part of our family.

My husband joined the farm 10 years ago. We both run the farm, and he has learned a lot from my dad and followed in his footsteps. It’s been a good mixture of the old and the new, between and my dad’s experience growing high-quality produce, and Rafael and I maintaining relationships with farmers markets, and the agriculture department and organic certification.

We farm in the old-fashioned way, with plenty of hard work and sweat. We take pride in our efforts to improve soil quality and health, and that’s reflected in the flavor and nutrition of our produce. We care more about quality than quantity, and making sure our customers are happy and want to come back to us.

How has the pandemic affected your business and life on the farm?

It’s been very scary, and was especially scary in beginning. We always do our planning and investing a year ahead. Once the pandemic hit, we started wondering if we were going to be able to sell anything. Some of our farmers markets were closed, and everything was unknown. All that investment, where was it going to go? But some of the markets remained open, which kept us afloat. A lot of our customers were making it a priority to come out and support us.

Being parents, the pandemic has been tough for us as well, with school closing and no daycare. The kids have to be around us most of the time. My husband I both have to work on the farm, and my parents, too. We all rotate taking care of the kids. We’ve been able to take the kids with us to the farmers market every once in a while, but we’re hesitant. We’ve been managing, but it’s been challenging for sure.

How are you planning for the future?

Right now, we’re going to keep focusing on our farmers markets. I believe it’s a healthy place and safer shopping experience for customers because it’s an open-air environment. I’m happy to be part of that, providing organic produce for customers during the pandemic.

Since we’ve been doing more markets, the demand for our product is growing, and we’re hoping to expand. This year, we feel like we could do more, but we would need a lot more help with it. We’re looking into getting more land and a few more workers to help us sustain the farm and grow more products. 

We’ve been very lucky to be working with Kitchen Table Advisors and have access to their network. It just makes us more comfortable expanding our farm, knowing that we’re learning from them. They were able to connect us with the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which was huge for us. It gives our farm a lot more stability.

What keeps you going as a farmer, particularly in this challenging time?

Sometimes when you’re young, you think, “Am I doing this right? How much longer can we do this for?” But with the support of our farmers market customers, it gives us hope that we can continue growing as a family farm. The response of the customers at the Ferry Plaza has given us a lot more energy. I can see that our shoppers understand the hard work that goes into growing, picking, and delivering produce to the market.

Being involved in farming is also very positive for our family, knowing that my kids can have something to grow up into, if they want to do it in the future. I appreciate creating relationships at the farmers market, and knowing that we’re providing something good for people.

Find Sunshine Organics at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays, on the Embarcadero in front of the new WETA Plaza. Find Urban Organics at the Ferry Plaza on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Mission Community Market on Thursdays.

Farm photos courtesy of Sunshine Organics.