After a brief introduction, we began our farm tour with Greg, the soil specialist. Greg introduced us to the nuances of cover crops in field production—in this particular plot, rye grass, vetch, and bell beans were growing enthusiastically. Legumes are used as cover crops because they fix nitrogen and their fibrous roots stabilize the soil. These plants must strike a delicate balance to be effective: in order to outcompete weeds, they must grow fast but not flower, or else they themselves become weeds. After uprooting a couple of examples, Greg showed us a soil analysis—we learned that values of numerous chemicals such as ammonia and nitrate are observed and recorded, yet the “total available nitrogen” present in the soil is the limiting factor for plant growth. Next, Greg showed us the farm’s extensive thyme breeding operation; the farm gets thyme seeds offsite and must create variants that are optimal for their conditions. Baby thyme plants that displayed the purple color indicative of cold damage or premature flowering were deemed unworthy of transition into the field.
|The cover crops' roots display their ability to fix nitrogen|
After lunch, the greenhouse manager Raul showed us around the extensive indoor growing operation. While growing hoops are circular and plastic—Jacobs Farm does have some of these—the majority of the indoor facilities on premise are Dutch houses, hard-edged glass houses. We were all amazed at how enormous and cutting edge these houses are: climate and humidity are entirely computer controlled based on the internal plant’s preferred environment, and a complicated network of irrigation tubs crisscrossed through the space. We also go to see the newest hydroponic project; it looked like an alien city and it was curious that baby basil plants would soon emerge from the sterile-looking tubes and pipes. Raul’s passion for his work was truly evident when he concluded his section with, “The first time I saw a greenhouse, I was shaking but I didn’t know why. Now I know.”
|Sheer magnitude of the Dutch houses|
We ended our day sampling herbs with Farmer Emily Freed. She is in charge of harvest, projections, and logistics—basically, she oversees when and how much of what needs to be shipped where. Scrupulous organization is certainly essential: we viewed as logistics sheet from a day in the slow season, and Jacobs Farm still harvests, processes, and distributes 3290 pounds of herbs. Ultimately, all this production leads to eating, and consume we did—we tried rosemary, thyme, spearmint, Italian parsley, oregano, tarragon, sage, chives, and edible flowers. The pungent, lasting flavors were only overshadowed when we got ice cream in Santa Cruz on the way back.
Viewing this large-scale operation was insightful and thought-provoking. It as interesting for me to see the effects of economies of scale—for example, Jacobs could afford to leave some of their acquired greenhouses vacant or “transitionally conventional” during the three year period required for organic certification, while many small farmers find it prohibitively expensive to attain the certified label that ultimately captures premium price, and having many growing operations softens the blow if a bad harvest or virus descends on one particular area or plot. While shipping produce across the country—the world—is certainly not ideal, getting Jacobs Farm produce into the hands of people that could not otherwise have access to organic food is a positive. I would still take my not necessarily organic-certified but rather “no spray” or “beyond organic” local farmer over this operation, but as a large-scale organic producer, it seems that Jacobs Farm is doing an exceptional job.