Monday, January 7, 2013

A Good Thyme at Jacobs Farm - 1/7/2013

Today we drove to Freedom. California, that is—this is where gargantuan organic producer Jacobs Farm has one of its many facilities. Jacobs Farm/del Cabo operates throughout the Central Coast and Mexico, respectively, and it is best known for its culinary herbs and edible flowers, and specialty vegetables and fruits. In the Central Coast region, Jacobs Farm has facilities in Watsonville, Santa Cruz, and various other locations, as well as a packing facility in South San Francisco; it leases land from California state parks and, as mentioned previously, from Cal Poly Swanton-Pacific Ranch. About 30 years ago, Larry and Sandy Jacobs started Jacobs Farm in Pescadero, CA, delivering organic produce to San Francisco out of the back of their station wagon. Today, the organic producer is second (well, third) in size only to similar entities Earthbound Farms and Foxy. Jacobs Farm is in an advantageous position because it uses both the greenhouse environment and field production so that it can maintain year around supply for its consumers across the nation. 
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
“Integrated pest management” with Katerina came next. Using laminated white plastic wheels, we agitated marjoram and chive plants so that the aphids, spider mites, whiteflies, and thrip would fall from their pesky positions and be visible on the shiny, bright surface. Since Jacobs Farm is certified organic and is only allowed a specific biological control agent—a spray—three times per year, pest management takes alternative forms. Members of our group got to try out the “bug vacuum,” and we looked at the blue sticky bands throughout the green house for evidence of unlucky thrips—we didn’t need to observe too closely, for the bands had indeed served their intention.    
Bug hunting
Bug vacuum
Stuck bugs
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
Hydroponic operation
Ali clips some sage
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.

1 comment:

  1. What a great experience, Celeste, I feel like I'm there - and wish I was!