Feb 8, 2013
Freewheelin’ farmers ready to move on

After spending the past decade growing a sustainable small farm from a half acre of old farmland to a thriving eight-acre organic enterprise, the owners of Freewheelin’ Farm in Santa Cruz County, Calif., are ready to move on to new challenges.

“It’s been a good project, a lot of fun, and has generated a lot of community love,” said Amy Courtney, who owns and operates the farm with Darryl Wong and Kirstin Yogg. “Now, we’re looking for someone to take the baton and run with it.

“We’ve spent 10 good years building up a healthy farm operation, and now we’re ready for a change,” she added.

The trio began farming on a small plot overlooking the Pacific Ocean after graduating from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems apprenticeship program at the nearby University of California-Santa Cruz. Gradually adding acreage over the years, the three began experimenting with various crops to discover what grew best in the windy and salt air environment, as well as what varieties their customers prefer. Today, they produce more than 40 crops, ranging from Asian beans and arugula to turnips, onions and winter squash. Their harvests include an array of different fruits, like apples, Asian pears, avocados, strawberries, pears and peaches. Freewheelin’ Farm also grows fennel, dill, cilantro, basil and other herbs. In addition to a diversity of crops, Freewheelin’ Farm produces a number of different varietals. While other farmers specialize in one type of lettuce, for example, Freewheelin’ grows six different varieties, Courtney said.

The owners followed organic growing practices on the property, which had been used for commercial farming for numerous years, and recently received organic certification. Currently, they are farming 7 of their 8 acres, and keeping the final one out of production.

Despite the lengthy recession, the farm has been self-supporting since its inception, Courtney said, adding that sales have been increasing slowly but steadily for the past 10 years.

“We’ve been paying ourselves every year since the start-up,” Courtney said. “It’s been a modest but reasonable salary for the industry, and every year we’ve continued to grow.”

One of the reasons Freewheelin’ Farm has been able to support all three owners from day one is because of its marketing strategy. The trio embraced the Community Supported Agriculture model when they launched the farm. As part of the CSA practice, Freewheelin’ sold member shares to consumers in exchange for a share of the harvest. The shares were snapped up by customers who support sustainable organic farming and community involvement, she said.

Once a week, for about 25 weeks, members receive a box of seasonal produce. Harvests are weather dependent, but generally begin in mid-May and continue until the first week of November. Members have the option of picking up their boxes at various delivery points, or paying a little more for home delivery. As part of a commitment to being environmentally responsible, bicycles are used to bring the produce to member doorsteps – a practice that led to the name Freewheelin’ Farm. Initially Courtney, Wong and Yogg did all the bicycle deliveries themselves, but these days they are handled by a small army of volunteers. Freewheelin’ Farm also hosts volunteer work days, where community members join forces to help out in the fields, Courtney said.

The number of pick-up sites expanded over the years, along with demand. Freewheelin’ Farm operates five sites in Santa Cruz and two in San Francisco. The sites serve more than 100 members, who pay an annual fee on a sliding scale between $600 and $725, based on their financial levels.

The Freewheelin’ Farm CSA program has evolved over the years. Instead of delivering pre-packed boxes, the farm operates its drop-off sites more like a farmers’ market. Members can choose among different varieties of lettuce, or opt for kale instead of chard. By allowing members to make their own selections, less produce is wasted by families whose kids refuse to eat beets or broccoli, she said.

Freewheelin’ Farm started almost exclusively as a CSA, but has expanded its customer base to include restaurants and specialty stores. When they had more produce than needed, they began selling the excess to restaurants in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Today, restaurants account for about half their sales, Courtney said.

The owners’ business acumen, tremendous work ethic and passion for farming has helped make Freewheelin’ Farm successful, said Denise Ryan, external relations director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. Ryan said the three owners work harder than anyone else she’s met in the industry, and that their business strategy has been the key to their success.

“It’s one thing to know how to grow a great product, but having a full understanding about sales and distribution (for start-up growers) is rare,” Ryan said.

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By Terri Morgan, VGN Correspondent

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