What is a small farm?
San Diego County has more farms than any other county in the United States, and according to the farm bureau, 86% of San Diego County’s farms are considered small.
The criteria behind the ‘small farms’ nomenclature is ambiguous. California’s agricultural definition of a small farm is that of income production – a gross income less than $250,000 – rather than an acreage size.
In our early farming history, things were simple: a garden was a piece of land where only a hoe was needed, but if it required a plow, it was referred to as a farm.
Within San Diego’s small farm category, subcategories have emerged and been redefined to better reflect the diversity of farming practices and techniques being used.
To better understand the kinds of small farms that call San Diego County home, I headed to the farmers markets to talk to growers about market gardening, patch gardening, truck farming, and spin farming, and what those monikers mean today.
Modern Market Gardening
Norma and Rubin Lopez run the 12-acre Behenman Farm in Valley Center. They consider their operation a market garden.
Market gardening began when the old kitchen and yard gardens that fed the family and workers on a specialized farm began to produce more than they could eat.
Nowadays, it often refers to a kind of hands-on, gardening-style alternative to the commercial production of fruits, vegetables, or flowers.
In the case of Behenman Farm, the Lopezs manage and sustain their 12-acre plot without mechanical equipment. The pair carefully plan their strategies of planting and crop rotation, with five of their twelve acres are planted with fruit trees (mostly avocados), and the land between the trees is planted with crops that require little water, sun, and maintenance.
They personally attend four farmers markets each week, with a part-time employee attending three others. For them, the key to running a viable market garden is keeping things as small and as simple as possible.
Patch Gardening Then & Now
At the Poway farmers market, I met patch gardner, Joseph Balistreri, who offers a steady variety of vegetables grown on his one and one-half acre plot in Bansal.
Patch gardening was traditionally used to refer to a method of planning a garden’s growth and production by planting in small patches. Joseph uses the natural fertilization, water-wise drip irrigation, and the principles of patch-gardening on his small plot of land, where, with only the aid of his shovel, he digs, weeds, plants, rotating patches of produce that are selected specifically to aid in soil health and regeneration.
The first step is always planning. Joseph must ask himself: How long does it take a particular vegetable to mature? How long will its mature state remain edible? How much should be grown? Which varieties will be best suited for the market? What are the seasonal weather requirements?
Once he determines which vegetables to plant, he has to decide when to plant, so as to ensure a staggered maturation of patches. Because some varieties of plants deplete the nutrients in the soil, while others replace nutrients, proper rotation between the patches is key.
Joseph was not raised in a farming environment. His interest was sparked at a young age when he worked in his restaurant-owning father's backyard garden. The passion followed him to adulthood, and he finally gave in to his calling and chose a successful farmer to be his mentor.
He now sells to wholesalers and chefs as well as directly to consumers at the Poway Farmers Market every Saturday. "That's the interactions I enjoy the most," he said, watching a customer at the farmers market enjoy the fruits of his labors.
Truck Farming Transformed
At the Leucadia Farmers Market, I met Anthony Marciel, one of the five siblings behind the Maciel family of truck farmers.
Truck farming was first designated as an industry by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1891 as a way to combine the efforts of smaller market gardeners. Through the use of wagons, an area’s produce could be bought up and trucked to markets that were farther away in what was essentially a smaller scale version of the commercial farming operations seen today.
In San Diego today, truck farming is more about taking a co-operative approach to small-scale farming. Maciel Family Farms is a classic example of local truck farming.
The Maciel Family farms consist of five siblings raised on southern California farms who can’t imagine any other lifestyle. Each of them owns a different section of land, for a combined acreage of 33 acres.
They share various types of farm machinery, produce different types of produce, and split the work of attending five markets in San Diego each week, from Little Italy to Leucadia.
On Anthony's 12-acres of land, he grows 14 different varieties of vegetables and adds rows of marigolds and sunflowers for fall distribution. This diversity of production requires rapid transportation to the markets as flowers wilt, food spoils, and taste and aromas fade. So, the siblings plan their growing and delivery schedules to ensure that they always have a good mix to offer at the market.
Spin Farming for the Future
‘Farmer Steve' as Steve White and his wife Jackie call their vendor booth, have been selling produce at farmer's markets for over 25 years and still attend five markets per week.
Though they might not call themselves "spin gardeners", their practices seem to fit the definition.
Spin Gardening or Spin Farming is a relatively new term that has emerged in the wake of the rapid consumption of land for housing or industrial habitation, which has replaced tillable areas. Spin gardening is essentially multi-location farming that looks for small areas of land that can be used for food production, such as homes with large grassy lawns that can be converted into productive commercial gardens.
This style of farming is particularly suitable for urban settings, though not limited to it. The Whites grow their products on 12-acres spread over three separate locations, with a focus on small-sized fruit tree orchards that are less labor intensive and yield high-value crops.
Each category of small-scale farming differs in origin and practice, but the farmers behind them are united in their battles with high water and land costs, unpredictable paychecks, and a seeming unquenchable passion for growing.
Support small, local growers in your community by shopping the farmers markets of San Diego County.