The most recent Census of Agriculture, conducted by the USDA in 2007 and released in 2009, revealed many trends that are encouraging for sustainable agriculture advocates. The data shows that the amount of acreage under organic production continues to grow, and that the number of small farms in the United States is rising. Strikingly, in 2007, more than 30% of U.S. farm operators were women, a 19% increase from when the census was last conducted in 2002. The number of farms overall increased by only 7% during this same period. The majority of women-run operations are small and diversified, and women are more likely to raise livestock than their male counterparts. In celebration of national Food Day on October 24th, Ecology Center staff and members had a chance to visit two perfect examples of this growing number of women-run farms: La Tercera Farm, a diversified vegetable operation owned by Annabelle Lenderink, and Tara Firma Farms, a mixed livestock and vegetable operation owned by Tara Smith.
1. La Tercera Farm
“Musque de Provence, Triamble, Sucrine du Berry, Padana, Courge Olive, Witboer, Galeux d’Eysines…” Annabelle rattles off names of squash varieties while pointing them out in a bountiful farmstand display. As the exotic names suggest, Annabelle doesn’t grow your average vegetables. With a penchant for unusual French and Italian heirlooms, Annabelle’s fields are full of Pan di Zucchero radicchio instead of lettuce, Haricot Vert instead of green beans, and Piment d’Espelette instead of bell peppers. With a love of cooking and travel, she is inclined to explore new foods and seek out varieties that are special to a particular place. Expats sometimes come to Annabelle’s stand at the farmers’ market with seeds brought back from abroad, and ask her to grow vegetables that they miss from home and can’t find here in the U.S.
Annabelle herself comes from an international family. Her mother is British and her father is Dutch. Neither parent has a background in farming, though her father did grow up living on a tobacco plantation in Sumatra. Annabelle was born in Curacao, a Caribbean island where her father worked initially in the Dutch navy, and later as the head of a company providing industrial gasses for the oil refining industry. The third daughter born in their family, Annabelle’s parents called her “La Tercera,” a moniker that later became the name of her farm. Growing up, Annabelle spent summers in Curacao, and attended boarding school in Holland during the school year. She eventually moved to the U.S. to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, where she earned a B.A. in History.
It wasn’t until after graduating from Tulane that Annabelle cultivated an interest in food and farming. She took a few courses at a culinary school, and landed a job cooking at a restaurant in the French Quarter. Working in the kitchen piqued Annabelle’s curiosity not just about the flavors and uses of various ingredients, but also about where all of those ingredients were coming from. Over time, she became more and more interested in organics and in growing food herself. Though she had never imagined herself living outside of a city, after taking a few cross-country road trips with her musician boyfriend, she was won over by the beauty of rural places and the bounty of farm country.
In 1989 Annabelle moved to Bolinas, CA and got a job as an apprentice at Gospel Flat Farm. Though this was her first experience working in agriculture, Annabelle took fast to the trade. Within a few years, Gospel Flat’s owner, Don Murch, asked her to be his business partner. She co-ran Gospel Flat Farm with the Murch family until 1994, building skills in vegetable growing and marketing. During this time Annabelle came to the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market, selling produce for Gospel Flat as one of the market’s first vendors.
In 1995, Annabelle leased a small parcel in Bolinas and founded La Tercera Farm. Unable to support herself on her farm’s income alone, she accepted a full-time position as the Sales Manager at nearby Star Route Farm, a job she continues to do to this day. Owned by organic pioneer Warren Weber, Star Route is the oldest continuously certified organic farm in California. After learning that many of Star Route’s field workers wanted additional hours, Annabelle decided to hire those who were interested to help her at La Tercera part-time. The hard work of Annabelle’s crew has contributed immensely to the continued success and expansion of her farm.
Over the past sixteen years, Annabelle’s “side project” has grown from under an acre to just over five acres, split between two sites. Currently, Annabelle leases two and a half acres in Bolinas, where she grows cool weather crops like herbs, nettles, escarole, puntarelle and other chicories. She also leases three acres at the Dolcini Ranch near Petaluma, where she grows warmer weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, haricot vert, and shelling beans. The 585-acre Dolcini Ranch has been preserved for agricultural use in perpetuity through a conservation easement by the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. In addition to La Tercera, the ranch is also home to a historic dairy, a grass-fed beef operation, a small nursery, and to County Line Harvest, a small organic farm.
La Tercera is truly a labor of love for Annabelle. Five days a week, after a full day at Star Route, Annabelle and her crew put in another two hours of work in the fields at La Tercera. They also work half days on Saturday, and full days on Sunday. Though her labor needs fluctuate, she generally employs about 16 part-time workers throughout her growing season, which runs from July to December. Annabelle is proud to pay her field workers $11 an hour, above the $10.22 average farmworker wage reported in the results of the USDA’s Farm Labor Survey in 2010. La Tercera rarely turns a profit, which makes Annabelle’s commitment to paying fair wages even more commendable.
Since the beginning, Annabelle has marketed La Tercera’s unique vegetables at the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market, where she is beloved by chefs and customers. She also sells at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays. Referencing Bob Cannard, a farmer well known for providing produce to Chez Panisse, Annablle says half-jokingly, “I hope that someday, somebody will buy me a farm. I hope that some restaurant will say, ‘We want you to be our Bob Cannard.’” Given Annabelle’s tenacity, good humor, curiosity, and attention to quality, I couldn’t imagine a more deserving farmer to witness this type of good fortune.
Find La Tercera every Saturday at the Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market.
2. Tara Firma Farm
Seeing Tara Firma Farm, you’d be surprised to hear that this will only be Tara Smith’s third winter in farming. With developed infrastructure, green fields full of animals, and even a profitable fall quarter, it is clear that Tara Smith has worked fast to build her dream farm.
Just five years ago, Tara was at the peak of her career in business, working as the Senior Sales Leader at LTC Financial Partners, a long-term care insurance agency founded by her husband, Craig Smith. Then she read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Like many readers of Michael Pollan’s incendiary book, Tara’s trust in the industrial food system was rattled. She was shocked to learn that many of the foods she and her family had trustingly consumed were in fact toxic –laced with pesticides and other chemicals, and causing widespread environmental damage. In particular, Tara was disturbed by Pollan’s incisive reporting on Confined Animal Feeding Operations and the industrial meat system. The Omnivore’s Dilemma galvanized many consumers into choosing organic and buying grass-fed beef, but Tara took it one step further. In 2009 she left the insurance industry and founded Tara Firma Farm with the goal of working with land and animals to produce what she calls “real food.”
Tara is refreshingly unabashed about revealing her inexperience with farming. That’s not to say that she hasn’t done her homework. She says, “I read all of Joel Salatin’s books, and I copied him.” By reading widely and building a relationship with renowned “grass farmer” Joel Salatin, Tara has rapidly educated herself on farm practices, equipment, and techniques. She has also been able to employ a talented staff to help her run her mixed vegetable and livestock operation, marketing primarily through a Community Supported Agriculture program. This past season, Tara Firma also sold their pastured pork, beef and chicken at the Ecology Center’s new Albany Farmers’ Market.
The main focus at Tara Firma is on building a healthy pasture and encouraging the return of perennial grasses to their 57-acre ranch through well-managed, rotational grazing. Their herd of Angus cattle is moved strategically to graze on a hillside pasture. Once the cows are moved to a new plot, chickens are brought in using chicken tractors to eat and fertilize the land that the cows have just grazed. In just two and a half years, this system has resulted in a pasture composed of 30-50% perennial grasses, Tara says. Perennial grasses help to control erosion, build biodiversity, and provide a healthy diet for cows.
Like a true farmer, Tara has been slowly adapting Joel Salatin’s model to meet the specific needs of her operation. She was excited to show us the farm’s new “chicken pads,” which they have designed to replace the “chicken tractors” popularized by Salatin. The chicken pads look something like mobile coops. Using a feather net, the chickens are encouraged to graze on one side of the coop at a time. Instead of moving the entire chicken tractor to get the chickens onto new pasture every day, a farmer simply has to move the net to encourage chickens to graze in a new general area. Once the chickens have gazed all around the coop, the chicken pads can be moved to a new location.
Tara is committed to restoring ecological balance on her ranch, producing healthy food, bringing the community together through tours and farm celebrations, and providing good jobs for people in an industry that helps the planet. What more would you want to see in a new business?
Visit www.TaraFirmaFarms.com to learn more about Tara Firma’s CSA or to join one of their weekly tours.