Longtime Farm Bureau Member’s Dry Farmed Potatoes Land on the Menus of Priciest Bay Area Restaurants
Like many farmers, David Little, the owner of Little Organic Farms, is rebuilding markets and farm sales in the aftermath of the pandemic that turned the world upside down – even his little corner of it in the rolling hills around Bloomfield in west Sonoma County.
Over the last 25 years, Little’s flavorful, dry-farmed potatoes and other produce have graced the menus of high-end Bay Area restaurants like The French Laundry- the sacred temple of gastronomy in Yountville – and farmers markets in Marin and San Francisco. But when farmers markets closed and white-tablecloth restaurants were forced to shutter or drastically reduce capacity because of the Coronavirus, Little’s sales and revenue plummeted. He said there were times this winter and spring when he wasn’t sure if could keep his farming operation afloat. Even before the pandemic, his small-scale farming enterprise was marginal at best.
But Little, a born survivor and as irascible as they come, desperately cobbled seed money together to plant his crops to survive another year. Now, as the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, Little will be ready with his homegrown potatoes, tomatoes and other produce while hoping the markets will be hungry for his crops.
“I was really hurt financially because I lost 50 percent of my business when Covid hit last year and restaurants had to close. I was teetering on a wire and I didn’t know which way it was going to go,” said Little, 74, who has made a reputation among chefs and consumers by farming potatoes and other crops for superior flavor and quality. That’s why his potatoes command $4 to $5 a pound, compared to 89 cents a pound for plain old russets in the supermarket.
“We grow for flavor. Anything that is dry farmed gets less yield, but makes up for it with more flavor,” said Little, a longtime member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “As a farmer it’s rewarding to have that flavor that customers value and appreciate.”
Little’s farming domain is the rolling hills of western Sonoma and Marin counties where the terrain is mostly grazing land for cows and sheep. But the “terroir’ is ideal for growing potatoes of flavor and distinction.
“I farm because it’s the only endeavor that makes sense to me,” said Little. “Feeding people high quality food is important and I know that the best place to grow potatoes in the world is west Sonoma and west Marin County. That’s what’s driving me.”
Little is a bit of an outsider- a dirt farming maverick – in this undulating, windswept landscape, readily admitting he has been a “black sheep” all of his life. Around the village of Bloomfield, Little, who has a shock of white hair and devil-may-care attitude, is the town character, known to all as the potato man as he drives his charcoal-colored Ford F-250 pickup to the fields he leases.
Little is what might be called a tenant farmer. He leases 50 acres of ground – 25 acres are devoted to potatoes – from five different large-scale ranchers. The leased property is scattered for miles around his two-acre home base in Bloomfield where he lives and has built a big metal barn to sort and store his potatoes and process other crops, which include tomatoes, peppers, kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, collard greens, sunchokes and onions. He’s joined in his farming operation by his wife Beverly, son Sage, 30, and daughter, Caressa, 27, and her fiancé Anthony Giacobbi.
Like other farmers struggling to survive, the Little family is going the value added route by making gourmet chips from the potatoes they grow. For the last two years the Littles have crafted limited amounts of their potato chips in a leased commercial kitchen in Cotati. But now they are seriously seeking investors to build their own commercial facility to dramatically increase production and sales. Little said the potato chips are very popular at the markets, offering tremendous potential for his farming and financial future.
“The chips are the light at the end of the tunnel for us,” said Little “It’s a way to use the potatoes that we can’t sell fresh and bring in added income. Chips could save us.” If the Little Organic Farms potato chips are successful, Little could greatly expand his potato growing operation and lease more land in the area.
Caressa and Anthony, who live in Cotati, are learning all aspects of the farming business from the potato patriarch, working with him in the fields to understand the rhythm of planting, weeding and harvesting. It’s the family plan for the couple to one day take over Little Organic Farms.
Not that Little, who turns 75 in August, is leaving anytime soon.
“I will keep doing this until I can’t,” said Little, a third generation Marin County resident who came from a prosperous and influential family in Larkspur. Potatoes and farming are Little’s second act. For decades he had a comfortable life – and steady income – as a roofing and siding contractor, but 25 years ago he moved to west Sonoma County and started farming part time.
“I could write a book about how I struggled at first, it was a slow learning curve but each year I leaned more and did it again,” said Little, who only wishes he started farming 50 years ago.
Eventually he gave up the shingle siding business and began farming full time. He knew he was full-fledged farmer when he bought his first Kubota tractor and said to himself, “Okay this is for real.”
“I’ve never worked harder, never made less money and never been happier doing something. I just feel in love with farming and being out here with all this land and space around me,” Little said, driving his pickup over one of his potato patches that is leased on the Mahrt Ranch off Purvine Road in the Two Rock area. He gazes proudly at the regimented rows of potato plants. Growing beneath the tilled dirt are German Butterball, White Rose and Purple Peruvian potatoes among other varieties.
Like the Irish immigrants who farmed potatoes around here in the 1800’s, Little is scratching a living from patches of ground on coastal land where the ocean mists and unforgiving soil produce what many say are perfect potatoes. Most of his crops are dry-farmed, which, he says, is a learned skill, part art and science with a little bit of Irish luck.
“Dry farming is all in the timing, there is an optimum 2-to-3-week window to get the ground ready for planting,” he said. Little plows under the weeds as early as possible in the spring after the rains have stopped and the ground is dry enough for the tractor and equipment. He then discs and rolls the ground several times to hold the moisture in for the growing season.
Little said knows he will never get rich farming but notes a decent profit would be nice some years.
“Potatoes are a poor man’s crop,” Little said. He claims to be living proof of that old adage. In 25 years, he said, he hasn’t made enough money to build a bank account or retirement fund, earning just enough to pay the mortgage on his small spread on Bloomfield Road and buy the equipment and farm implements he needs to grow his crops.
“As a farmer you have to find your crop. Potatoes hooked me. There is a reason there are not a lot of people growing potatoes around here. They are a lot of work and there are slim margins,” he said.
This year he planted 45,000 pounds of seedling potatoes at the five parcels he leases and hopes that those seedlings will multiply at least five times in yields, giving him more than 225,000 pounds of potatoes. But it’s farming, after all, so there are no guarantees and anything can happen, like a global pandemic. In farming there are mistakes, mishaps, Mother Nature and market forces.
“A couple of bad years in a row and it’s all over. The thing about farming is that you work just has hard in a bad year as a good year,” said Little, musing that he has had as many bad years as good years during his time farming. “I’d say it’s 50-50.”
Little grows 20 different kinds of potatoes of all shapes, colors and textures, mainstays like Yukon Golds and more obscure varieties like the fingerling Rose Finn Apple, which has a nutty flavor and is terrific for potato salad. He thinks of himself as “Johnny Potatoseed,’ wandering the Sonoma-Marin hills to plant potatoes wherever he can.
Little is as genuine as the potatoes he peddles at farmers markets in San Francisco where techy millennials and affluent society matrons line up not only for his produce but his dose of cranky, homespun philosophy.
“I’ve gotten to be the crusty old farmer and it kind of works,” said Little. “People keep coming back for more.”