Seth and Sarah James are a husband and wife team who run Open Field Farm in Petaluma. If you didn’t know their story, it would be hard to determine they didn’t have an agriculture background. Seth is from New York and Sarah is from the Bay Area, neither of them grew up on a farm.
So what influenced two people with no agriculture background to pursue a life farming?
After graduating from UC Berkley, Sarah knew she didn’t want to spend her days in an office. She thought about the possibility of becoming a teacher, but after deciding against that idea, she worked as a line cook in Los Angeles and then New York City.
While in New York, she saw an opportunity to work as a counselor for a summer farm camp. It was there that two important things happened to her. The first was meeting Seth. The second was falling in love with farming and realizing she wanted to make a career out of it.
“I remember being in awe of farmers,” said Sarah, “but I didn’t think you could learn to farm. I thought you had to grow up on a farm to be a farmer.”
After the summer camp, the couple continued to work in New England for different farming establishments. Seth and Sarah each worked for a CSA, with both CSAs having a shared feature: on farm pickup.
Seth and Sarah, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year, knew they wanted to start their own farm where they could have people pick up fresh produce on the property. What they didn’t know was where they wanted to do it.
“It took a while to decide where we wanted to be,” said Sarah. “His family was in New England and mine was here in the Bay Area, and neither of us came from farming families. It wasn’t a fight, but it was a hard decision.
“You can pick anywhere, how do you decide? When we got married, I thought we’d stay on the East Coast, but then I started to get home sick.”
Sarah and Seth decided to move to Petaluma and spent over a year looking for land before finding the piece of Petaluma property they would call home. The Jameses purchased 560 acres west of Petaluma they now call Open Field Farm. “Most people probably know it as the old Burns Dairy,” said Seth.
To the Jameses, they knew Petaluma was the right place to move. The city had an intact farming community with the infrastructure to help others, but also had a large diverse non-farming community and offered vastly different landscapes from open space to larger cities and the ocean.
“It was kind of a dream,” said Sarah, “it’s five minutes to town and only 45 minutes to San Francisco.”
They purchased Open Field Farm in July 2012 and moved to the West Coast with their three children. Margrethe is now nine, Oliver is six and Teddy is three.
In less than three and a half years, the Jameses have established their CSA with on farm pickup and accomplished their goal of raising both animals and vegetables.
They are constantly working on improving the infrastructure, and Sarah is the first to admit that they are still learning.
The first year they were on the farm, they grew food for themselves and gave the rest away. Sarah recalls that year as one of the hardest as they worked on the infrastructure of the dairy that was in poor shape from past renters.
Knowing what would grow when also proved to be a struggle for the couple. She said much of their leaning process is about watching the land and thinking about what can grow best there. For the Jameses farming in California was very different than the East Coast. Being able to “decide when it rains” (irrigate) is very different from their previous farming experiences.
One of the biggest challenges Seth and Sarah faced was finding customers for their CSA. She said they are not salesmen, and they struggled at first especially as they weren’t using traditional marketing methods.
“Most people think of a CSA and think about a box,” said Sarah, “we had to explain that was not what we were doing.”
On farm pickup is important to the Jameses, and for the most part, their customers can take as much as they need to eat for the week. The farm offers a sliding scale for fees, depending on the customer’s needs.
The first year, the Jameses signed up 60 CSA members. In their second year, they now have over 100. Sarah said their success is primarily due to word of mouth: happy customers who have encouraged others to join. Some of their customers are families from their children’s school, including the school itself. The school features a salad bar every Wednesday and parents take turns visiting the farm to pick out produce.
The farm now has five employees and offers produce to their members year round.
In addition to the vegetables they’re growing, Seth and Sarah are also raising beef and poultry. They have a small herd of sheep, raised turkeys for last year’s holiday season and had pigs in the past. While the turkeys were more of a project than they expected, they learned much from raising them. They also hope to raise hogs again in the near future.
The Jameses beef cattle are where they have concentrated their animal husbandry skills. They have beef available for sale to CSA members, but hope to be able to offer it as a part of the CSA in the future. They expect to have approximately 25 head available to harvest next year.
However, the cattle the Jameses are raising aren’t your typical beef cattle. They are raising grass fed Corriente beef. These cattle, more often used for sports such as roping, aren’t commonly raised solely for beef.
Seth is passionate about the Corriente, and the couple is working on growing their herd, hoping to be able to turn it into a cow calf operation in future. Seth said he would like to see his children join 4-H and show breeding stock to raise awareness for the breed.
Sarah describes their CSA as a “fun way to have a farm”.
“On the pickup days, the farm is really alive. We’re not so private, and we love to share this place. Farming is so difficult, to have other people share and enjoy it, it helps buffer some of the ups and downs.”
For more information visit openfieldfarm.com.