The Delicate Balancing Act of Farming

Written By: Linda Peterson
Published: June 1, 2011

Kevin McEnnis began farming ten acres of City of Santa Rosa land in 1999. He named it “Quetzal Farm” after Guatemala’s beautiful national bird, where he had planted his first garden.

A graduate of the University of California Santa Cruz farm program, McEnnis was well trained in the art of farming, and over time, came to understand the particular soil and climate so well that he was producing more product than he could sell. In 2004, he enlisted his friend Keith Abeles, and a partnership ensued with Abeles as Business Manager handling marketing, sales, administration, and McEnnis focusing on field operations and packing. The farm is certified organic, and they’ve worked continuously to improve the soil, and set aside land for native plants, providing habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects.

Their particular microclimate allows them to grow much sought after dry farmed tomatoes, eggplant, lemon cucumbers, basil, onions, summer squash, and an abundance of peppers and chilies.

Start your own seeds?
One challenge on their land is working with soil that takes stays wet longer than other areas. To be ready with transplants when the soil dries, they start their own seeds.

This came about because sourcing the unique and/or rare varieties they wanted was too difficult, and hard to find at a price that worked. Then there’s the problem of seed sources drying up.  If a seed company finds that certain varieties fetch a better price in other countries, they may stop selling them in the U.S.

To have more control over their product, they’ve built a greenhouse for their starts, a shade structure for hardening up, and a hoop house, giving them the ability to extend their growing season.

Marketing magic
Most of what Quetzal Farm produces is perishable. Abeles has established contacts that allow them to move their fresh product quickly. He explained that when certain crops “come on”, they have to open up their channels quickly and then close them down just as fast, once the bounty subsides. He works with distributors: Veritable Vegetable and Greenleaf, as well as having strong relationships with Whole Foods stores around the bay area.

They’ve winnowed out farmers markets that were not worthwhile for them, and now sell only at Berkeley and Marin markets. They sell direct to stores and restaurants in North Bay region.

Adding value
Quetzal’s dry farmed tomatoes, besides being a sought after fresh product, also make for excellent sauce. Initially they canned for their own use; then in 2010 they began to lease an existing commercial kitchen to roast their tomatoes and make a variety of salsas. They also produce dried chilies.

For many farmers there are challenges with understanding permits and regulations regarding value-added production, and sometimes agencies/entities are not in sync with each other, and finding out what the “right” thing is, can take a lot of time and effort, and one may still not know for sure what applies in which situation. Some of this may need to be decided at a state level for clarity and uniformity.

Seasonality of farming/planning/marketing
In the winter, activities include setting up marketing opportunities to be ready to go when that wildly successful crop comes in, administration (on-going), and looking for or re-hiring employees. They do take time off, but not much, because in January it’s time to work on crop planning and propagation.

Once the plants are in the ground and growing, things ramp up. The farm markets begin in June/July and when fall hits, it’s as Abeles says, “a mad sprint for several weeks” to move all that product.

Sage Advice for beginners
McEnnis is one of the Master Farmers for the Sonoma County Beginning Farmer & Rancher Training Program and recently hosted several new farmers at Quetzal farm. He shared some of the ways they’ve tried to expand over the past several years, including leasing two other properties – one in Sebastopol and the other in Capay Valley. The expansion was especially challenging with the Capay property. The crops were very different due to a much hotter climate and growing conditions; and managing land and staff so far away eventually became too difficult.

McEnnis and Abeles stress the importance of a business/marketing plan; and building relationships with people you trust and with whom you like to work. It’s critical to have well-trained workers. And – note that growing the food is one third of a farming operation.

As Abeles said, “Sure, sometimes, at end of the day, we all sit down and enjoy where we are, share a meal and a beer, play ping pong. But most of the time we’re all working hard.”

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