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Diverse Operations Fit Unique Farmers

by Susan McCue, senior publications coordinator, Small Farm Center

Tom Chino owns a farm stand in Del Mar, San Diego County, that attracts wealthy clientele who flock to his stand in Mercedes coupes, Range Rovers, and chauffeur driven limousines. Restaurant chefs even lie about buying his multi-variety farm stand produce, says Chino. "Because our name has cache, people will say that they use our vegetables and they don't."

Although his farm stand is highly successful, Chino and his family have known their share of hardship. During World War II, his parents were interred in a relocation camp for Japanese Americans. Chino says the family farming operation started "around 1946, I guess. It took a while to get out of camp."

Advised by a veteran farmer to grow a variety of crops to protect against single crop failure and financial ruin, Chino's parents initially grew sweet corn and strawberries. But sweet corn requires more spraying than the family was comfortable with, so they branched out. Today their farm stand overflows with colorful vegetables in multiple varieties. Offerings include baby artichokes, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, radishes, and scallions.

"Our clientele is somewhat sophisticated, well healed and well traveled, but they are also ethnically mixed because they are from other areas," says Chino, who explains that these factors keep him looking for vegetables from around the world. "This is cardoon," points out Chino. "We didn't have any idea how to grow it. We had to look in books." Chino continually refers to his home library for that purpose.

His diverse clientele allows him to introduce new produce and see if it sells before expanding his offerings. There have always been odd items that capture small segments, says Chino, but never any crop that dominates sales.

Chino markets his produce solely through the farm stand. "I don't think we ever went to farmers' markets because we can maintain our individuality here," he explains. The logistical efforts inherent in selling at farmers' markets also have kept his family on the farm, where they happily continue to sell quality vegetables to wave after wave of Mercedes, Range Rover, and limousine occupants.

Rare Fruit Grower Sells U-Pick

Up the road in Fallbrook, northern San Diego County, retired chemical engineer George Emerich sells rare exotic fruit to u-pick clientele who find his 5 1/2-acre hilltop residential lot strictly through word of mouth. On a recent visit, Emerich weaves his way through a United Nations-like assortment of trees that his predominantly Southeast Asian clients normally traverse as they pick his fruit.

As he walks, Emerich offers tastes of cherimoyas and white sapotes, and points out Indian and African Jujubes, Oriental persimmons, Surinam cherries, Algerian tangerines, Pakistan mulberries, and guavas from Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. He explains that an international exchange has accidentally occurred between one of his Algerian tangerine trees and a blood orange tree, creating a new fruit that he has passed on to a UC researcher for further experiments.

Calling himself a hobby farmer, Emerich doesn't have a clear reason why he transitioned from engineering to rare fruit upon retiring. Maybe the answer is in his upbringing. He was born on a cattle ranch in Montana, and says, "I was a cowboy when I left for college a little over 60 years ago."

He took the country with him throughout his engineering career, planting fruit trees at all of his homes. His love of fruit has extended to involvement in organizations including the California Rare Fruit Growers Association, where he has served for more than 20 years in positions including president and as a member of the board of directors.

Asked what he would do differently if he grew fruit strictly for profit, Emerich says he would have to increase the number of trees that grow fruit that customers actually want, and decrease the number of trees that bear undesirable fruit. He knows that growing for profit isn't easy, and that some crops don't do well no matter how hard you try. "You can't do a darn thing with mangos," he says, and points his finger at a nearby specimen. "That one is 10 to 12 years old. In the tropics, a two- to three-year-old tree would be bigger than that."

Regardless of the effort, the 82-year-old Emerich stays committed to his trees. And don't even mention the idea of slowing down after retirement. "That's the problem with a lot of people," says Emerich. "They just sit down and die. I'm not quitting."

Stockton Grower Transitions to Stay in Business

Quitting just isn't in Joann Cutter's vocabulary either. When she and her family realized that their 15-acre Countryside Farms just outside of Stockton couldn't compete with higher volume farms, they decided to make some changes. "This land's been in my family for 50 years," says Cutter. "I came back 10 years ago. Hard work was not a surprise. But the money that's needed was a shock."

So the Cutters are replacing 10 acres of vegetables to grow walnuts, a long term crop that they can manage while they work part-time. Because the walnut trees won't produce for five years, they plan to raise crops between the trees, and sell other farmers' walnuts until their trees produce. But the walnut planting isn't the only change the farm has seen.

"Our best money is in having field trips," explains Cutter, who offers educational tour packages to schools in the Stockton area. Her hands-on tours last for an hour to an hour and a half, with five tours scheduled per day throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Depending on the season, the trips include hayrides, petting animals, and climb-on farm tractors, as well as a behind the scenes look at the growing and packaging of the farm's fruit and vegetables.

Cutter also operates a farm stand where she sells strawberries, boysenberries, blackberries, and raspberries, which generate half her income. Her well-built, county approved stand also houses shelves of dill pickling cucumbers, hot salsa made from the farm's tomatoes and peppers, and her really big sellers - fruit jams.

A master at marketing through a variety of sources, Cutter also sells at farmers' markets, and occasionally to supermarkets. She also picks and delivers 90-100 crates and ships in the same day to a wholesaler's cold box in San Francisco. "When the fruit starts getting pink, I start calling contacts," say Cutter. Somehow she also manages to work off the farm part-time for San Joaquin County Cooperative Extension in Stockton.

But she notes, "I would not be able to farm if my son didn't help out." She also gets help from her husband, who travels full time as a trucker and works on the farm evenings and weekends. Seasonally employed workers also help out.

"My family farmed from the early 1900s," says Cutter, who clearly loves the land she inherited. "We don't farm just for the profit of it. We enjoy the process." As a tribute to her family, she plans to create "a cookbook with a picture of my father in it, and what this land means to us ... these 15 acres."