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New Farmers Learn From Challenges

by Susan McCue, editor, Small Farm News

It's Impossible Acres -- that's our farm," says Katherine Kelly, as she scans her family's nearly new farm on the outskirts of Davis, California. Despite its name, Kelly and her family are determined to make the farm's success not only possible, but highly profitable.

Katherine Kelly leads a tour that begins with the commercial apples (pictured here) on her Davis farm.
Katherine Kelly leads a tour that begins with the commercial apples (pictured here) on her Davis farm.
As new farmers, the Kellys have experienced their share of successes and challenges. "We gross $7,000 on this little section right here," says Kelly, pointing to a lucrative berry patch covering less than an acre. "If you can get $2,500 an acre for any crop, then it's worth doing as a pick-your-own." The berry patch represents a stunning achievement in the Kellys' world of constant challenges. In 1994, every one of their plantings died when the farm's water well went out in August, a month throbbing with 100+ degree days in Davis. "So after that failure, every other failure seems rather small," says Kelly.

As if water trouble and simmering summers weren't enough, Kelly says, "The soil is not particularly good for growing." Still, she and her family plant berries, peaches, cherries, pumpkins, and apples, and dream of adding a farm stand to sell their crops now marketed predominantly through the pick-your-own operation and their "Friends of a Farmer" Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

A History of Farming

"People say, 'We raise grapes in our family,'" says Kelly. "Our family does pick-your-own." Kelly's parents run two successful u-pick operations in the San Luis Obispo area, providing experience from which the younger Kellys can draw.

"We grew up with the public on hayrides -- us driving the tractor and helping them through the fields," she says. Her early contact with the public gave Kelly a keen sense of the value of listening to farm visitors. During her farm's first pick-your-own season, she put up a suggestion box asking visitors what they would like to see on the farm. Visiting children asked, "Where are your farm animals?"

The Kellys responded with a petting zoo inhabited by chickens, goats, bunnies, cats, and miniature horses -- many of them family pets known for their gentleness. Pumpkin-season tours also feature rides on Popcorn, the 20-year-old petting pony. "This horse is bomb-proof," says Kelly. "You couldn't put another horse out there."

Last year 2,500 school children toured the farm in one month for a $2 fee. The tractor-pulled hay wagon tour meanders past crooked peach tree rows because, "Heck, there's too much straight in Davis," says Kelly. "People like curvy little farms." Her father initially protested. "You've got your rows crooked," he said. But Kelly explained that the pancake-flat Davis land needed a little help in the contour department. "He's all right with it now," says Kelly.

Marketing Strategies

Clyde Kelly and son Jonathan drive the tractor-pulled hay wagon on a guided farm tour.
Clyde Kelly and son Jonathan drive the tractor-pulled hay wagon on a guided farm tour.
To attract pick-your-own customers, Kelly handed out flyers at the local farmers' market. Each flyer contained a form offering a free basket of berries if the flyer was filled out and returned. From responses to that flyer, Kelly obtained a mailing list of 30 customers, which has now grown to include 500 names. "Thatts about as big as we want to get," says Kelly, who still advertises in papers and sends advertising mailers directly to schools.

Although they have participated in farmers' markets, the Kellys prefer on-farm marketing because it eliminates the need to pick, ship, and store their products Ñ chores that force them to raise prices to consumers. "So if people come out here and they do all that stuff for us, we can give them a better price, and we don't have to work so hard."

Challenges Met

Although the on-farm reservoir and other irrigation tools have given Kelly problems, she sees obstacles as opportunities to learn. Gradually she and her family have developed the on-farm irrigation system to meet each crop's needs. All crops, with the exception of apples, are on drip irrigation filtered from the reservoir. A new overhead sprinkler system debuted this season for the apples, which can get badly sunburned in the area's scorching summer heat. The overhead system serves as an air conditioner for the apple trees as they mature.

But the water situation still presents challenges. "We found a well that has 10 times less boron than any of the wells we found in any of the areas around here," says Kelly. They use the well to fill the reservoir, and in turn their reservoir's pumping station irrigates the orchards. "The last time we had the apples tested," Kelly says with a laugh, "the leaf test came back and they said, 'You're a tad low on boron.'"

Katherine Kelly explains a farm technique to tour members while her husband Clyde listens in the background.
Katherine Kelly explains a farm technique to tour members while her husband Clyde listens in the background.
She retains her sense of humor when relating the story about the peach rootstock supplier in Stockton who, when Kelly arrived, had only 40 of the 320 rootstocks she had ordered. "He had sold the rest out from under me because I was a little guy," says Kelly. She did the best she could with what he gave her, saying, "At least we got roots in the ground." More challenges came in the form of raspberry plants. Reading in a book written for the eastern U.S. that raspberries needed acidic soil, the Kellys added sulphur to bring their soil ph down from 8 to between 5.5 and 6. "We put our raspberries in, and then the leaves started burning up."

Leaf analysis revealed toxic levels of soil micronutrients, made available to the raspberry plants because of the decreased ph level. Finally, after watering for two or three years with a ph 8 water, the soil is back to normal conditions. "We'll try again," says Kelly.

Perseverance in the face of setbacks seems to be the recurring theme at Impossible Acres. But the Kellys remain undeterred. "Our life blood is people coming on to this farm and seeing it," explains Kelly, "and that's how we want it. We need people to walk around the farm. It's just in the blood."