Sustainability through growing practices
by Sally Colby
Fueled by a desire to provide healthy, good nutrition for themselves and others, Audrey Pascone and Heather Austin decided it was time to start growing their own food. Although both women were city-raised, their passion for food and fitness spurred them to figure out how to farm.
The women and their families envisioned Red Gate Ranch in Red Bluff, CA, as a place to grow healthy food in a way that supports the land through a combination of farming methods including low-till, no-till and biointensive practices.
“We crash-coursed it,” said Heather, explaining the process of learning about food production. “We volunteered at different farms and started sourcing all of our own food from the local farms in our area. We read a lot of books and watched a lot of videos to educate ourselves on all aspects of farming.” The women began their self-education in 2009. The farm was established in 2012, and by 2014, Red Gate Ranch was producing saleable crops.
Part of Audrey and Heather’s early research included shopping at farmers markets, where they purchased as much as they could for their own use. It didn’t take long for them to realize the importance of the farmer being present at the market to talk about what was offered and how it was grown.
Heather said starting a farming venture and direct marketing without experience felt like a bit of a gamble at first, but they believed they would be successful. “Customers are grateful when we’re out there every time and they know they can count on us,” she said. “If we’re going to miss a weekend, we print a reminder to let them know, and that’s important to them.”
Today, Red Gate Ranch produce and meats are featured at a year-round farmers market in Red Bluff and at a market in Redding that operates from April through mid-December. Red Gate Ranch is close to a well-traveled road and has developed a steady following of customers who purchase directly from the farm between May and October.
Audrey and Heather have picked up on some interesting nuances that increase sales at farmers markets. “We knew going into it that if we were going to take on farmers markets, we had to be a solid presence,” said Audrey. “We planned from the start to be consistent with markets and it has helped build a solid customer following.”
The women have found that customers at farmers markets expect to see the farmers who grew their food. “Another interesting thing we found is that people like things to be the same place as the week before,” said Audrey. “Customers become used to seeing a particular salad mix in the same spot on the market table. A nice display helps get attention and helps maintain the attention of the current customer base.” Audrey added that they receive positive feedback on their farmers market presence, with customers commenting on the inviting display created with wooden crates and red tablecloths as a backdrop for clean, fresh produce.
In addition to selling at farmers markets, Red Gate Ranch offers a CSA that provides weekly boxes almost year-round. The CSA is structured to allow members to pick up shares at the market locations or from the farm mid-week.
“We have flexibility in putting unique vegetables on our market tables and into the CSA boxes but that’s mainly because we provide our customers with information,” said Audrey. “We’re constantly educating about what something is and how to use it. That gives us a lot of room to experiment with new things and gauge how our customers like them.” Information about unpredictable events such as crop failures is also provided in a newsletter.
The Mediterranean climate in Red Bluff means cool, mild winters and hot, dry summers that allow a variety of year-round crops. “Starting in early November, we’re in the Persephone days, when daylight drops below 10 hours each day,” said Audrey. “That’s when we can’t do more planting – everything has to be in the ground and grown to about three-quarters of its mature, full-grown size in order for us to have any production in winter for the CSA boxes that start in January.”
Audrey said there’s an interesting dynamic on the farm – when they’re in the process of harvesting the current season’s crop, they’re preparing for the next season’s crops. Right now, winter crops being harvested include broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, turnips, celery and parsnips. At the same time, summer crops including cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini are being seeded in the high tunnel and will go in the ground as soon as the soil is warm.
“We plant parsnips in June for fall harvest,” said Audrey. “It’s so hot here it’s hard to start broccoli and cabbage, but we’re working on ways to do better with those. Ideally, we would sow broccoli in June for fall harvest.”
In January, established crops are being harvested while summer crops are started with heat and lights in the propagation house. “Once the summer crops have germinated, we’re still harvesting everything from winter production,” said Audrey. “As winter crops mature out, those beds will be turned and in early spring, February and March, we’ll be direct seeding everything again.” Beets, lettuces, carrots, kale, cabbages, turnips and radishes are harvested while summer crops such as cucumbers, heat tolerant greens including tatsoi, mizuna, komatsuna and other specialty cut greens are starting to flourish.
Deciding which crops and varieties to plant begins with surveys sent to CSA members to make sure customers are satisfied with what’s provided to them. “We’ve found there’s an even balance within our CSA customers who mostly want staple crops like head lettuces, carrots and beets – whatever is considered traditional vegetables,” said Heather. “Everyone likes those basics, and some people want just those basics but a lot of them. Other people like to see unique items like kohlrabi, radicchio and escarole. We have to be careful not to overwhelm them with items that aren’t as common, but we always provide a balance so it isn’t boring.”
Paying attention to customers also showed the value of a weekly CSA newsletter that includes multiple recipes. If the week’s box features an unusual vegetable such as endive, the information and recipes will be about that vegetable – how to store it or prep it for cooking.
“Customers are always driving what we grow, and we can pick up quickly what they want if we pay attention to nuances from customers’ input at farmers market and comments about the CSA boxes,” said Heather. “It’s clear what they want and don’t want, and it changes from year to year – they might want one thing one year and not the next. If they don’t want something, it doesn’t move off the market table.”