A Country Garden: Mary and Terry Cake
Overview of Farm Business
|Location:||Hughson, California. East of Modesto in Stanislaus County.|
|Crops:||Heirloom tomatoes, greenhouse tomatoes, basil, and other specialty produce items|
|Employees:||5 in the peak season, plus the owners|
|Primary Sales Outlets:||
|Contact Information:||Mary and Terry Cake
A Country Garden
3424 Tully Road
Hughson, California 95326
Mary and Terry Cake started their farm, A Country Garden, in 1989. The couple had been living in Scottsdale, Arizona and working in sales, but they were both eager to leave the city life and get into farming. They came back to Mary’s family ranch in Hughson and started farming on the land that her grandfather had purchased in 1909. They began slowly, using organic methods and growing several varieties of lettuce on just an eighth of an acre. Over time, they added more acres and grew a wider variety of crops and heirloom varieties, each chosen for its remarkable beauty and taste.
Now Mary and Terry farm a total of 20 certified-organic acres and specialize in heirloom tomatoes. They cultivate only five acres of tomatoes per season and cover crop the rest. This system allows them to rotate the crop every year and avoid diseases in the tomatoes. Over the winter they also grow greenhouse tomatoes in five greenhouses that total 13,000 square feet.
Mary and Terry work to stay at the leading edge of consumer demand. When they started their farm in 1989, specialty crop farming was just emerging. Farmer’s markets were undergoing a renaissance, cooking magazines were generating interest in more unusual foods, and chef Alice Waters’ emphasis on fresh, seasonal vegetables was just taking hold. The food mentality was beginning to change. Mary and Terry noted these trends and experimented with new crops and varieties. They were among the first growers to bring Sungold cherry and heirloom tomatoes, round baby carrots, fingerling potatoes, and yellow watermelons to Bay Area markets. Now, over a decade later, fresh, high-quality produce is much more widely available and many Bay Area “foodies” know a great deal about their food and how it is produced. Mary and Terry feel fortunate to farm close to such a large metropolitan area that appreciates what they grow.
When they first started farming, Mary and Terry sold their produce to local restaurants, at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Danville, and through a Community Supported Agriculture, or “CSA,” program. In a CSA, customers pay a monthly or seasonal fee for a “subscription” to a farm’s produce. Each week, CSA members receive a box of several fresh-picked, seasonal items from the farm. A CSA box in the summertime might include some tomatoes and peppers, a basket of cherry tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, a few cucumbers, and a bunch of flowers. A CSA gives farmers a secure, stable market and customers the freshest local produce they can buy.
A Country Garden’s CSA grew to 60 subscribers, but it was quite demanding. Since each CSA box included a number of different items, it took a great deal of time to package the harvest into the individual box portions and then pack each of the boxes. The costs of packaging supplies (e.g., plastic bags, tomato baskets, boxes) were significant. The logistics of the deliveries and the maintenance of subscribers’ payment accounts made managing the CSA complex as well. And 60 subscribers just wasn’t quite enough to break even. Finally, when grocery stores started buying high-quality heirloom vegetables from local growers, Mary and Terry ended their CSA service and emphasized local retailers in their marketing strategy.
Today, A Country Garden produce is sold at O’Brien’s Markets in Riverbank and Modesto, grocery stores in the Bay Area, the Saturday Farmers’ Market in Danville, and occasionally through wholesalers. Mary and Terry also sell their produce to restaurants in Modesto, which boasts more and more great local restaurants like Galletto’s and Trecetti’s World Caffe. They have kept a close eye on their customers’ preferences over the years and adjusted their sales strategy accordingly.
Mary and Terry credit a number of organizations with helping them to build and maintain their successful farm business. They are members of both California Certified Organic Farmers and Community Alliance with Family Farmers and have worked extensively with UC Cooperative Extension. Most recently, they have been experimenting with UC Small Farm Program Farm Advisor Benny Fouche on using a new kind of cold frame for their tomatoes.
Mary and Terry also share their expertise with the community. They often participate in Agriculture in the Classroom events at Hughson Elementary School. They are also active in Modesto Slow Food, a nonprofit organization that promotes local agriculture and hosts events that feature regional produce, cheese, and wines. In addition, Mary teaches two classes at Modesto Junior College: garden design and organic gardening.
Mary and Terry have established a successful farm business, but they still face many challenges. Labor, the general economic climate, and the new USDA National Organic Program are the most significant issues at the moment.
Labor. Agricultural work is very seasonal in their area. Employee retention is low and most workers do not return from year to year. Mary and Terry struggle with how to offer year-round employment and find a consistent, long-term group of workers for their farm. Their experience seems consistent with trends in the area. They find that farms in the area are continuing to move away from crops—including peaches—that require a significant amount of labor.
Economy. Mary and Terry work hard to keep their customers coming back at the farmer’s market. Nevertheless, no matter how much their customers love their produce, when they don’t have money to spend, they don’t shop. Their business, like many others, suffers in poor economic times. Nevertheless, when the economy turns sour and sales at the farmers market are down, they find that restaurants still purchase a consistent amount. As a result, they focus on marketing and sales to restaurants in tough economic times.
USDA National Organic Program. Mary and Terry have been committed to organic farming from the start. Organic certification is important to some of their customers, particularly at the farmers’ market. It also allows them to sell to wholesalers when they have the opportunity and gives them an edge in the competitive fresh produce market in the Bay Area. The new USDA National Organic Program won’t change the way they farm, but it will increase the amount of paperwork they do. They are wary about how small- and medium-scale organic farms are going to fare under the new system, given that it seems to pave the way for larger growers to enter organic production. These large farms could flood the market with organic produce and depress prices across the industry, making it even more difficult for some small farms to stay afloat.
Mary and Terry have three recommendations for other small-scale growers.
Find your own niche. Don’t try and match the big farms that simply grow large quantities of the standard varieties. To a small-scale grower who just starting out, it might look like there is money to be made by planting a lot of one crop, but that’s not the case. Since unit prices are so low, the only way to make money is in volume, which small-scale growers don’t have. Instead, grow what no one else is growing or what no one else is doing very well. Big growers can’t afford the quality and service that a small grower can, so make the most of this advantage. And whatever you choose to grow, make sure there are three or four different ways to sell it: restaurants, grocers, wholesalers, farmer’s markets, etc.
Marketing skills are just as important as growing expertise, and both are learned and refined over time. Buyers are always looking for first-rate, high-quality produce, but deciding on your price is the hard part. Figure out how your quality of produce measures up in the marketplace. If your products are the best, then charge the highest price in the market. If others are doing as good a job as you, then a mid-range price will get it sold. Find out by asking around and listening to your customers. As your crop comes into the market, do not rush to lower the price for fear that it won’t sell. If you start out selling below market price, then other farmers will have to lower their price too and pretty soon you won’t be able to give your produce away.
Consider trading what you grow for products and services in your community. Mary and Terry trade produce for tractor work from a neighbor who has a bigger tractor and more equipment. They also trade for haircuts, meals at local restaurants, and automotive, accounting, and legal services. Everyone likes to have fresh, high-quality produce.
California Certified Organic Farmers
California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Danville Farmer’s Market
Tresetti’s World Caffe
UC Small Farm Program Farm Advisors