Organic Heroes

organic-heroesFirst published in the Co-op Reporter in the spring of 2010

Jeff and Annie Main of Good Humus Produce are Organic Heroes. They have built their farm from the ground up over the last 30 years.

Now they are working with the Co-op and other partners on “One Farm at a Time,” a local farm preservation project that will protect their farm for future generations.

This is a recent interview we conducted with Jeff Main about his farm, his philosophy and his vision.

Q: Who are your “organic heroes” – people who have inspired you in your work?

A: The people who inspire us are the people who step outside of their comfort zone for a cause that they believe is right. These are the people who work for the creation of a local, safe, environmentally sound food system because they believe it is right for them and their community. They may never gain notoriety for what they do, may never see an ounce of financial reward or never have someone come up to them and say , “I believe in what you do.” These are the people we admire, and we are surrounded by them.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about some of the more unusual crops you grow and why it’s important to save our family farms?

A: By accident, we do grow some unusual crops. Our effort has always been to try to satisfy the staple food requirements of our community, but because we have selected for flavor and durability in the arduous environment of an organic family farm, some of our varieties, while once common, have become unusual. Suncrest peaches, Bronx grapes and Royal Blenheim apricots are examples. Many of our favorite foods here in California are seldom seen in other areas. It is so important to remember, as we watch the march of “development” across our landscape, that each Wal-Mart or each corner of gas stations and junk food outlets covers some of the only land in the world suited for the production of almost anything necessary for human consumption. The great lesson of California cannot be that, like the Santa Clara Valley, “it was once the center of one of the most fertile growing areas in the world.”  It has to be that here in California, we understood and finally embraced the ideal of producing healthy food for healthy people in a healthy environment.

Q: How did the idea of setting up this kind of agricultural easement come to you?

A: We are longtime friends of Steven and Gloria Decater at Live Power Farm. When they decided to draw up an easement to protect their farm operation into the future we became aware of this new conservation concept, that of saving the family farm enterprise, not just saving land from development.

Q: What are the requirements of the easement that you are attempting to establish?

A: The important performance requirements of anyone owning this land are that they have residence on the land, that they earn 50% of their yearly income from farming operations on this land, that they operate the farm in an environmentally sound manner and maintain certification with an organization that conducts annual certification inspections.

Q: What inspired you to take on this project that has not really been done before in California?

A: All our farming career has occurred during a period when food production has been outsourced, land prices have skyrocketed, unsustainable farming systems have continued to financially support corporate and absentee landowners, and viable local farms have disappeared into the jaws of the development juggernaut. A little over 10 years ago, we came in contact with an idea and individuals and Land Trusts working to bring that idea to reality. We saw a way to adapt those ideas to our situation, and in doing so to put the resources that we had accumulated in a career toward changing the picture that we saw every day.

Q: How did you join forces with the Sacramento and Davis Co-ops to start the One Farm at a Time project?

A: Annie and I had been working on our project for several years, writing an easement, speaking to groups, organizing interested supporters, and fundraising among our supporting community, but it was clear that as full-time farmers, we were in real need of someone to take on the large task of reaching more of the community and creatively help us reach the goal of paying for the easement largely through community donations. As our efforts gained notoriety, they reached to people in the Food Coop communities. When the food Coop communities voted that family farm preservation was their top priority for their Co-ops, our project, and its potential as an initial model in bringing the power of the Coop community to small farm preservation, turned out to be a good starting point for the One Farm at a Time project.

Q: How have Co-op shoppers helped? What more can they do to support the project?

A: Coop community members understand, really get it, that people express their power every day as they make choices in the food they eat. They know that where they shop for food does make a difference to local and family businesses, to a healthier environment, and by extension to healthier life. For many members, acting around food issues becomes a major part of their statement and their lives, and their investment goes beyond the purchase of the day’s meals. What all of us in this community are doing now is the beginning of the creation of a vibrant, expanding, caring, conscious, and local system of food production and distribution that is every day more and more obviously essential as a partner in our overall food system. It is in our care.

Q: How much money do we need to raise? How much have we raised so far? Is there a deadline by which we have to raise the money for the easement?

A: The vision for One Farm at a Time is that it will provide a permanent program by which all of us can find multiple ways, including monetary, to support the renewal of small family farming. For the first project, the Good Humus Family Farm project, the entire monetary needs are between $300,000 and $400,000 depending on appraisal of the property and the easement, and the costs of legal support and defense funds. So far we have raised about $130,000. While there are very important deadlines for the signing of the easement, the raising of the entire amount for this project is subject to the terms of the purchase agreement.

Q: What is your target date to have all the money raised?

A: It is important to move forward to get this project finished as fast as possible, because there are many more potential projects. It would be great to include “one farm a year” in the mission statement for One Farm at a Time

Q: What will you do then? Do you have your retirement plan figured out yet?

A: Wouldn’t it be great if we could just say that with this project, this major commitment of the last ten years out of our hair, that we could just return to farming full time? So far in our lives, one project, one cause, one life event has always been followed by another. Maybe this time it will be different and we will be able to give the farm, the basis of our lives, our full attention. Hopefully, retirement will never be forced on us and we will provide food for people until the end of our days.

Q: Will it be difficult to find a farmer to take over who will meet all the requirements of the easement? Have any farmers approached you about it yet? How will you decide on a successor for your farm?

A: Farmers can be like feral cats, circling around, never really coming out, but always around and aware of what is going on. Several farmers and good friends have lent their support to the project or to us personally, and several young farmers are aware of the project. With the added publicity from the OFaaT collaborative, the word continues to get out. It is our hope that our farm will pass into the hands of a new owner who can use what we have created as a basis for creating their own form of Good Humus, existing as an integral, working part of the world it inhabits.

Q: After farming full-time, raising your family, and working on fundraising for the past decade – how do you keep your energy up? What inspires you to keep going?

A: We have always believed in and loved what we are doing, it is an extension of us and that is of great value as a consistent basis for internal renewal. The continuing beauty of the world, and its growth around us here at Good Humus, is a constant source opposing the drains of everyday life. And the verbal and active expressions of belief in what we do, and in who we are, are impossible to evaluate. All of those existing together make us realize how blessed we are.

Q: How did you settle on your property when you were looking for a farm? How did you afford it then?

A: We had rented various places for eight years when, in 1983, our mentor and great friend, Ed Looney, found a place that he could buy for $50,000 dollars and promised us that we could buy it whenever we were ready for that same $50,000. Annie loved it because it was close to the mountains, and reminded us of Montana, and I loved it for the chance to go to work. When Ed died in 1992, his son honored the intent of his father, and we used the Farm Service Agency of the USDA to borrow the money to buy the farm.

Q: Why did you decide to call your farm “Good Humus Produce”?

A: In 1975, the Good Humor man was still around with the best ice cream bars, and Good Humus Produce wanted to be around with the best cared for farm.

Q: How do you relax when you finally have a chance to?

A: I don’t know; we’ll have to find out.