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Think Globally, Grow Locally

Swanton Berry Farm has a remarkable vision that goes beyond just heavenly, farm-fresh organic berries

By Steve Billings

What's your favorite brand of broccoli? Carrots? Artichokes? Peas? Certainly there's a particular kind of bell pepper or zucchini indelibly printed on your gray matter, no?

Maybe I'm not asking the right question. When you go to the supermarket, what brand of fresh produce do you buy? Romaine for $1.19 a head? Yeah, I buy that too, it was good, huh? Who grows it?

Strange that we don't know a damn thing about the farmers and field workers who bring things forth from the earth to nourish us and make us stronger. Moreover, would you even have bought said product if you knew who got hurt, underpaid or exposed to chemicals while tending to something's growth?

I do have a favorite brand of strawberry though, and it's not just because the berries taste heavenly. What I relish about Jim Cochran's Swanton Berry Farm is that I can drive onto the farm's property just north of Davenport, have the North Coast wind shut my car door for me, walk in the farm-stand door and buy things straight from the farm. Not just fresh organic strawberries either. You like shortcake? Got it. Ollalieberry pies? Check. Blackberry cobbler? I'll take two. Strawberry jams? Already jarred for you and made right there (along with everything else). Check in the freezer, too--the other day I found some ollalieberry gelato, and available in the fridge right now there's organic broccoli, cauliflower and sugar snap peas.

While you are there, you might as well sit down, have some coffee and peruse the educational photo exhibit on North Coast farming history.

Getting Personal

"The relationship [with the public] is really important--it's an important part of life on this planet," says Cochran. "Too many of our relationships are just with brands and products made thousands of miles away, and there's nothing personal about them at all."

At Swanton Berry Farm, it's all personal, and it's all directly marketed.

Swanton employees do everything from tending the smallest seedling to delivering the product to the end user. This is a full-service farm that sells only what it actually grows, unlike many farm operations today who are "contract growers" supplying product for a retail brand which is mostly just a marketing front.

Instead of taking the easy--and more profitable--way out and selling its product to a couple of big wholesale accounts, SBF has chosen the path of greatest resistance by sharing its farm space and produce with a wide but local circle of customers, customers who have faces and different needs and who create real human relationships.

"It's a lot to bite off. It's very complicated to pull it off successfully," says Cochran. "You need to organize it in such a way that you decentralize the organization so that you don't make all the decisions. Make sure that people have the materials, training, pay and benefits that they need. The difference is that they have more fun because they get to make the farming decisions. There's a lot of people here who make the farming decisions."

Seven years ago, Cochran's farm signed a contract with the United Farm Workers of America AFL-CIO, making it the first strawberry and organic farm in the United States to do so. Employees are paid by the hour, receive benefits and vacation and are engaged in various farm tasks on any given day, not just the repetition of one job.

Beyond Organic

The farm has been organic since 1987, but Cochran saw that there was more to do.

"By being certified organic, the public knows you are trying to do something different," says Cochran. "I think it is important for that to exist on the organic side, and also to exist on the labor side."

By current standards, the union label (their image is a black Aztec eagle) "is your best assurance that the food you are eating is produced under the best possible conditions," he says, but always the visionary, Cochran is looking further ahead to a time when all farm labor can be certified, just as with organics.

"I'm looking for an economic model that's much more decentralized and that involves a lot more people in decision making and involves profit sharing," he says. "The food system is a very long chain and there are a whole bunch of people who could be making more decisions along the way and feeling better about their jobs than they currently are."

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From the August 25-September 1, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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