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Weary but determined, California's small, family-owned farms fight through the pandemic

By Lucas Kwan Peterson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

As a result of the uncertainty, Thao and his family, who work a 25-acre farm in Fresno, have taken a step back. They're reducing late winter plantings — the cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower that you'd usually see. Instead of seven staggered plantings of a crop, they'll do only four, and they'll pick only what they can sell.

Thao doesn't rent land or equipment, so he can take this time to be at home more — and think about what he and his family want, and what the future could hold.

"I ask myself, 'Is it really worth it?'" he said. "Yeah, we can make it through. But how long do you want to do this for?"

Farming is in Romeo Coleman's blood. His father started Coleman Family Farms in Carpinteria in 1963, and Romeo began working full-time on the farm in 1996. Even during this difficult time, he is thankful for the work he does. "I'm in the right business — people have to eat — I just have to work a little harder to find a way to get it to them," he said.

I asked Coleman what the biggest help is as far as keeping people like him going.

"Just make sure the farmers markets stay open," he said. Coleman attends the Wednesday and Saturday markets in Santa Monica and has nothing but praise for how they've handled the pandemic. "The management team there really worked their butts off to make sure it stayed open," he said.

Coleman's business model has made pivoting during the pandemic a challenge. He grows relatively small quantities of a large number of items, some of which are specialized: things like shiso, epazote, papalo and edible garnishes. "Borage flowers, that's not something you'd usually see in a farm box," he said.

 

Changing to be "a farm box farm," as he puts it, takes time. "You can't just go, 'Oh, yeah, carrots. Let me get them for you here in my back pocket.'"

While his restaurant sales have recovered slightly, he said, he's nervous about the recent tightening of restrictions in Europe. ("I don't think that bodes well for us.")

The farmers markets, he said, are the real lifeline for him, his seven full-time employees and four part-time employees. His table sales are "the same or better" as they used to be. Without that business, "we're thrown out to the wolves, basically."

But if the markets can stay open, regardless of whatever shutdown may or may not occur in the future, that will give Coleman a better shot at making it through this time.

"That would help me out a lot," he said. "I'm not afraid of working."

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