Updated: Jan 5, 2022
STUCK IN A GROWING RIFT
"The way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large one."
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Sep. 23, 2007
Elia Vasquez, is a strawberry and herb farmer in Watsonville. She began her farming as a picker in the fields, she is now a labor board member with the Farm Bureau, dealing with worker rights. Congress is working on a farm bill that will have a dramatic impact on the way farming is conducted in California. One of the issues at hand is subsidies for California farmers. Photographed in, Los Banos, Ca, on 9/12/07. Photo by: Michael Macor/ The Chronicle Mandatory credit for Photographer and San Francisco Chronicle No sales/ Magazines Out
Elia Vasquez first learned of strawberries by picking them as a child. Today she surveys a 130-acre strawberry farm overlooking the Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay crowned by a 2-acre plot of rosemary she plants and harvests herself.
Vasquez started her farm in 1970 on 15 acres she leased, quitting her job with the Monterey County school district. She had no tractor, no contacts, no experience other than summer harvest work, and could only plant two acres her first year.
"It was hard, a lot of work," Vasquez said.
But strawberries put her four children through private schools, and her two sons through California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, where they earned degrees in agriculture. She now sells berries under the Big Boy label begun by her eldest son.
Vasquez is one of California's fruit, nut and vegetable farmers whose sales dominate every other farm state in the nation, producing twice as much as Texas, its nearest competitor.
There are many large growers, but most, according to a study by the University of California, are small or medium-size conventional, nonorganic growers like Vasquez. They are among the 91 percent of California farmers who have thrived without the crop subsidies that farmers in the Midwest and South claim are essential to their survival.
Nor do they want them, despite much higher risks - including dramatic price swings - with perishable crops.
"You roll the dice and put a couple million bucks on the table and don't get it back," said Steve Bontadelli, a Santa Cruz brussels sprouts grower and shipper. "The way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large one."
Bontadelli, like most California growers, has survived by increasing productivity, innovating and responding to market demand.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead