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Small Farms Conference aims to connect growers

  • Ernie Shelton, center left, of Shelton's Market Garden answers questions about his farm equipment from members of the 27th annual California Small Farm Conference in Sebastopol, on Sunday, March 9, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

The hillside setting of Shelton's Market Garden west of Sebastopol would tempt just about anyone to seek out the open-air life of a small farmer.

Fair warning, grasshopper: It ain't as easy as it looks.

"It's a full-time sprint when the season starts," Ernie Shelton, 61, said Sunday morning prior to a busload of people arriving at his Sexton Road property for a tour arranged by the California Small Farm Conference.

California Small Farm Conference

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The goal of the conference, which continues through Tuesday in Rohnert Park, is to give attendees a real-world view of the farming life.

When Shelton described the effort of growing dozens of varieties of veggies and fruits as a "pain in the ass," he wasn't writing for a brochure. He was simply telling it like it is to the 55 or so dreamers and pragmatists who walked up his long driveway.

Shelton stressed that people need to decide whom they are planning to sell their produce to before they plant a single seed. He and his wife, Susan, operate a farm stand on their property, and also sell produce to Shelton's Natural Foods Market in Healdsburg, operated by other members of the family.

Shelton, who along with his brother, Jim, sold three homegrown Food for Thought supermarkets to Whole Foods Market in 2000, said retailers "are not the bad guy. They're the channel."

He also defended getting third-party certification for organic farms, saying when he was in the retail food business, he couldn't always trust that what he was getting was, in fact, organic.

Clearly, there's much more to farming than planting and harvesting. Sacramento resident David Bonk conceded about halfway through Shelton's presentation that the dream he and his wife, Jamie Vohs, have of starting a small orchard when they retire "may not be a good idea."

Still, he said, "there's something compelling about it."


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