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Hard-times story for Sonoma County’s Tierra Vegetables spurs flood of donations

Even in the best of times, keeping a small, family farm afloat is a difficult endeavor.

For brother-and-sister farming team Lee and Wayne James, founders of the well-known Tierra Vegetables on Airport Boulevard and Highway 101, it’s been an uphill battle against financial losses due to wildfires, the pandemic and, now, a punishing drought.

When their well failed back in 2018, it destroyed the 12-year-old pump that ran on a diesel generator. This lack of water, compounded by the drought, required the farmers to start funding the 40-year-old farm out of their own pocket.

“Since the Tubbs fire, we’ve been gradually subsidizing it,” Lee said. “After Wayne got the taxes done and realized how much money we were losing each month, we’ve been supporting it.”

Although they lost a third of their business during the pandemic due to restaurants closing, Tierra was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan to meet payroll for their 10 employees during the 2020 growing season. Then reality hit earlier this year.

“In the spring, we put the rest of our inheritance, $30,000, into the business, and now we have no reserve,” Wayne said. “At that point, we started talking about running out of money by the end of July.”

The small farm is known all over the Bay Area for its heirloom crops, especially the dried chiles used in mole, unusual corn varieties and dried beans. Some of their crops, like their red onions, are no longer grown anywhere else because they aren’t commercially viable. The farm also has its own kitchen for preserving the harvest in sauces, jams, hot sauces and other condiments.

The farmers, who attend three farmers markets a week, knew they had avid fans and supporters all over the North Bay, from chefs in San Francisco to the 100-some members of their pioneering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a subscription-based service that provides a weekly box of vegetables.

So Lee put out a plea for someone to help them raise funds, not only to pay bills but to start the process of securing a new, electric pump to replace the small pump they currently lease that’s powered by a diesel generator on its last legs.

Peg Champion, a member of the Tierra Vegetables CSA and of Slow Food Russian River, answered their call for help. The professional business communications specialist and her husband, Brad Whitworth, made a three-minute video about the plight of the sustainable, small family farm with deep roots in Sonoma County going back 40 years.

Champion started a fundraising campaign for the farm and posted it on Tierra’s Facebook and Instagram pages, with the video.

Within three days, the goal of $50,000 had been exceeded, and donations continued to pour in for the 20-acre farm, even after that goal was reached on Friday morning.

A painting of Luther Burbank hangs in the barn at Tierra Vegetables, Friday, July 9, 2021 as Wayne James opens up the farmstead for the day. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A painting of Luther Burbank hangs in the barn at Tierra Vegetables, Friday, July 9, 2021 as Wayne James opens up the farmstead for the day. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“That’s amazing,” Wayne said Friday morning while working in the White Barn that he and Lee rescued from demolition in 2009 and moved to their farm. “That $50,000 is going to stabilize the immediate fate of the farm and be able to carry us through this year.”

The fundraising campaign was kicked off by a $1,000 donation from Slow Food Russian River, along with many other donations, including a $1,500 donation from Lazy Bear restaurant in San Francisco, which buys Tierra’s chiles and other products.

One of the biggest donations, however, came from Val Cantu, the chef and owner of Californios restaurant in San Francisco, who pitched in $10,000.

“They have been tremendous supporters of us,” Wayne said of the high-end Mexican restaurant that uses the farm’s masa for tortillas. “They have come up and helped us harvest corn and pumpkins.”

“They helped us a bunch during the fire,” Lee recalled. “The only thing we could sell was our masa, and it was a big ordeal, and they bought it.”

During the Tubbs fire in 2017, the farm not only lost its crops in the field but about a quarter of its customers. Located just north of River Road, Tierra is adjacent to some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the fire, including Fountaingrove, Larkfield and Coffey Park, which combined lost more than 4,000 homes.

“So many of our customers were from Larkfield,” Lee said. “And we also lost employees to the post-fire construction boom.”

During the pandemic, the demand for vegetables and CSA membership at Tierra went up, but the farm was already set up to sell large amounts of vegetables to restaurants, so they could only increase CSA members by 10% to 20%, Wayne said. And the lack of water was a problem as well.

“The restaurant shutdown hit when we were starting the 2020 season, but we only had a temporary pump that only does one-third of the water (we need),” he said. “We are still using that.”

Among their loyal restaurant customers in Sonoma County are The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, Dierk’s Parkside Cafe in Santa Rosa and Plank in Cloverdale. Tierra also sells vegetables to restaurants through Feed Sonoma, a wholesale food hub that had to pivot to vegetable box subscriptions during the restaurant shutdown.

Before the pandemic hit, Wayne was looking into investing in a pump that would be powered by solar panels, which would align with the farm’s sustainable philosophy. But the price tag was more than $100,000, and once the pandemic hit, the farmer felt the investment would be too risky.

The only good news during the pandemic came when the farm was able to hire two more farm employees — the nephews of field manager Pablo Duran — who were laid off from their restaurant jobs. Still, the farm has had to get by with less labor.

“Now we have Pablo plus two, full-time, and one part-time worker in the field,” Wayne said. “Previously we had six people in the field.”

When the money from the GoFundMe drive arrives in a few days, Wayne said, they plan to pay off bills and then jump-start the process of getting a new, electric pump that will pump 150 gallons a minute maximum, with variable speed.

“The pump speeds up and adjusts automatically to the pressure, if we open more drip lines or sprinklers,” he said. “That is much more efficient.”

Before the pump can be installed, however, he needs to start the process of installing new electrical lines from the barn to the pump, which requires an evaluation from PG&E, plus permit and engineering costs.

In addition, the siblings are working on a succession plan that would allow them to transition to retirement while handing off the farm in a sustainable manner to the next generation. That will mean raising more money to purchase the land, which they lease from the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

“For the sustainability of the farm, the farm needs to own the land,” Lee said. “We’ve had renewable leases for 20 years.”

Lee James brings in a morning harvest at Tierra Vegetables, Friday, July 9, 2021 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Lee James brings in a morning harvest at Tierra Vegetables, Friday, July 9, 2021 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

If the community raises the money, Wayne would like to put the land into a nonprofit that would lease the land for a fixed, affordable amount to the next farmer.

“The farmer would own the lease,” he said. “Then the farmer could put their equity into a house, and the farm would pay for the farm because you have a house to offer for the employees.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the relentless schedule of planting, harvesting and preparing for the following week’s CSA pickup to juggle.

“I am 69. Wayne is 65,” Lee said. “We have to think about not working as hard.”

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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