Tierra Vegetables celebrates a lifetime of growing and harvesting

Tierra Vegetables celebrates 40+ years

What: Lee and Wayne James invite the community, CSA members and longtime customers to help celebrate their four decades of growing produce and feeding the community.

Expect games, live music by Hubbub Club, small bites from North Bay and Bay Area chefs made with Tierra produce and wine, coffee and cider. Visitors also will be able to try making tortillas.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7

Where: 651 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa

Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Get tickets at

When Tierra Vegetables founders Lee and Wayne James spotted a scrap of land — an old prune orchard in Healdsburg — one summer afternoon in 1979, they planted vegetable seeds on the 3 acres and never looked back.

Now, after more than four decades of farming, Tierra Vegetables is celebrating with a party, open to the public, on Aug. 7 to commemorate the laborious yet fulfilling years of harvesting, growing and feeding the community. (See box for details.)

“I’m amazed by how many people love our food and how it’s grown,” Lee, 70, said of their decades of farming that started with that Healdsburg plot. “It’s a nice feeling. ... We did all of this.”

Since that summer in the late ’70s, the sister and brother have grown their produce on a succession of properties around Sonoma County. Currently, they farm on land they lease from the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, on Airport Boulevard near Highway 101.

Their list of fruits, veggies and herbs — organized by season on their website — is long. They grow heirloom corn, chiles used for mole and salsa, onions, strawberries, pumpkins and much more. They grow beans and other produce for North Bay and Marin County farmers markets and sell to Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants.

In 1979, Lee, who studied biology and horticulture in California and Sweden, and Wayne, who farmed growing up and studied viticulture at the Santa Rosa Junior College, were hanging out near the Russian River one afternoon when they spotted a field with a few scraggly prune trees. They were intrigued by its potential and found out it belonged to a doctor. The doctor agreed to lease it to them.

Wayne borrowed $500 from Lee to buy a rototiller. Then they started planting.

“We thought, ‘What a beautiful field. It’s got nice soil and water,’“ Lee recalled.

Their landlord enjoyed their produce so much that he didn’t charge them for the lease. His only request was that he be able to pick vegetables for his family.

In 1980, Tierra Vegetables bloomed. That year, Lee and Wayne planted everything from carrots, cucumbers, corn, broccoli and squash to Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes.

“We had free housing and free land. That’s the only way all of this worked,” said Wayne, 66.

In the beginning, the siblings didn’t have an awe-inspiring vision of how their 3-acre project would evolve. They simply wanted to grow great vegetables and enjoyed the process, Lee said.

“We just wanted to grow our own food,” Wayne said. “All we’ve ever wanted to do is grow staples — basic food to eat and survive on.”


Wayne and Lee grew up in Orinda, in Contra Costa County, with two brothers. Their dad, Walt, was a manager at an industrial manufacturing company. Their mom, Esther, was a florist.

After school, Lee and Wayne would spend afternoons working with their mom at an orchard nursery, making flower arrangements or folding boxes. Lee was known for creating intricate terrariums. Wayne was intrigued by plants.

“I loved plants and house plants in the early ’70s” Wayne said. “We all worked at the nursery. It was the thing to do after school.”

In 1974, after high school, Wayne went to work on a 40-acre farm in Potter Valley with one of his dad’s colleagues, Clarence Gericke, a retired chemist who grew up in a farming family in the Midwest.

At the farm, Wayne learned how to grow food without using chemicals. He and Gericke began selling their vegetables at farmers markets in Ukiah and Santa Rosa. Wayne admired the idea of selling directly to customers. Gericke also shared with Wayne the value of excellent locally grown vegetables.

“He told me, ‘We have tons of great wine. What we need is great veggies,’” Wayne said.

The Jameses’ interests in agriculture and nature continued over the years.

During her summer breaks from college, Lee worked for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to sample and test the Russian River’s bacterial levels and temperature. And Wayne, in his 30s, volunteered with the Peace Corps as an agriculture adviser in Lesotho, where he introduced new vegetables to farming and worked on water systems in the African nation.

“We had our vegetable garden in our backyard in Orinda through the ’60s,” Wayne said. “We grew up growing. We’ve always enjoyed it.”

Starts with soil

Last week in the farm’s commercial kitchen in Windsor, several women were busy turning a harvest into tasty products, including Tierra Vegetables chile jam, fire-roasted tomatoes, mole, enchilada sauce, kimchi, salsa and masa tortillas.

Queta, Norma and Mari, longtime friends and workers of Lee and Wayne, put together the simple foods made with fresh ingredients. Wayne credited the soil at Tierra Vegetables farm and the attention it gets for the quality of the ingredients. They apply ground green waste on top of the soil to hold in moisture, yielding flavorful vegetables.

“If it has good flavor, it has good nutrition,” Wayne said of their most popular vegetables — carrots and tomatoes.

One of the farm’s staple products is their tomatillo salsa, made with tomatillos, which are native to Mexico, and dried espelette chile peppers, which are predominantly grown in France’s Basque region. The peppers are one of the variety of chiles they introduced to the farm in honor of the prominently Latino community in Sonoma County, Lee said.

For a tasty summer lunch, Lee gave a recipe for tacos made with fresh squash and purslane, a tangy-tasting, nutrient-packed weed that grows in corn fields. They also make tortillas with the Michoácan blue corn they plant, grow, grind and process in the kitchen, Lee said.

“The purslane is rich in omega-3s,” said Lee, who was wearing a green T-shirt that read Things Go Better with Kale. “We need to eat more weeds; they’re very good for you.”

Looking ahead

Although Lee and Wayne are amazed at the impact their longtime harvest has had on the community, they’re ready to pass on the business to someone else.

“We’re tired,” Lee said. “It’s not that I want to stop doing this. I just don’t want to have to do it all the time.”

The siblings face challenges as they don’t own the land, so they can’t sublease it, Lee said.

After decades of working the soil, they want to ease their way into retirement and hand the enterprise to a younger farmer. They’d still like to preserve a part of the farm for themselves, to continue to grow seeds and their own sunflowers for sunflower oil, Wayne said.

Aside from farming, Wayne wants to bike across the country with his Shetland sheepdog dog, Bita, to visit other farms. Lee wants to tend to her six sheep and continue their family’s wool business creating yarn and fleeces. She’d like to take a cross-country road trip to explore various farms, too.

“I want to get back to some of my own life,” Lee said.

Added Wayne, “It’s hard to imagine stopping your lifetime’s work and doing something entirely different.”

The following recipes are from Lee James of Tierra Vegetables. They highlight many of the seasonal ingredients and produce grown at the farm as well as the tortillas they make in their commercial kitchen and sell at their farmstand.

The best tortillas puff up when they’re on the hot grill, Lee said. For these, use real masa flour, which you can find at most Latino stores in Sonoma County. At their farm stand, Tierra Vegetables also sells masa (corn dough), both white and blue varieties. While you’re forming each dough ball into a tortilla, cover the remaining dough with a wet towel or paper towel to keep it moist.

Homemade Tortillas

Makes 16-18 tortillas

1½ - 2 cups masa flour

1½ - 2 cups very warm water

Put the masa flour in a large bowl. Add 1½ to 2 cups of very warm water. Look at the directions on the masa flour package to determine the amount of water; some brands may call for more or less water. Mix well, then let sit for 5 minutes.

To make the dough, begin working the mixture with your hands and work the dough for several minutes. If it seems too dry, add a little more water. If it seems too wet, add a little more masa flour. The dough should be moist to the touch, but not tacky. It should be the texture and consistency of Play-Doh.

Pinch off a piece of the dough and shape it into a ball the size of a golf ball. Make about 16 to 18 balls from the dough of this size.

With a tortilla press, if you have one, press the dough balls into tortillas one by one. If you don’t have a tortilla press, use plastic wrap: place a piece of plastic wrap on a cutting board, place a dough ball on one half of the plastic wrap, fold the plastic wrap in half and use another cutting board to press the dough and flatten it into a tortilla.

Once flattened, add tortillas to a very hot nonstick skillet. Sear each side for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Little air pockets will form. The tortillas should be lightly toasted.

Place the tortillas in a tortilla warmer lined with dish towels or paper towels, or wrap them in a dish towel to keep them warm. Serve immediately or refrigerate and reheat.

You can find purslane, also known as pigweed, at most grocery stores, including Latino grocery stores. If you can’t find purslane, substitute it for two leaves of chard.

Squash and Purslane Tacos

Makes 6 servings

2 pounds of squash

1 bunch of purslane or 2 leaves of chard

1 medium onion

1 clove of garlic

Oil, for sauteing


Cotija cheese

Tomatillo Salsa (recipe follows)

Chop and dice the squash, purslane or chard, onion and garlic. Add some oil to a pan and, over medium heat, saute the ingredients for 3 to 5 minutes or until soft.

Fill each freshly made tortilla with 3 tablespoons of the mixture. Crumble fresh cotija cheese over each and top with tomatillo salsa. Fold in half and serve.

When choosing tomatillos, let color be your guide to flavor. If the tomatillo is yellow, it’ll be sweeter. If it’s green, it’ll taste more tart. Choose the flavor to your liking!

To peel tomatillos easily, soak them in water to soften the paper skin and remove it. And for a milder salsa, use California dried chiles instead of espelette chiles.

Tomatillo Salsa

Makes 6 or more servings

2-3 dried espelette chiles or 3 California dried chiles

1 pound tomatillos, peeled of their paper skins

2 cloves garlic, kept whole

1 teaspoon salt

First, roast the chile peppers in a a dry (no oil) cast-iron skillet over high heat for about 1 minute. Carefully touch them as they roast to make sure they are not to hot. If they’re too hot, they’re burning and will become bitter. Set aside.

Put the tomatillos (don’t cut them up — they’ll lose their juice and flavor if you do) and garlic cloves into the dry skillet. Cook on high heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until they are lightly charred. Add the salt.

In a blender, blend all the ingredients for 15 seconds or simply pulse them a few times, until they are blended to your liking.

For this cake, the more corn milk, or juice from the corn cob, that you can scrape out, the better. It makes the corn cake moist and enhances the flavor.

Pan de Elote (Mexican corn cake)

Makes 8 servings

6 ears of corn

3 eggs

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melt butter

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

With a sharp knife, cut the corn off the cob. Then flip over the knife and scrape out the milk from the cob with the dull edge.

Beat the eggs and set aside.

In a blender or food processor, combine the condensed milk, corn kernels and corn milk, vanilla extract, melted butter, pinch of salt and baking powder. Blend ingredients for 3 minutes or until completely smooth (2 to 3 minutes in a food processor).

Once the mixture is smooth, add the eggs and pulse 5 to 6 times.

Butter a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan, pour in the batter and bake for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown.

Remove from the oven. Allow the Pan de Elote to cool in the baking pan for at least 20 minutes before slicing and serving. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at @searchingformya on Twitter.

Tierra Vegetables celebrates 40+ years

What: Lee and Wayne James invite the community, CSA members and longtime customers to help celebrate their four decades of growing produce and feeding the community.

Expect games, live music by Hubbub Club, small bites from North Bay and Bay Area chefs made with Tierra produce and wine, coffee and cider. Visitors also will be able to try making tortillas.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7

Where: 651 Airport Blvd., Santa Rosa

Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. Get tickets at

Mya Constantino

Features reporter

Stories can inspire you, make you laugh, cry and sometimes, heal. I love a feature story that can encapsulate all of those things. I cover the interesting people that exist around us, art and music that move us and the hidden gems that make Sonoma County pretty cool. Let's explore those things together.

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