Tierra Vegetables celebrates a lifetime of growing and harvesting
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.