The Passing of a Farm
The gasps and cries of “Oh no!” you heard (or uttered yourself) last week were the surprised and heartbroken reactions of local-food-loving San Diegans who learned that Suzie’s Farm was closing. In a Facebook live video that went viral locally, owner and farmer Lucila de Alejandro spoke eloquently about what the farm meant to her and her family and to the community they had created through it. And why they finally decided to shutter it.
There’s no way to know if a different farmer could have made Suzie’s work, if there was another way it could have been operated that could have given Lucila and her husband, Robin Taylor, the profits they needed instead of the thousands of dollars of monthly debt they endured for years. As she wrote in her most recent blog post , “We tried everything—and I do mean EVERYTHING—to keep the farm alive. We acquired more land, grew bigger, grew more varieties, grew fewer varieties, let land go, hired more people, let people go, did more press, hosted more farm dinners, private events, public events, camp, school, day fairs. It was not enough.”
It hasn’t been enough for many San Diego farms over the years. San Diego farmers are dedicated and creative in their marketing. They participate in farmers’ markets, operate CSAs, hold events. Yes, the County has more than 5,700 farms. But that number is way down from 2012, when the numbers were at their highest—6,687. Our region has gone from nearly 200 dairies to just three. Product value has declined. So has acreage.
The reasons cited are many. Farmers have always endured the vagaries of weather, but years of drought took its toll. On top of that is the price and availability of water in Southern California. The increasingly prohibitive cost of land makes overhead onerous. Legislation like Proposition 2, which addressed cage laws for chickens, were a boon to animal rights proponents but a huge cost for farmers. A higher minimum wage has increased farm overhead. The lack of a local slaughterhouse makes processing livestock difficult and costly. Cheap produce from other countries is readily available. The list goes on.
Lucila also cited San Diego’s high cost of living and the fact that the City of San Diego, where Suzie’s was based, is not an agriculture city. “Agricultural cities have laws, regulations, and rights that are to the benefit of agriculture because agriculture is valuable to the city,” she pointed out. “And they have an infrastructure that includes trained workers. If a tractor driver gets sick, where am I going to get another tractor driver in San Diego?”
So what are we to make of the demise of Suzie’s Farm? Does it foretell even harder times for small farms in San Diego County? Or are there farms that have discovered how to be successful and sustainable in a tough market? We’ll expand on this subject more in our September issue and will continue to explore the stories about where our food comes from. Let’s learn more about and do more to support local farmers and farms. Who’s in?