Final days of vegetable farming on Otay Mesa

Death of a growing season

Many of his farm workers support families with six, eight, and ten kids.
  • Many of his farm workers support families with six, eight, and ten kids.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

It’s not quite 7:00 a.m., and the fog hangs so thick over Otay Mesa that Richard Cacho cannot see all the way across his cucumber field. At least it’s not windy, or raining, or freezing, he thinks. Cacho pulls up in his oversized pickup truck beside a few farm workers huddled around a small fire snapping and sparking among broken sticks on a dirt road. His arrival is their signal to begin another livelong day among the rows of clear plastic tunnels that seem to spread from Otay Mountain to the sea. Beneath these tunnels lie ninety-six acres of small cucumber plants, spaced twenty inches apart, 5200 plants per acre, none of which have any business growing now, in chilly mid-February. Cucumbers much prefer warm weather. But Richard Cacho, twenty-nine, is betting everything he owns and cherishes that he can make these plants respond to his wishes, his needs, and those of the farm workers bending in the fog. “If I go down, they go down,” Cacho remarks.

Even though he started harvesting three weeks late, Cacho was still able to get an average of eight dollars a box for his cucumbers.

Even though he started harvesting three weeks late, Cacho was still able to get an average of eight dollars a box for his cucumbers.

Cacho is one of about a dozen farmers left on Otay Mesa. Ten years ago there were three times that many. He’s become increasingly isolated as farm support businesses have dried up, forcing him to rely more on his own devices to produce a good cucumber crop. But just as important as good cucumbers is the timing of their harvest. Cacho is attempting to bring his spring crop to fruition at the end of March and throughout April and May, a window of time between the end of the Mexican cucumber crop (when it gets too hot down south) and the beginning of most other American cucumber crops, which are harvested in May, June, and July.

"These nodes are too close for comfort. You don’t want the fruit condensed together like this. You want them spread out on the vine.”

"These nodes are too close for comfort. You don’t want the fruit condensed together like this. You want them spread out on the vine.”

“There’s no trick to growing cucumbers in the summer,” explains University of California farm adviser Wayne Schrader. “They’re a warm-weather crop. The trick is to grow them in the spring, when they don’t like the cold.” If Cacho succeeds in producing a good crop, the high market price for cucumbers during this window between the Mexican and American crops will bring him the one thing he needs: the wherewithal to continue farming.

The accretion of salts, which are already at high levels in the Colorado River water piped to San Diego, can become a problem in such soils.

The accretion of salts, which are already at high levels in the Colorado River water piped to San Diego, can become a problem in such soils.

Last year, even though he started harvesting three weeks late, he was still able to get an average of eight dollars a box for his cucumbers. This was a good price, for his investment was about four dollars a box. The profit allowed him to set up his own packing shed, something necessitated by a family dispute that resulted in Cacho’s brother, a former partner in the farm, splitting off from the family business and taking possession of the farm’s packing shed. Cacho now only speaks to his brother through attorneys, and he cannot hide his pride in the new packing shed, located near his farm on an abandoned chicken ranch.

Richard Cacho:  “You never know. Florida might freeze. I’m sure they pray just as hard for us to freeze."

Richard Cacho: “You never know. Florida might freeze. I’m sure they pray just as hard for us to freeze."

But out in the fields, Cacho’s pride is buried beneath layers of uncertainty. He peels back one side of a plastic tunnel to reveal the five-inch-high cucumber plants inside. “These plants are a little stubby for me,” he says, fingering the pea-green cucumbers already sprouting from the stalk. "These nodes are too close for comfort. You don’t want the fruit condensed together like this. You want them spread out on the vine, to make the most use of the water.” Cacho will add a little more nitrogen fertilizer through his drip irrigation system to try to lengthen the stalks. The nitrogen will also help the plants absorb the other fertilizers. In the cold weather, potash and phosphate fertilizer are picked up more slowly by the plants, so they have to be pushed a little bit. The nitrogen causes the plants to grow faster, and this growth draws up the potash and phosphate.

Paraquat is cheaper — even though it costs fifty dollars a gallon — than having a crew dig out the weeds with a hoe.

Paraquat is cheaper — even though it costs fifty dollars a gallon — than having a crew dig out the weeds with a hoe.

The plastic tunnels are held up by wire hoops and closed at the top by clothespins. One side of the tunnel is perforated with quarter-inch holes spaced three inches apart. The tunnels perform the function of miniature greenhouses, retaining heat during the day and protecting the plants from the cold at night. The plastic also provides cover from the wind and rain. Another layer of black plastic is spread out on the ground beside the plants, so that the cucumbers don’t lie on the moist ground as they grow. Moisture and salts can make the cucumbers into “yellow-bellies,” which are unsalable. In mid-March, workers will start to vent the tunnels by gradually rolling back the plastic, according to Cacho’s sense of how much direct sunlight the plants need.

This crop, like last year’s, is also three weeks behind schedule. Fifty acres of plants were destroyed twice by freezes in January, and the replanting is just finishing up in mid-February. A $30,000 loss. But Cacho thinks he can make up those three weeks if the weather is good in March. If not, well then, maybe he’ll get lucky like last year. Although he was three weeks late, he benefited from a freeze that hurt cucumber farmers in Florida. “What’s gonna happen during the three and a half months I’m growing?” he asks. “You never know. Florida might freeze. I’m sure they pray just as hard for us to freeze. You kind of start to wonder if things are going too smoothly. You gotta expect the worst.” Luckily, thanks to an unprecedented two freezes in two successive years, along with high winds in mid-February that prevented workers from opening up the plastic tunnels for weeding and replanting, things aren’t going too smoothly.

As Cacho stands in one of his ten fields and contemplates his stubby cucumbers, a crew of farm workers spraying the herbicide Paraquat between the rows of tunnels passes by. They all wear special white protective suits, rubber boots and gloves, and gas masks and walk behind a tractor that hauls a container of the herbicide. Each carries a metal applicator rod connected by hose to the container. Cacho had a severe weed problem this year, especially with a tough little nuisance named malba. He calls out in Spanish to one of the workers, instructing him to spread the chemical more evenly between the rows. He explains that this method of spreading herbicide, using a tractor and five men, is much more efficient than the old way of spreading the chemical with a boom attached to the tractor. You have to be careful with Paraquat because it kills whatever it touches. But it isn’t a “systemic” chemical, which is drawn up into the plants; it stays where you put it. It’s also cheaper — even though it costs fifty dollars a gallon — than having a crew dig out the weeds with a hoe. That method is slower and tends to bring up other weed seeds to the surface, where they sprout and grow and require more labor to remove. “You’re not into saving quarters, you’re into saving pennies,” Cacho says as the white-suited workers pass. “It’s not the wildcat days anymore.”

Cacho’s labor costs are running between $12,000 and $15,000 a week. He knows exactly from one day to the next how much money has been invested in this crop, because he computerized the operation in the fall of 1986. Right now, in mid-February, he has about $250,000 invested, sixty percent of’it in labor. He credits the computer as the main reason he's still in business. “Before the computer, it was all guesswork,” he says. “Everything you do costs money. You turn on a spigot, it costs money. My father was pretty good with a pencil on a napkin when he farmed, but profit margins were much bigger in the Fifties and Sixties. It’s so complicated now.

Banks aren’t going to lend you half a million dollars because you’re a nice guy. You have to show them projections. We have to know exactly how much we have in the crop in order to know how much we need to sell it for to make money.” In a good year, Cacho can make $10,000 an acre. In a bad year, he can lose his house, his truck, and his farm equipment, which he uses to back bank loans every year. He says a super-bad year would be disastrous for hundreds of people, as many of his farm workers (some of whom have worked for his family since the late 1940s) support families with six, eight, and ten kids. The prospect of losing everything has helped concentrate his mind on analyzing and reacting to the failure of most farmers on the mesa. His reaction entails an abiding willingness to risk change and a determination never to be fully satisfied with a crop. “When you’re green, you’ll always grow,” he declares, "but when you think you’re ripe, you’ll rot.”

Richard Cacho is a big, soft-spoken, serious man who commands respect through the force of his will to succeed. This was evident one recent morning when he rolled his pickup truck into the lot of R&R Agricultural Chemicals, a farm supply house on the western edge of his fields. He’s come to pick up three gallons of Paraquat and to chat with whoever’s around. R&R used to have a helicopter they rented out for crop dusting, but they had to get rid of it when the number of farmers on the mesa shrunk so low. Today, R&R men are getting ready to drive down into Mexico on a sales trip.

Cacho finds another farmer standing around the chemical warehouse seeking advice from the farm supply men on where there might be another piece of available farm land. When they spot Cacho, one of the most successful farmers on the mesa, an air of admiration blows in among the aroma of chemicals. Even though at twenty-nine Cacho is much younger than the other men, they still treat him with deference.

The other farmer is wearing an eager expression under a big straw hat. Like most growers on the mesa, including Cacho, he’s been leasing his farm land from a large landowner. But the landlord just declined to extend his lease, opting instead to lease it to one of the many industrial parks taking over the mesa. “It seems to be happening so fast,” the farmer remarks, perplexed. The City of San Diego has already approved about thirty tentative development projects for Otay Mesa, all listed under names like Border Business Park, San Diego Investments, Pacific Gateway, Empire Centre, and Brown Field Business Park. The farmer asks Cacho if he knows of a small thirty-acre parcel suitable for planting cucumbers. Cacho tells him of a few available fields, but most of them consist of eighty or one hundred acres to the east. Cacho himself takes up much of the available land from Brown Field to the border, between Cactus Road and La Media Road. The few pieces near Brown Field that aren’t being farmed by Cacho’s neighbors are now slated for industrial development.

"Baja is the competition,” the farmer explains as Cacho loads his Paraquat and the farm supply men load their car for Mexico. ‘‘Almost sixty percent of our costs are labor, but down there labor’s almost free.” A hundred yards from where Cacho pays between $3.50 and $5 an hour to his year-round crew of fifty-five farmhands, Mexicans earn $5 a day doing the same jobs. The inexpensive winter produce coming up from Baja and Sinaloa has helped keep all produce prices down, which has contributed to the closing of many farms on the mesa and the inevitable change of ownership of the land. Cacho has attempted to take advantage of the lower cost of growing in Mexico by leasing a twenty-acre field at La Mision, thirty miles north of Ensenada. But he lost money this year on his Mexican celery crop, since there was a freeze, his well went dry, and the celery market took a dive. Not even Mexico can be counted on to guarantee a profitable crop these days.

But there are many other reasons farmers have been dropping like dead flower petals on the mesa. Certainly water costs are a major culprit. The basic rate of $413 per acre-foot of water on the mesa is said to be among the highest agricultural rates in the nation. But by the time Cacho figures in all of the other fees charged by the Otay Municipal Water District, he’s paying the equivalent of $605 per acre-foot. Water in the Imperial Valley can be had for as low as nine dollars an acre-foot. Cacho’s monthly water bills hover above $20,000 during the harvest months, and between $7000 and $10,000 a month while the plants are growing. “And the Otay water district charges a ten percent penalty if you don’t pay on the day it’s due,” Cacho scoffs. The expense of importing water, and controversial management practices in the Otay water district, are viewed by Cacho as simply part of the cost of doing business. In Otay’s case, a certifiably deadly cost.

Cacho ends up back in the farm’s offices at about eight or eight-thirty every morning, when the sun has usually displaced the fog on the mesa and Otay Mountain looms blue-green over Cacho’s plastic tunnels. The offices are in a converted garage beside his house on the five acres of land he owns at the end of Siempre Viva Road. A chip shot to the south lies the tower at Tijuana International Airport. Until the new immigration law took effect in 1986, most of Cacho’s workers parked at the airport and walked over the border to work. Now that they’re all registered under the amnesty program (as resident aliens), they fight traffic on the way to work in cars, like gringos. Unlike farm workers in North County, most of whom live miserably in whatever shanties they can piece together, Cacho’s employees live at home in Tijuana. Cacho says the United Farm Workers Union, which moved onto the mesa and organized several farms in the 19705, never attempted to organize his farm. He says he always tried to pay better than his neighbors and provide decent working conditions. Now most of the UFW-organized farms are out of business, and Cacho has a fairly stable, well-trained work force to which he provides year-round employment.

The farmer stamps the mud off his boots and enters the office this morning to find Lyle Pohl, owner of EZ Green Fertilizers, waiting for him. After warm greetings, Cacho asks Pohl for a percentage breakdown of the nitrogen, potash, and phosphate in the fertilizer Cacho has been using on his cucumbers. He thinks he can get more production out of his plants by fine-tuning his fertilizer, water, and the venting of his plastic tunnels. Cacho would like to push his production to 4000 boxes of cucumbers per acre. He’s been averaging about 3000 boxes per acre.

Each cucumber plant will produce fruit for about three months. Cacho says the key to keeping them productive is never to let them go “luscious,” never let them drop their flowers. So he stresses them by holding back slightly on water throughout their short lives, keeping them blossoming on the biological edge of maturity for as long as possible. His full face brightens excitedly when he speaks about plants. Until now, he’s applied mostly his native sense about how the plants are growing to the question of increasing production; this has resulted in each cucumber plant producing between eighteen and twenty usable cucumbers, or about half a box of fruit. His goal now is to cajole the plants into giving him just a few more cukes.

When he receives Pohl’s chemical breakdown, Cacho will be better able to understand the petiole analysis that a laboratory is running on his crop. Petioles are the small stalks that connect the cucumber plant's leaves to their stems. These little pipelines are analyzed to discover exactly what quantities and ratios of nitrogen, phosphates, and potash are being taken up by the plants. Once these levels are known, Cacho can check them against the ideal levels recommended by the University of California farm adviser and then make reasoned adjustments.

Pohl mentions that gypsum is being used successfully as a soil amendment in other parts of the county, as a combatant against salt buildup. Otay Mesa has what farmers call "heavy” soil, containing large amounts of clay, which tends to hold onto water. The accretion of salts, which are already at high levels in the Colorado River water piped to San Diego, can become a problem in such soils. Cacho mentions that he hasn’t had his fields tested for two years (it’s an expensive process), and maybe it’s time to do it again.

Along with chemical fertilizers, Pohl sells Cacho the processed chicken scat that underlies each row of cucumbers. This is the most common fertilizer used on the mesa. “Four years ago, I was selling a thousand tons a year of our fertilizer to Otay farmers,” Pohl explains. “Now it’s 300 to 400 tons a year. So many people have gone out of business. Everybody left on the mesa has to be looking at a timetable now.” Cacho figures he’s got three, maybe four more years before his landlord sells out to people who want to make parts for computers.

Cacho’s own computer flickers silently in the next room. Vince Magana, Richard’s cousin, helped set up the program for keeping track of the farm’s costs. “Growing is really a manufacturing process," Magana explains, sitting in a paneled office before a computer screen. “It’s important to know how much each job is costing you, in order to make projections.’’ Growing cucumbers has been broken down into forty-one jobs, from planting to harvesting to packing. Magana grabs a computer printout listing these jobs — ripping, leveling, spreading mulch, laying drip tape, seeding, transplanting, venting the tunnels, irrigating, weeding, and so on — along with “costs to date" of each job. “Consumers don’t realize the kind of jeopardy a farmer has to put himself into,” Magana declares. “At $100,000, we didn’t even have a plant in the ground. Right now, we’ve got $175,000 in it, and we don’t even have a piece of fruit.’’ Magana expects it to be a $350,000 investment before a single box of cucumbers is sold in early April.

When farmers get together, they often ask each other about how their “deal" is going. Farming has become one bodacious deal, in which the farmer bets everything he owns on his ability to produce a profitable crop. “Richard has to be a mechanic, a scientist, a personnel manager, a grower, a salesman, an accountant, and a businessman,” says Frank Evaro, the farm’s new genera) manager. “But I can grow the most beautiful crop in the world, and the cheapest, and still lose,” says Cacho. The market is the croupier, the odds setter, and more often than not, the grim reaper all rolled into one. One year, Cacho grew cucumbers year round, harvesting a spring, a summer, and a winter crop, and lost several hundred thousand. The market was low that year. To hedge his bets, he now harvests cucumbers in the spring and fall, along with a little cabbage, and celery in the winter. His second crop of cucumbers is planted in July and harvested in September. He doesn’t harvest much of anything in the summer, because the markets are catering more to fruit then, and pests are a bigger problem in the heat. But now both cabbage and celery are dropping into down cycles as profitable crops. Celery had two or three good years in the mid-1980s, prompting more farmers to start growing it, which in turn flooded the market and brought down the price. Cabbage just isn’t the consumer staple it once was, going almost exclusively now to the fast-food chains for cole slaw.

Vince Magana and Frank Evaro are convinced that prices consumers pay for produce cannot stay low for very much longer. “Consumer prices [for produce) are the same now as they were in the 1960s, when Richard’s dad was farming,” Magana points out. “But farming costs have skyrocketed. We have to look at growing in Mexico. A lot of American companies are fronting tomato growers at San Quintin.”

One of Evaro’s jobs is establishing a produce brokerage based in the new packing shed Cacho built last year, an attempt at diversifying and creating a source of cash during the part of the season when there’s no Cacho-grown produce to sell. This would help free the farm from having to rely on short-term bank loans, at two or three percent interest over the prime rate, to finance the planting and cultivation of the crop. “The most satisfying thing about farming is going to the bank and paying off the loan and then having the ability to keep farming,” Cacho says. “It’s everybody’s dream to eventually be freed from the banks.”

The farmers who have survived on the mesa have become increasingly self-reliant. Sometimes Cacho, for all the assistance he receives from banks, his suppliers, and the farm adviser, appears more like a lone entrepreneur than the head of a multimillion-dollar family business. At the end of 1985, Cacho’s brother, one of three partners (along with their father) in the farm, split with the family and began operating the original packing shed and produce brokerage as his own business. None of the men wishes to talk about the bad blood between them. Only Richard and his father Luis are partners in the farm now, but Luis is more or less retired.

Luis Cacho followed his own father into the family business, just as Richard has done. Luis’s father Antonio and his mother Herminia lived in Michoacan in west central Mexico until they eloped in the 1920s. In 1928 they migrated up through Texas and went to live with one of Antonio’s relatives in Pala, north of Escondido. For several years, they worked for the Japanese farmers around Oceanside and then later worked the citrus orchards in Chula Vista. Antonio finally saved enough money to buy farmland in Chula Vista in 1944.

The family remembers Antonio as a loner, and Antonio is said to have considered himself an orphan, after having been indentured by his family to work on distant Mexican farms as a child. In the mid-1960s, after raising seven children, five girls and two boys, and buying farm land in Chula Vista, Antonio and Herminia split up. Antonio wanted to sell off all his land holdings, but by then Richard’s father Luis was a partner in the farm, and Luis was able to retain about half the land. Today Herminia lives in a nice four-bedroom house she and Antonio built in Chula Vista, and she lives quite well off some of the former farm property Luis leases to commercial businesses on Main Street in Chula Vista. Antonio lives in Tijuana, estranged from the rest of the family.

During some bad farming years in 1970 and 1971, Luis converted a large parcel of his land into a mobile home park, Don Luis Mobile Estates on Orange Avenue in Chula Vista. Although he spends most of his time running that business, he has also used it as collateral to secure loans for the farm Richard operates on leased land. Comments cousin Vince Magana, “We wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have that collateral to put up a few years ago.”

In late February, just as the cucumber crop was being clothes-pinned under plastic for three good weeks of concentrated heat, Vince left the farm to look for another kind of work and Cacho’s wife was just about to have their second child. On an older man, the weight of the farm’s uncertainties and pressures would plow his face with worry, but on Cacho, not yet thirty, the pressure seems to settle over his shoulders. “Sometimes you go home and your wife talks to you, and you’re not even there,” Cacho comments as he looks over some of the eighty-five electric motors installed in his packing shed machinery. “Sure, the pressure gets to you. I like pressure to a certain extent, but sometimes it has to get to you.”

Cacho says he has to go check on the progress of several flats of “speedlings” he’s propagating in a greenhouse on one of his neighbor’s farms. Until four years ago, Cacho planted seeds in the ground, but that eventually proved inefficient because of the field mice that dug up the seeds and the large number of plants that didn't sprout or that came up weak and had to be replanted. But since he’s been buying commercially grown speedlings, he’s become less and less satisfied with the product. This year he says the nursery he’s been dealing with ended up selling his batch of speedlings to somebody else, and he’s finally fed up with having to rely on outsiders for such a critical part of his crop. If he makes enough money this year, he plans to invest $21,000 in three greenhouses to sprout his own cucumbers.

Cacho’s neighbor, John Marquez, greets Cacho as the young farmer pulls up next to Marquez’s cactus field. Marquez has been growing nopales, cactus pads, for years. His small greenhouse, which he has loaned to Cacho, is situated right beside the field. Cacho enters the hot greenhouse and begins rolling back a layer of plastic he covered the flats with six days ago, when he planted the cucumber seeds. The small plants are about an inch tall, and Cacho inspects them carefully. “You want a short, stubby plant,” Cacho explains. “You don’t want them long and luscious. It only takes one extra day in here, and they’ll get too long and skinny.” He more or less likes what he sees, but he comments to Marquez that he’s going to bring over an electric space heater to help overcome the cool weather.

“Anybody that goes into farming these days has to be retarded,” Marquez jests as he watches Cacho roll back more plastic. Marquez says that Cacho’s farm is unusually big and unusually successful, but he joshes the younger farmer about the burden of uncertainty he carries around: “He looks like he’s doing okay on the outside, but he cries on the inside.” In the heat of the greenhouse, Cacho looks up and smiles, but he just keeps on farming.


Otay Municipal Water District officials refuse to take the rap for driving farmers off Otay Mesa by charging such high water rates. Eric Hayden, the controller for the district, acknowledges that farmers have virtually disappeared from the mesa — twelve years ago agriculture accounted for seventy-five percent of the district’s water sales, while today it’s only seven percent — but he contends that the cost of water wasn’t the main reason the farmers left. "It’s greed.” Hayden says of the massive change of ownership of the Otay Mesa lands. “What the farmers or their landlords bought for $100 an acre is now worth $100,000 an acre. They’re selling and running."

Certainly efforts on the part of politicians and developers to turn Otay Mesa into San Diego’s "premier employment center." in the words of former city councilman Bill Cleator. have sent land values on a vertical trajectory and priced out farming. Still. Otay has for years charged about the highest water rate in the county, and farmers who have left the mesa cite water costs as the main reason. “Water was the principal reason I moved," explains Mike Horwath. who left the mesa in 1978 and now farms in the San Pasqual Valley near Escondido. Horwath farmed 1400 acres on the mesa, and his water bill ran between $80,000 and $100,000 a month during peak periods. In the San Pasqual Valley, he relies primarily on well water, which costs him about S20,000 a month in pumping costs. “Otay is just last on the line." Horwath says, figuring that those users who are farthest from the imported water source end up paying the most.

But according to the County Water Authority, which supplies water to San Diego County’s water districts, all twenty-four member agencies are charged the same basic rate. As of January 1988, this rate was about $252 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot of water is equal to about 325,900 gallons.) Before this water is sold to farmer Richard Cacho. the Otay district tacks on its own fees, bringing the price up to $413 an acre-foot. So Cacho pays an extra $161 per acre-foot that goes directly to the district. This means that almost forty percent of his water bill goes not toward the actual purchase of the water, but instead into the operation of the water district that delivers it to him.

Otay’s Hayden says this money is needed because the district is one of the few in the county with no reservoir, with no way to stockpile and capture water and thereby reduce its cost. Complicating matters is the size of the district, the largest in the county, which encompasses 125 square miles stretching along the border all the way out to Jamul. The district’s water users have to pay for the capital improvements within the district, and the relatively small number of residents have had to shoulder much of the cost of explosive growth. The residential population has increased about ten percent a year for the last decade, to about 80,000 residents, and is expected to double by the turn of the century. “When I came here in 1976, looking out my window in every direction, I couldn’t see three or four houses," Hayden remarks, sitting in his office on Jamacha Boulevard in Spring Valley. “Right now, 1 can’t see the hills for the houses.”

Herb Weisheit. a University of California farm adviser who has researched water costs throughout the county, says that one reason Otay’s water is so expensive is the timing of the population growth. The district had to expand its capabilities for delivering water to residential customers in the early 1980s, at a time when interest rates on capital improvement bonds were extremely high, he explains. “The newer the growth, the higher the cost of water," says Wbisheit. “But don’t infer that Otay is doing a poor job because their water’s so expensive. There were just too few people in too large an area, and it grew too fast"


While farmers on Otay Mesa may be drying up and blowing away like old corn husks, agriculture in the rest of San Diego County appears to be quite healthy. The latest Figures available from the County Agriculture Department are for 1986. and they set the total value of county agricultural products at about $572 million, a $27 million increase over 1985.

About the only crop that showed a marked decline in value from 1985 to 1986 was citrus, a reduction of about $11 million. But what the figures cannot show is an important change in the kind of crops farmers are growing now. San Diego County growers are experimenting with everything from herbs such as basil and rosemary to odd little crops like raspberries. “People are trying other things because it’s gotten so competitive,” says Ben Hillebrecht, a past president of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “It’s changing.” Hillebrecht continues. “There used to be a lot of tax farmers in here, taking the depreciation on avocado farms. Avocados were kind of a romantic thing to grow. But the tax picture has changed, and now there are more real farmers trying to make a living at it."

Hillebrecht also notes these changes: avocado acreage is up substantially; tomato growing is way down and has moved to Mexico; cucumbers and celery have also said adios and gone south; strawberries are hanging in there but are gradually moving below the border, too. Organic farming is expanding here, with about thirty local farms currently certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers association.

Farmer Mike Horwath. thirty-eight, says San Diego growers are shifting to specialty crops “for survival.” As land along the coast becomes more valuable, farmers are being forced inland. This subtle move means San Diego is losing the edge that growing on the coast once provided: the ability to harvest crops when the rest of the nation was either too hot or too cold to grow things. Local farmers used to thrive almost exclusively on these “windows," Horwath says. But moving inland gives local farmers the same harvest seasons as everyone else, and that puts San Diego at a disadvantage. “We can only ship east or north,” Horwath explains. “To the west is the ocean, and to the south is Mexico. But growers up north can ship north, south, east, or west, which gives them more options. We share the same markets, but it costs more for us to ship our products because of our geographical location.” Generally, the seller pays the shipping costs of agricultural goods. If San Diego and the Central Valley are bringing in the same crops at the same time, San Diego's will be a little more expensive.

So if the off-season harvest “windows" are lost, growers need to turn to offbeat crops. Horwath, who farms in the San Pasqual Valley across from the Wild Animal Park, is the only local farmer growing rhubarb and one of the few producing asparagus. He hopes soon to expand his ten acres of asparagus to 200. Horwath also has the county’s first artichoke crop. He’s harvesting forty acres now, which is something of an event since the artichoke capitals of the world, Watsonville and Castroville, have jealously guarded their seeds. How Horwath got seeds is a long and complicated story, but he got them, and chances are he won't be the only San Diego County farmer growing chokes in the future.

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