Rodriguez Family Farms in Escondido turned organic

When Grandpa got sick from pesticides

  • Image by Carl Warner

At first, Joe Rodriguez didn’t believe his farm was poisoning him. He had been growing crops for more than 40 years when he and his family realized his illnesses were being caused by exposure to the agricultural chemicals and pesticides that he used on their farm.

“At first I didn’t believe it when my son tried to convince me that the pesticides were catching up with me.” Rodriguez, 78, stands overlooking his 80 acres of land filled with crops and greenhouses. “But we decided in 1986 to be certified as organic after getting rid of the poison we were spraying on the crops. You know, when you spray [the pesticide] it kills everything, so it made sense that it could be killing me.”

Rodriguez has just driven up in a dusty old no-name car, one of his great-grandsons on his lap, laughing and steering the car. He proudly points to his greenhouses, their plastic roofs gleaming in the sun, and tells me the story of how his father, Amado Rodriguez arrived in America from Mexico in the 1920s as a member of a railroad gang when he was only 15.

“After the railroad he drifted around and ended up in Buena Park,” he says as his great-grandson runs off to play. “He grew cabbage and later strawberries and was able to make a living. He had nine kids but only two of us stayed on the farm.”

The Rodriguez family switched to organic farming when their patriarch Joe (farthest back) grew sick from pesticide use.

The Rodriguez family switched to organic farming when their patriarch Joe (farthest back) grew sick from pesticide use.

His father did so well he bought property near what is now Knott’s Berry Farm. But soon he began to feel squeezed out as shopping malls and tract houses began to surround his farm, so he moved to Escondido.

“I thought I might go to college and be an engineer someday,” says the patriarch, smiling. “But here I am still today.”

Rodriguez’s son J.R. led the way for his family’s ranch, Rodriguez Family Farms, to become certified organic after he, too, became ill. Now pests are controlled by favorable insects, crop rotation, and soil management. J.R. overseas the fertilizers, including rock phosphate, green sand, worm castings, and kelp instead of synthetic pesticides.

Rodriguez Family Farms

Joe Rodriguez discusses the Rodriguez Family Farms CSA produce box and Michael Clark gives a tour of the farm, located in Escondido, CA.

Joe Rodriguez discusses the Rodriguez Family Farms CSA produce box and Michael Clark gives a tour of the farm, located in Escondido, CA.

The Rodriguez farm lies in the rolling hills of Escondido, a few hairpin turns from Valley Center. Where chaparral once grew, organic lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, and more now thrive in the North County sun below ranch-style houses that crown the hill. People of all ages work in the sheds, packing flowers, fruits, and vegetables while men in the field bend over in the sun and hand weed the strawberries. Lazy mutts sleep in the sun and toddlers run in and out of the shed for a hug or a piece of ripe melon from their grandfather. Everywhere you look there are tractors, plows, cultivators and other types of farm equipment. Rusted windmills stand tall among rows of lettuce and spinach.

Almost everyone in the extended Rodriguez family works on or for the farm. Erma Rodriguez-Clark comes out of one of the houses and joins us. She is the patriarch’s daughter and works on the business side of the farm. When the heat wave in September forced temperatures over 100 degrees, some crops didn’t make it, she says, and that hurt the family’s bottom line. “The kale and collard greens got hit with the heat and then a new beetle came in and finished the job,” Rodriguez-Clark says with a shake of her head. “When that happens, all you can do is pull it all out and start over as fast as you can.”

Rodriguez-Clark said that last year the farm brought in about $700,000. This year — with sales from 18 farmers’ markets from San Diego to Los Angeles, retail markets, and community-supported agriculture programs (which offer weekly shares of seasonal fruits and vegetables delivered in boxes to customers) — she hopes they will hit the $1 million mark.

To get the full tour of the farm, I climb into a truck driven by Michael Clark, 24, grandson of Joe and son of Erma. “Our strawberries are big sellers at the farmers’ markets,” Clark says as the truck bounces and squeaks down the dirt road, “Recently the family started growing blueberries,” Clark says. “The more strawberries we grow, the more they sell. And blueberries are a super food, so I expect we will do well with those. I think people of my generation really want to know where their food is coming from and that it’s safe to eat.”

I first met Clark at the Little Italy farmers’ market. Clark works on the farmers’ market end of the family business and travels up and down Southern California during the week, pleasing and appeasing loyal customers. On that sunny Saturday in September he was busy selling heirloom tomatoes. (J.R.’s grows six varieties of the popular fruit.) “The thing about growing organic,” he said while making change and bagging fruit, “is that if something happens to a crop and you can’t sell the produce, people are disappointed and they want to know why. Growing without pesticides is very difficult. That’s why most farmers don’t grow organic. There are rules and costs to doing it this way. But to us it’s the only way.”

Now in the truck, we pull over to inspect some squash and Clark explains that he hasn’t always worked for the farm. And he didn’t grow up on the property, either. But something pulled him in.

“I’ve always been a part of it, but I didn’t think I would be a farmer,” he says. “I like being on the sales end. I’m learning a lot from my Uncle Joe, and I want to continue working for the family.”

We climb back into the truck and pass the entrance to the ranch, where a colorful sign advertises Rodriguez Family Farms. Odd metal sculptures of horses are displayed in front of the sign. Clark smiles. “My grandfather just started bringing those things home one day because he liked them,” he said. “They’re kind of funny.”

We drive near the pumpkin patch, where a lone palm tree looks out of place. Trailers in which farm hands live dot the area. We bump along and finally stop in front of the greenhouses and walk into one of the plastic-walled structures. The aroma of herbs, mostly basil, makes my eyes water.

While Clark is showing off the herbs and other produce, his cousin, Jose Gregorio Rodriguez, called Goyo, comes ambling in, a wide smile on his face. Goyo has lived on the farm his whole life and is proud of his family heritage.

“Isn’t this great?” he asks. “We have about three acres of greenhouses where we can grow okra and tomatoes and peppers. Because of this and the climate we can grow all year.”

The three of us walk into another greenhouse where some of the ruined crops still stand. “We’re pulling the last of this out tomorrow,” Goyo explains. “This was crazy. Between the bugs and the heat they were just gone. Not everyone understands that we are at the mercy of a lot of factors being organic. You explain to the customer, but they just want to know where their broccoli is. They want organic, but it’s not that easy.”

Goyo says goodbye and Clark and I drive back to where we started. His grandfather is in the packing shed and waves for us to stop. Clark disappears and comes out with a small box of produce for me.

That night I serve my husband Ralph a salad of cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes. Ralph doesn’t like cucumbers and he stopped eating tomatoes because of the lack of taste. He asks for seconds.

The difference between “natural” and “organic”

“Each year the County Department of Agriculture releases the figure for the previous year,” says Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau. “In 2012 there were 348 certified organic growers registered with the county. That ranked San Diego County as having the highest number of organic farmers of any county in the U.S.”

But a walk through a busy farmers’ market such as the one in Little Italy and you’ll be hard pressed to find a certified organic vendor. The days I was there, I passed stand after stand of produce, almost three blocks of vendors to chose from, but only a handful of organic growers were selling their wares as compared to the multitudes offering “natural” produce.

When I stopped to talk to a natural-produce vendor to ask him the difference between his produce and an organic vendor he rolled his eyes. “There’s really no difference,” he told me before refusing to give his name.

“‘Natural’ is a term that can be widely used by just about anybody and has no strict definition,” Larson of the farm bureau tells me later. “The term ‘organic’ cannot be used unless the farmer is certified organic and meets the strict standards of the National Organic Program as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture. Further, organic farmers have to be certified by a recognized third-party certifier to ensure the NOP standards have been strictly followed.”

Nancy Stalnaker is the supervising agricultural standards, weights and measures inspector for the county of San Diego. “‘Organic’ is a legal term, and you can’t use it unless you are certified,” she says. “The terms ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ are not verifiable, and as a consumer you can’t always trust that they are not using pesticides.”

“‘Organic’ is a legal term, and you can’t use it unless you are certified,” says the county’s Nancy Stalnaker.

“‘Organic’ is a legal term, and you can’t use it unless you are certified,” says the county’s Nancy Stalnaker.

Stalnaker says customers should look for an organic vendor certification at the booth if they want to purchase organic produce.

Organic growers earn the right to be certified by paying a fee of anywhere from $100 to $500, making sure they follow the National Organic Rules, and passing inspections on a regular basis.

“The reason for organic growers besides the health issues are that the soils were being depleted,” Stalnaker said. “To be an organic farmer you must maintain or improve the quality of the soil. You have to put back more than you take out.”

Nancy Stalnaker talks organic farming certification for San Diego County

Nancy Stalnaker, the supervising agricultural standards, weights and measures inspector for the county of San Diego, discusses the process of verifying that organic farms adhere to state standards.

Nancy Stalnaker, the supervising agricultural standards, weights and measures inspector for the county of San Diego, discusses the process of verifying that organic farms adhere to state standards.

Officially, an organic farmer must operate for three years using organic standards before they can sell their products as organic. They must work with a certifier to develop and follow a production plan, keep extensive records, not use synthetic fertilizers or conventional pesticides, and animal producers cannot use antibiotics or growth hormones, according to the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “Organic farming tends to be more labor and management intensive,” Larson explains. “Weed control is a very big cost, because herbicides cannot be used. There is also the risk of crop losses to pests or disease because there are few chemicals that are okay for organic growers to use.”

So, is it worth it to farmers to become certified?

The United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service 2011 California Certified Organic Production Survey points out that California’s total gross value of sales of organically produced commodities — at $1.39 billion — was 39.3 percent of the total gross value of U.S. sales.

All organic fruit, excluding berries, totaled $304 million, compared with the U.S. total of $495 million. The value of sales for organic tree nuts totaled 85.1 percent of the U.S. total of $470 million.

Nearly 70 percent of all U.S. organic berry sales, valued at $125 million, were produced in California. California’s organic vegetable total gross value of sales, at $629 million, was 58.7 percent of all U.S. sales.

Organic field crops were valued at $56.1 million, compared with $465 million nationally.

California had the largest organic milk-cow herd and chicken-laying flock, at 16.5 percent and 13.4 percent of the U.S. inventory, respectively. California also produced the most organic milk and eggs in the U.S., at 469 million pounds and 18.1 million dozen of organic eggs, respectively.

No longer a niche market

So, is organic produce worth the extra money for the consumer?

Organic tomatoes await purchase at the Tom King Farms stand at Little Italy’s farmers’ market.

Organic tomatoes await purchase at the Tom King Farms stand at Little Italy’s farmers’ market.

“I care about the food I eat,” said Bridget Moran, a nurse and midwife at the Camp Pendleton Hospital. Moran, from Encinitas, was buying organic produce at the Tom King Farms stand on a recent Saturday at the Little Italy farmers’ market. “Our food is medicine and it heals the body. You’re not going to put dirty gas in your car, so why would you put food filled with pesticides into your body?”

Down the street, at the same market, customers were standing patiently in line at the booth of Suzie’s Farm, a 140-acre USDA-certified organic farm in the South Bay, buying wheat grass, okra, and bulb onions. At a table filled with the end-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes spilled onto a table covered with burlap and assorted produce, Ari Kaplan of San Diego filled his arms with multi-colored squash and bright green arugula.

“I pay more for organic, and I expect to pay more,” said Kaplan. “Since I stopped eating non-organic I feel so much better, and how can I not? Pesticides kill bugs — how can they not be killing people?”

More U.S. families than ever before — 78 percent — say they are choosing organic foods, according to a study published by the Organic Trade Association. Says Christine Bushway, the association’s executive director, “It’s clear that with more than three quarters of U.S. families choosing organic, this has moved way beyond a niche market.”

Another patriarch

Stan Boney understands more about selling organic produce than just about any other person in San Diego. He has led the way in the San Diego produce industry, beginning with his Windmill Farms stores in the late 1970s to his present family operation, Sprouts Farmers Markets, spearheaded by his son Shon Boney.

“When we first started Windmill there wasn’t too much organic produce available, and what was available wasn’t too good,” says the former chairman and co-founder of Sprouts.

Boney, who retired at the end of 2013, said that in the Windmill days, organic sales were only 1 to 2 percent of produce sales. Windmill Farms was the precursor to Boney’s and Henry’s and eventually Sprouts markets. The company has 146 stores in eight states.

“Over the years, organic produce sales have grown about 7 to 8 percent per year. Our current organic sales are about 15 percent of our total produce sales. Back in the late ’70s, people didn’t respond to organic, but instead labels. For example, we would occasionally get a deal on organic carrots and put them at the same price as the conventional carrots. The conventional carrots would sell more than two times as much as the organic carrots, side by side. Back then, people responded more to the label they regularly purchased versus the fact that it was organic. Nowadays, people are more in tune with the possible health benefits of eating organic,” he continues. “Also, the supply of organics at reasonable prices makes it more affordable for the general public.”

Five miles to the Killer Tomato

Tom Page began his life as a farmer when he expanded his personal garden to grow items for his job at Jimbo’s that were not available organically grown.

Page’s Organics is now a four-acre farm in Ramona. They’ve been producing since 2000 and became certified organic in 2004 with California Certified Organic Farmers.

“We do no advertising,” says Mary Page. “People found us by following the signs, which were [my husband] Tom’s idea.”

“We do no advertising,” says Mary Page. “People found us by following the signs, which were [my husband] Tom’s idea.”

“The Killer Tomato Farm Stand started in 2002 when we had an abundance of tomatoes and wanted to give our neighbors access to organically grown produce at wholesale prices,” said Mary Page, Tom’s wife. “We do no advertising. People found us by following the signs, which were Tom’s idea. They’re patterned after the ones that captivated both of us as children when traveling with our parents. We’d see them along the highway, “Ten Miles to The Thing” then “Five Miles to The Thing” and so on.

Tom has always been involved with food, either growing or cooking. He was involved with Future Farmers of America in high school. Mary was previously in the horse breeding business.

The story of Page's Organics

Mary Page tells the story of her family's organic farm in Ramona, California, famous for its Killer Tomatoes signage.

Mary Page tells the story of her family's organic farm in Ramona, California, famous for its Killer Tomatoes signage.

“Farming for both of us, specifically organic farming, seemed the most honorable way to be stewards of the land we own,” says Tom. “The organic industry has expanded so much in the past decades that it is easier than ever to be an organic farmer. On the production side, products are so much more readily available than they were even ten years ago, especially for small farms. The internet is a great help in all areas. The consumer demand has made it easier for farmers to find outlets for their products.”

Tom and Mary agree that today’s consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food is coming from.

“When animals are involved, they are concerned about treatment and living conditions,” says Tom. “Many would like the option to purchase from ranches that treat their animals ethically. When it comes to fruit and vegetables, they are looking for local and fresh. Both are things that impact the nutrition of the food they are consuming. Buying local not only increases freshness and ripeness, but also adds to the local economy as well as decreasing the carbon footprint of the food. The consumer also gets a feeling of community when they are familiar with the farms in their neighborhood.”

Besides the expense of becoming certified, every season the Pages feed the soil with compost, gypsum, and worm castings that they buy by the truckload. In between crops they plant grass and legume cover crops for fertilization and erosion protection. During growing periods they use foliar sprays for added nutrients. This can cost between $800 and $1500. They irrigate with water pumped (using solar power) from their own well, so the cost of water is minimal.

The farming couple sells directly to the consumer through their farm stand and wholesale to stores that specialize in organic food. Jimbo’s Naturally, Ocean Beach Peoples market, and Ramona Family Naturals are their main retail customers. They also sell to local community-supported agriculture groups.

“San Diego is a mecca for health-conscious people,” Tom says. “Plant it and they will come. Grow organic and they will come even more. I just made that up!”

It may be corny...

The Del Mar farmers’ market is smaller than the one in Little Italy, and there is only one certified organic vendor. I walk over and watch Fabian Huerta as he slices samples of the fat, juicy, red strawberries that are grown in the Fallbrook sun at Blue Heron Farms.

Huerta works in sales for the farm, which has been certified organic since 1992.

“Man, people love it when they see us at a farmers’ market,” he said, slicing me a fresh strawberry as fat as a turnip. Organic farming, he says is “a little more labor, but we also put a lot of care and passion into growing. We’ve been doing this since before it was cool.”

Rita Meier, market manager for the Del Mar farmers’ market said she wished there were more organic vendors coming to her venue, but she understood that the expenses and rules were daunting to some farmers.

“It’s not easy being a farmer these days, but I really do think the consumer would like to see more organic produce,” she said. “People do get confused by the ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ difference, it’s true. If you ask a natural grower if he uses pesticides and he says, ‘no,’ you have to take his word for it. If he says ‘yes,’ and an inspector hears about it, he can get fined for it. Even banned from selling at farmers’ markets.”

Two years ago, Stelios Proios, of Proios Family Farm in Murrieta, was banned from selling at certified farmers’ markets in San Diego County for three years and fined $1000 after county inspectors found that he was selling food at the North Park farmers’ market he hadn’t grown and that it wasn’t pesticide-free as advertised.

Brian Garvey is another vendor at the Del Mar farmer’s market who sells organic produce, but in juice form. His Green Tara Juice is a popular item at the market, and he gives credit to the organic growers.

“I use only organic from farmers like J.R.” from Rodriguez Family Farms. Garvey offers me a green cup of juice to try. “People pay more for organic because they know they are getting the best for their health. Produce is a vehicle for our souls. The more conscientious we are about what we put in our bodies, the healthier we will be. It may be corny, but it’s true what they say: you are what you eat.”

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To S.D. Reader, Candice Reed:

Your cover story , January 9, 2014, is important * and very appreciated. It is really helpful to learn the difference between "natural" (???) and Organic. I especially liked the reference to Blue Heron Farms strawberries, which my family loves and which we purchase at Seaside Market, in Cardiff. We also love and purchase Blue Heron Farms lettuce and whatever of their products are available at Seaside Market. You can taste the difference of their produce from any other. I am really pleased to know that they sell their products to Farmer's Markets and I shall look for them there, also.

  • We all need to understand the importance of eating foods without chemical pesticides for our health! If it is possible to grow healthy produce we must support all efforts to do so.

Thank you.

Thank you! I learned so much as well. I appreciate the positive comment.

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