The way Adriana Silva of Tomatero Farm in Watsonville sees it, farmers are well placed for precariousness — especially organic farmers. They constantly have to adapt to conditions outside of their control, including droughts and diseases, floods and fires, and pests and predators that can damage produce destined for dining tables.
Silva’s not fazed. “There’s always something. I think farmers are uniquely equipped to deal with everything going wrong,” says the seasoned grower as she surveys the tidy rows of crops at the 100-acre ranch of the farm business she runs with Chris Tuohig, her partner in work and life.
Tuohig is checking on people and plants and fielding messages from supervisors in other fields. A crew of farmworkers picks cauliflower from the rich Pajaro Valley soil. Between the rows, tiny, scented sweet alyssum flowers offer a refuge to beneficial insects.
“We’re always learning how to manage problems. That’s our life,” says Silva, who remains buoyant and optimistic in the face of such obstacles.
Throw a pandemic, a quarantine and the virtual shuttering of the restaurant industry into the mix, and these farmers knew what they needed to do: Switch gears.
♦ Tomatero Farm, Watsonville: 831-334-2403, tomaterofarm.com
“We felt compelled not to abandon our community. We had all this food in the field, people need to eat, and our employees depend on us,” says Silva, who has farmed with Tuohig since 2004, when they started with 2 acres and $3,000 on credit. Some of the crew has been with the farm from the start.
In mid-March they lost most of their restaurant business from around 50 accounts due to shelter-in-place mandates. So in April, Tomatero started selling produce boxes via pop up — literally out of the back of a truck — directly to customers. The boxes cost $20, considered a good value on the community-supported agriculture circuit. A box might include cabbages, salad greens, root vegetables, herbs and strawberries. “We want people to open the box with the expectation that they’re going to find what they need for the week,” says Silva. Tomatero also sells flats of strawberries for $30.
This is a no-frills, temporary deal: no substitutions or customization. Silva and Tuohig say they simply choose what they would want to eat and pick the ripest, freshest most flavorful produce from their fields. The weekly boxes, available for pickup in San Francisco, Oakland, Marin and Campbell, typically sell out.
Three days a week Tomatero hosts farmers’ market stands in San Rafael, San Francisco and Oakland. “Farmers’ markets are the most fun part for me because you get to have that direct connection and reminder every week about how people feel about your food,” says Silva, who handles sales, packing and payroll, while Touhig manages planting, harvesting and farm machinery.
Tomatero — the name means “tomato picker” in Spanish — was named by Silva’s Nicaraguan grandmother back when the couple, who met at a farmers’ market, harvested almost everything by hand themselves, sometimes by headlamp in the early morning on market days. Sixteen years later, the farm includes eight diverse parcels totaling around 200 acres, and more than 60 employees. The land devoted to strawberries, their biggest crop, is a 10-minute drive from their home.
Not that they are there much. “We are working twice as hard for half as much, and we feel lucky we have been able to stay open,” says Silva, whose day starts around 3:30 in the morning.
During the pandemic, Tomatero has partnered with the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, providing hundreds of produce boxes to food-insecure families in Stockton. And it works with Conscious Kitchen in Sausalito to help ensure that low-income residents in Marin City and San Rafael have access to fresh vegetables through a “buy one, give one” produce box program.
“Success isn’t just about the financial side for me. All the community we have — that’s a pretty big deal, and not everyone gets to have that,” says Silva. “I think that’s cool.”