Standing in the shade of a lone California pepper tree, Michael Clark takes a rare moment to reflect on his family’s 130-acre organic vegetable and berry farm.
A fourth-generation farmer at J.R. Organics in Escondido, California, Clark recalls how his late grandfather, Joe Rodriguez Sr., cultivated his first crop in the days when chemical companies “told farmers what they wanted to hear, with promises of doubling and tripling yields.”
A livelihood reliant on toxic chemicals felt like an oxymoron to Joe Jr. After suffering the effects of pesticide exposure, which included a visit to the emergency room, Joe Jr. urged his father to try organic.
“It took some convincing,” Clark admits. They agreed to a 5-acre trial, which expanded to 20. After the crops thrived, Joe Sr. converted the entire farm.
Certified organic since 1986, J.R. Organics grows more than 100 organic vegetable varieties, as well as strawberries and blackberries. The extended family pitches in on weekends, selling at 17 regional farmers markets. Produce is also distributed through retailers like Jimbo’s and to several hundred CSA members.
The Southern California climate accommodates nearly year-round production. Amid the farm’s rolling terrain, a strawberry patch flourishes where lettuce was harvested just a few years before. The strawberry plants will stay in the ground for several years before a different crop takes its place. The nutrients left behind from each crop will enrich the soil and discourage insects.
As crops are rotated, weeds that support soil microbial communities are allowed to flourish. Tractor attachments are then used to bury these beneficial plants and cultivate the ground.
Clark credits the soil, along with a homemade compost concoction (created by Joe Jr. and nicknamed “Black Gold”), for the farm’s exceptionally flavorful products.
Like all organic farmers, they are constantly competing with conventional operations that use harmful chemicals to produce cheaper food. Clark is keenly aware of the investment that organic farmers make to produce a better, safer product. “It’s not a gimmick. It’s the cleanest food you can buy.”
He recalls the recession in the 2000s, when he was just out of high school. The farm’s production was dwindling, but Clark persevered, seeing the potential in local farmers markets and convincing the family to focus on building a loyal customer base.
The result is one of Southern California’s most celebrated organic produce farms, a testament to planning, grit, and knowledge. “Organic farming is the future,” Clark says. “Many of us have awakened to the fact that we don’t need to use toxic chemicals to produce the best food. We just have to keep our eyes open and our hearts big — taking care of each other and the land.”