As a tribute to this wonderful lifestyle we lead in the Santa Ynez Valley we will be running a series of articles over the next few months highlighting the culture that is the SYV.
Chris and Johanna Finley, of Finley Farm, reside in Santa Ynez with their two children, (a third on the way), two dogs, two cats and a handful of chickens. We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Johanna Finley. We chatted over coffee and learned about their journey to becoming one of the most successful and popular organic farms in the Santa Ynez Valley.
SYVWC: Ok, let’s start with the obvious question…How did you become farmers?
JF: In college (UCSB), Chris and I worked for a peach grower. I did their marketing and sold peaches at the farmer’s market in Santa Barbara. We did this all through college and when we graduated we worked the job fulltime. We managed all the Santa Barbara markets and drove back and forth to Fresno to pick up the fruit. Chris was also working for another farmer and doing their Hollywood farmer’s market. As we saw all of their incomes, none of the expenses of course, we thought, ‘Oh, we can do this’. Chris has a green thumb and we had always gardened, so we set out and rented an acre in El Capitan Canyon.
SYVWC: What did you grow?
JF: We grew everything to make salsa. Farmer’s markets are extremely hard to get in to and we knew they wouldn’t just let us in with just tomatoes, or other individual vegetables. So, we grew everything for salsa. We would harvest it and take it to a certified kitchen that night, make salsa, amazing salsa, and take it the next morning and sell it all at market. It was tough and not profitable, but it was a great learning experience and we decided that for sure, we wanted to farm more. So, we took a drive to the Santa Ynez Valley because farmland is so hard to come by on the coast. Water can be an issue as well. So, we thought, let’s go look for proper ag (agricultural) land and see what happens. Within a week, we had rented a house on a three acre plot. It had just been horse pastures and the owners said we could farm it and so we did. We jumped in feet first and went for it. We were still working for the other farmers, but within less than a year, we were only farming for ourselves. Self-employed! We got into the Hollywood market and our main crop was heirloom tomatoes. That was 2004, and we have just grown and expanded from there. We were doing other smaller markets, including Solvang. Solvang market was one of our very first markets, and we are still there today.
SYVWC: So that was the initial goal, just grow a little every year?
JF: We never really had any clear cut “goals”. It was more like, ‘Ok, this is working’. And every year we just saved up money to expand acreage or purchase seeds or equipment. We would harvest what we had, literally load it into the truck and drive to the back doors of local restaurants here in the valley and ask for the chef. We were so excited when we’d sell six bunches of dill! We were able to start creating accounts for ourselves this way.
SYVWC: Doesn’t get much more grass roots than that. Such a sense of community in that.
JF: Yes! And that’s basically how it started.
SYVWC: Why organic?
JF: Um, well, why not organic? You know, organic is…..People think it’s such a different, special thing, and it definitely is special, but it’s really just old fashioned. Back in the day there were no large corporate chemical companies and organic was just the way people farmed. So that’s one way we like to l look at it. We aren’t trying to be elitists or exclude certain people from being able to buy our food or anything like that. It’s just natural and we are the ones doing the farming. We don’t want to be exposed to that kind of thing. We also like to be good stewards of the land. We like to practice crop rotation and proper farming techniques for soil health and the sustainability of the land we work.
SYVWC: What are the biggest challenges in farming, and owning a small business in general?
JF: The biggest challenge with farming is that we are self taught. We do not come from farming backgrounds, so everything we’ve learned about farming we have taught ourselves. We have definitely had advice along the way, but no two farms are alike and you have to figure out your own methods of cultivation and farming practices. The man hours are endless, so we are always pursuing more efficient methods. Owning a small business has its separate challenges as well, but mostly they are confined to office time. It’s just finding the time for office time and that is a huge challenge in itself.
SYVWC: So, I guess the biggest daily challenges are similar. Time?
JF: Yes, the workload….the hours…
Check back next week as we wrap up our conversation with Johanna!