In Depth: Jeff Larkey, Route 1 Farms

On a warm sunny summer day, we met with Route 1 Farms owner, Jeff Larkey, at his beautiful farm just outside of the City limits. 

Please introduce yourself and what you do.

I am Jeff Larkey owner of Route 1 Farms. I grow 65 acres of mixed vegetables, fresh herbs, and some fruit in Santa Cruz County and market them directly here in Santa Cruz and also ship out of the area.

Why did you choose to have an organic farm in Santa Cruz?

I was living in Santa Cruz basically growing my own food and discovered there there was demand for what I was doing for myself. A farmers market started up nearby, and I started to market my excess produce. Santa Cruz is the perfect climate for growing a wide variety of crops and there was a demand for what I was growing and I thought I could make a living doing this maybe.

Tell us how the business started.

There were five of us that started out here in 1981 on Ocean Street extension, and at the time there were just an handful of organic growers in Santa Cruz. It was right around when the first farmers markets were starting off, which was initially our market. There were also stores selling organic produce at that time, so we started selling to some of the stores locally.

What is your growing season?

The growing season here is potentially year round, depending on the crops you are growing. There are seasonal crops that you have to grow during the summer months, but there are quite a few crops, the mixed vegetables that I grow anyway, that can grow year round. We do cover cropping on most of the ground in the winter because that is part of our rotation, but we do a fair amount of leafy greens and fresh herbs, even some citrus, all through the winter. I grow about 50 different items: herbs, cilantro, basil, parsley, lettuce, spinach, beets, we do some citrus, plums, and some avocados even. And in the summertime we do dry farm tomatoes, peppers, and we are starting to grow paprika.

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Tell us about the start of the organic movement here in Santa Cruz?

In the early days there were just a handful of organic growers in the area. Santa Cruz is really ground zero for the organic movement. California Certified Organic Farming (CCOF) is based here and some of the larger farmers that have converted from conventional to organic agriculture have grown here and are marketing organic produce nationwide. This has really increased the demand and inspired other growers to do what we do here in other places.

What is your relationships with CCOF?

I have been Certified Organic through CCOF since 1988. CCOF, I would say, is probably the flagship certifying organization. They have the highest standards in California. There is a USDA law now which defines what organic is, and CCOF certification goes beyond that. Most farmers growing organic, usually have some bigger picture things in mind in terms of energy use and in terms of ecology. Basically what we are doing is ecological farming, and we are always trying to get better in terms of our impacts and benefits to the community.

What about Santa Cruz inspires you to have your business here?

I started the farm here because I like living and working here for a lot of reasons. I like the natural beauty of the place and also the level of consciousness in the community. Santa Cruz is really like nowhere else in terms of people supporting things like organic agriculture.

What is the biggest benefit to having an organic farm in SC?

I would say the biggest benefit is that the community is very supportive of it. Also, the climate is ideal in terms of being able to grow a wide variety of crops. It is just one of those places with a  combination of good soil, water available-most of the time, a good local market, and it is not too far from larger markets in the Bay Area. And there is a history here as well, there is a lot to fall back on in terms of agricultural history and knowledge that has been developed over the years.

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What is your relationship to the overall organic industry?

When I first started growing it was directly with farmers markets, that was our first outlet. Being able to market directly, at the farmers markets, gives a human face to agriculture and allows us to connect with the community and potentially even educate the community. I work with the Santa Cruz Community Farmers market, and am the board president at the moment. We have developed an educational program to get people to connect with their local foodshed and what goes into growing it, and we also work with local chefs to show people what you can do with the wide variety of crops we can grow here.

How do you connect to the restaurants here in town?

We have a whole group of restaurants that we deal with on a regular basis. They are in tune with what we grow but they also give us a lot of feedback and suggest things for us to grow, things that I would never have considered growing are now part of my main crop lineup. And since we aren’t tied into growing any one crop, or just a handful of crops, we can experiment and work with them as well. Restaurants come to the farmers market to get produce, and we also deliver to some restaurants too. And occasionally we will do farm dinners, where we will have a local chef come out to the farm,and prepare a dinner based on what we grow. It is an opportunity for them to get creative as well.

What opportunities do you see here in the local organic industry?

There isn’t a whole lot of room for additional organic farmers in Santa Cruz because there just isn’t that much more land around. The real opportunity is in the value added, the culinary world, where there is always new kinds of food that aren’t being done. And in the restaurants, the chefs that we have here have a real understanding of the food system and what is available in the season. 

What advice would you give to someone that wanted to start an organic based business.

Well I would advise anybody getting into an organic based business, do your research. You don’t want to make something there isn’t a market already for. As a farmer, I don't plant anything in the ground unless I know already where I am going to sell it in advance. Because there is just too much cost, time, and energy involved in growing a crop, you don’t want to have a whole truck full of something that you have no way to market. Do your marketing research. Talk to stores, talk to restaurants, talk to other farmers. Know what is already being done here. And, try to do something different. That would be my advice.

Where do you see the organic industry going?

I think the organic industry is going mainstream slowly but surely. Being sustainable and ecological and being able to do something far into the future, is always something we had in our mind when we started growing organically. We are looking at how we can have low impact, high output businesses that can continue to feed people into the future in a sustainable way. Sustainability is on everybody’s mind at this point. With all the uncertain changes with the climate, we are going to have to learn how to do things differently then we have in the past. I think organic agriculture is most adapted to doing that because we can grow so many different kinds of things and it actually requires that you grow a diversity of crops. That is part of our sustainability plan is to create a system that works with nature instead of against nature. I think conventional agriculture is going to move more towards the way that real organic farmers operate.

Organic farming is really the only part of agriculture in America that the market is actually growing and demand is increasing at a pretty steady rate. And, I think it will continue to do so into the future.

What is the most exciting thing you are seeing in organic farming?

I think the most exciting thing I am seeing in organic farming, is that it is actually going mainstream. Finally. It has taken 25 years, but I think we have reached that critical mass where people understand healthy eating and people understand that they can actually make a choice with their food dollars in terms of what is being done ecologically on the farm. An awakening is happening now and that is a good thing.  

Anything to add?

This kind of work is great. I feel it is a privilege to be able to do what I do. Farming is a lot of work. You really have to be driven to be a farmer. But for me it is really rewarding to walk through the field and see everything that is coming off and see the fruits of your labor and know that you are feeding a lot of people in a healthy way.

More About Route 1 Farms: 

Our farmland encompasses beautiful coastal valleys along the San Lorenzo River, just outside of downtown Santa Cruz and along Waddell Creek in northern Santa Cruz County. Our mission is to provide our community with high quality, organic produce that is grown in a way that honors the land it is grown on, the people who grow it and the efficient and sustainable processes of production and distribution.

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