OPN Connect chatted with Javier Zamora, Owner of JSM Organic Farms, and he shared his journey to becoming an organic leader and his vision for the future of organic farming.
OPN Connect: Your agricultural roots stretch back to Mexico. What shaped your early agricultural experiences?
I come from a farming family in Mexico. My father worked for an American company that grew pickling cucumbers and melons. I remember my father coming home with honeydew melons and they tasted SO GOOD. Nobody in my area knew what they were and just fed them to the cows.
I went to a middle school that had an Ag component. At that school we had a five acre plot and every student who wanted to participate was given 600 square feet to do whatever we wanted with it. I grew carrots and chards, so very early on I already knew what rainbow chard was!
Later I worked in the strawberry fields in Michoacán owned by large conventional growers.
I came to the states when I was 20 years old. I landed in LA and I went into the restaurant industry, I washed dishes, worked at night clubs. I noticed that America was made and up of different culinary components. So really early on I understood how America was a melting pot with different ways of behaving.
I was lucky to land in a neighborhood where I learned English and I was disciplined, so after bartending I ended up managing many places in food services. We were doing well as a family, we bought properties but then in the housing crash of 2008 we lost everything.
OPN Connect: Was that the turning point in your life that redirected you back to agriculture?
Yes, the recession was and I am glad it all happened although it was very frustrating at the time my world had ended. And I had two girls and a beautiful wife.
My wife had a relative in Tracy, CA so we moved and rented a two bedroom apartment there. I decided to go out and get my GED and one of my instructors said “you are smarter than most and you should go to college”. In August 2009 I went to Delta College and took horticulture classes.
I was working full time while taking 18 units in school so I was very busy. In 2011 I came to the Watsonville area and worked for a flower grower. I went to Cabrillo College and my teacher, Sean Sweezy said “you have to check out ALBA. They do beautiful things for aspiring growers who want to own their own business.”
I went to ALBA and I was part of the 2011 PEPA class and graduated in 2012, the same time I graduated from Cabrillo. I started my own farm on April 26 2012 with 1.5 acre of certified organic land. I did it alone & on the weekend my wife and girls would drive over from Tracy to help me.
Soon I leased another 2 acres from ALBA and I hired my first employee. By the end of 2012 I leased a total of six acres. In 2013 I took over another 18 acres from a private investor, then in 2014 another 30 acres.
In 2017 I was able to buy some land with a house. I was a lucky guy to be able to buy it with the help of FSA, Farm Link and RSF, who all came together to help put the loan together.
OPN Connect: How big is JSM Organic Farms today?
Today I have over 25 employees, one third are year round workers. My season starts in March and ends in November so I am able to employ my crew longer than anyone else because of my diverse production from green beans, squash, strawberries and lots of flowers.
I don’t grow for anyone but my customers; I have my own label, food safety, insurance. From the very beginning I wanted to make sure I wasn’t held responsible to anyone but myself.
I make sure that my crew is taken care of because they are one that makes things happen. They get paid well between $12.50- $18.00 per hour which is unheard of on most farms.
Our products go directly to local independent smaller retail stores that are interested in a sustainable food chain. They understand what it really takes to grow the food and they are willing to pay us a really fair price.
I work with a few distributors. For instance we have 30 acres of strawberries and have a great distributor in San Francisco - Earls Organics - who takes them and pays us well.
I am part of the CCOF Central Coast family of farmers who really embraced me. Dale & Christine Coke from Coke Farms and Phil Foster are my hero’s - many of the things I do I learned from Phil Foster.
It’s my life, my story and I feel am really blessed. Every chance I have I give back to the community!
OPN Connect: You are very active in the organic community. Where do you serve and why is it important?
It’s important because when I first came here during the financial crisis it was difficult to get started, it looks beautiful now but then it was very challenging. My credit was shot, I couldn’t start my farm, I had no equipment, and I couldn’t find land.
Now that I have this network of people I know how to go out & source things I want to make sure that I give beginning growers advice. So I have several small growers that I mentor.
After losing the whole enchilada life has given me a new perspective. Giving back to the community is a big component to my operation and gives me personal satisfaction making sure others have success.
I sit on ALBA board, Eco-Farm Board, CCOF Central Coast Chapter, Pajaro Valley Water Agency (I am the only grower on this board) and on the USDA Small Farmer and Rancher Advisory Committee.
I love what I do and am always willing to step up and help others.
OPN Connect: What do you see for the future or organic fresh produce from a growers perspective?
I have tons of things to do but I want to make sure new people get involved in Ag. I’m no spring chicken and I don’t see a bunch of kids coming in…. who’s going to grow our food in the future?
I would also like to see more people helping organizations such as ALBA, EFA and Farmlink whose goals are to create successful farmers.
Now that I have extra land, I lease a little out to four new small growers from the ALBA program. This gives them some acreage to begin and they are really eager to make it happen.
We all should make it easier for anyone who wants to farm to get going. We must start a new generation of organic growers. Let’s put some eggs in those little baskets!