Vic Smith calls himself the “unlikely farmer.” As a 1970 University of Colorado graduate, he said the goal for his class was “to be more radical then Berkley.”
“I studied economics and business law, not farming.”
Tonya Antle for OPN Connect: What put you on the path of organics?
Vic Smith: Quite honestly, we looked at organics as a marketing opportunity. We weren’t drawn to it from an innate desire to be organic, but thought this might be an opportunity for us to grow something and differentiate ourselves from the rest of the farming pack. So, we decided to give it a try.
Tonya: How many years have you been growing organics?
Vic Smith: Twenty plus years. We started our first organic operation in El Toro, San Luis, Mexico (a farming area across the border from Yuma, AZ). Within a year, we had purchased an organic carrot operation from a terrific farmer in Colorado who was ahead of his time. His carrots tested so high in beta carotene that they became known as the “Super Carrot”.
Tonya: A lot of growers tell me that there are practices within organic farming that are now employed in conventional agriculture. Have you seen that transition where you can utilize some of those techniques on your conventional crops?
Vic Smith: A key technique used by both conventional and organic is to focus on the soil. I’ve always wondered how we can use some of the tools in organic that we use in conventional, especially on the mechanical side to make precise rows to laser level so that we can irrigate properly and get a uniform crop. Irrigation is where we make mistakes in farming. It’s either too little or too much. Another example is better cultivation and more precise planting techniques—necessary for the Tender Leaf program — to make the perfect bed to produce the highest quality product possible. The best farmers in Yuma were the ones who were fanatical about this precision. The beds were perfect.
In organic, we learned early on that we had to build that soil as the foundation. On the conventional side, we’re just mining the soil. We were just taking out and not paying attention to microorganisms and not seeing the holistic side of it. We never thought about the life of the soil, it was just a plant holder.
Tonya: What were the early days in organics like?
Vic Smith: When I originally got involved in this, I asked for a lot of advice. I asked questions like ‘Why is it so hard to grow organic?’ They answered, ‘You’re taking away all the focused fertilization and prescriptive insecticides and fungicides’, so we had to take a different approach. We hired a consultant, Amigo Bob, who gave us a presentation on how to build the soil with compost. We did it right and spent money we didn’t have and built a composting operation. It became the learning curve on building the soil and understanding the environment and made us converts. I always had skeptical thinking, like, how many units of nitrogen are you putting on? The usual conventional response was about 250 units. We talked to an organic guy who said he uses about 75 to 80 units and the crop was outstanding, so I thought, ‘no way’. I remember Drew Goodman, founder of Earthbound Farm, saying, ‘Look, conventional farming in the long term is more expensive and organic farming in the long run is less expensive.’ In a ten-year timeframe, I looked at the first five years and didn’t know anyone could make that many mistakes. Fortunately, we rode the coattails of Earthbound. They were growing and needed more production and were very understanding about our mistakes. We held true to the plan because we wanted to become certified. We heard that CCOF was the best certification agency so we started with CCOF right from the start.
Tonya: Organic has been growing in double-digit numbers. Were you growing at that same pace?
Vic Smith: Absolutely. We farm 23,000 acres total and are about 42 percent organic. In the next three years we’ll farm about 25,000 acres and be 50 percent organic. I love organic and think it’s amazing what we can create organically, but I don’t ever negate conventional. It’s still very strong healthy food. When I compare the two, in my heart, I like the organic better because I feel better about it. I know what we did to produce it and what we did to get that land to produce what it’s producing.
Tonya: When a “farmer” is referred to, people feel good about what image this conjures up, but the word “agribusiness” has a negative connotation. How do we change this dynamic?
Vic Smith: People are nostalgic about when life was better. They think about “the farmer.” He worked hard, got up early and grew food for us. Those values are still there in agriculture. Even though we have an office instead of a pickup truck, most of us are still farmers at heart. We’re committed to producing healthy nutritious food from the environment. We’re learning that we don’t have to put anywhere near the insecticides or fertilizers on crops. More is not better. There has been a transference of knowledge.
Tonya: As urbanization grows and as generations get further away from the farm, there is a loss of information transference and positive images of farming. I just learned that the average age of an organic farmer is 60 to 65. So, how do we get the next generation back?
Vic Smith: It’s a trend that agriculture isn’t sexy or attractive as it may have been in the past. The 1970’s was a different era. I still think we will bring good talented people into the industry because there are still great opportunities. There can only be so many new social networks. I see a great trend in my children who are Millennials. They respect the environment and want us to leave the planet in better shape than we found it. They’ll be drawn more to opportunities in production of healthy foods. Millennials want to understand where their food comes from and have access to instant information. This will draw that interest by top talent. We pay wages comparatively very well. It’s not a Silicon Valley startup where you may become a billionaire, but we also offer tremendous job satisfaction. You’re feeding the world!
OPN Connect: What’s the one thing you wish you could’ve done differently?
Vic Smith: The first three-to-five years, we made a great many mistakes. That rings true for my life, too. I’ve heard the old cliché that you’re given two ears and one mouth for a reason so you should use these in the right proportion. I wish I’d listened more and sought more counsel from mentors and others who understood rather than saying ‘we know what we’re doing’. Beyond that, too, you can learn so much in trying to apply your craft or profession, but you also need to listen to your customers – including consumers. The retailers are trying to understand their consumers and we need to listen to them. Listening to where you can create value is critical.
Tonya: So, to your point of understanding consumers, has your marketing program become more pull-through than push?
Vic Smith: Absolutely. Just because I’d like to grow 20,000 acres of iceberg doesn’t mean I can ignore the people eating kale and organics. I need to learn how to be great at growing kale and organics.
OPN Connect: What keeps you up at night?
Vic Smith: Historically, food safety issues. We live in this environment like we’re walking on eggs. One outbreak and an entire sector is decimated. Right now, I have to say what’s keeping me up at night is our president.
Tonya: We understand that the National Standards Board is currently reviewing and possibly making recommendations to disallow alternative methods of organic farming like aquaponics, vertical farming, container and hydroponics. What are your thoughts on methods that we considered beyond “the crust of the earth”?
Vic Smith: We’re not limited to growing just in the earth. We can provide more food for people using resources more wisely. While organically building soil is one of the most beautiful things we can do, but if we can grow in more controlled environments and grow closer to the markets and offer that option, then I think we should have the ability to do that. It’s just having more options to meet the need for health nutritious foods. We should use all the options we have at our disposal. We’re not being realistic if we think we’re just limited to the “crust of the earth” and not recognizing advances in technology.
Tonya: It is said, the best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow, so for you Vic, is your best day when it is spent out on your farms?
Vic Smith: You know, there is no way I could have told you when I was 21 years old that I would be where I am today. Yes, the best days I spend are when I’m out walking the fields and the ranches and standing back and recognizing that we as an organization took a piece of stagnant ground where we’ve recreated a beautiful living soil and healthy food. Rather than depleting resources from the earth, we’re conserving those resources and creating a continuous cycle of life. When you stand back and look, I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world.
Vic Smith, CEO and owner of JV Smith Companies, is a second generation and 30-year veteran in the fresh vegetable industry. His father, John B. Smith, started Skyview Cooling after a successful law career in Colorado. JV Farms and Agricola El Toro specialize in winter leafy green vegetables working with major shippers and handlers in California including Dole, Fresh Express, Taylor Farms and Earthbound Farm. Their combined program covers over 23,000 acres which includes 10,000 acres of certified organic vegetables.
Vic grew up in Colorado and now lives with his wife Karen in Yuma, AZ and Carmel Valley, CA.