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OPN Connect Newsletter 232 · August 26, 2021

Third-Generation Watsonville Farmer Starts “True Harvest” Label


In late November of last year, Watsonville grower Sun Valley Farms filed the paperwork for a DBA to start a new label—True Harvest. 

The idea was the brainchild of Rogelio Ponce Jr., Sun Valley Farms’ president. A series of events the previous year had gotten him thinking about the possibility of selling other growers’ organic produce, and he realized that creating a separate label would be the best way to do it.

Stemilt October 2021

Rogelio Ponce Jr., Rogelio Ponce Sr., and Steven Ponce, Sun Valley Farms

The new True Harvest label currently represents about six to eight small organic farms—and more will be added in the near future. Rogelio sells True Harvest’s produce to the online grocer Good Eggs, and he will soon start selling to Vesta Foodservice as well. True Harvest’s crops include chard, kale, broccoli, celery, lettuce, fennel, sunchokes, cabbage, raspberries, strawberries, and more.

The new True Harvest label currently represents about six to eight small organic farms—and more will be added in the near future.

Rogelio is a third-generation grower. His paternal grandfather was a migrant farmer who eventually settled with his family in Watsonville in the ‘50s and worked as a sharecropper on about 2-5 acres for a major berry operation. Rogelio’s father, Rogelio Ponce Sr., became an employee at the same company, starting as an irrigator in the strawberry fields and eventually working his way up to general manager of berry production. In the late ‘80s, Rogelio Sr. decided to go out on his own and sold his home to get the working capital to start Sun Valley Berries (now Sun Valley Farms), which became a contract grower for a large berry company. 

Wish Farms October 2021

While Rogelio Jr. had no intentions of going into ag when he was growing up—his plan was to become a financial consultant in New York City—he says he just couldn’t escape his roots. “The more I tried to separate myself from it, the more it called me,” he says. He ended up joining the company in 2002, shortly after graduating from San Jose State with a degree in finance. 

Rainbow chard field, Sun Valley Farms, Watsonville, CA

In 2010, Sun Valley got its start in organics, contract growing organic strawberries on the Ponce family’s 40-acre ranch in Aromas, an unincorporated community outside Watsonville. It was a decision made by Rogelio and his younger brother Steven, who had joined the company in 2003. “We felt like we needed to diversify the business,” Rogelio explains.

Starr October 2021

Then a few years later, in 2013, Sun Valley had a very rough year due to high labor costs and a relatively weak berry market. To stay afloat, the Ponce family realized they needed to diversify again, so they decided to try their hand at growing organic vegetables on their home ranch in Aromas.

Sun Valley Farms' organic raspberries

In 2010, Sun Valley Farms got its start in organics, contract growing organic strawberries on the Ponce family’s 40-acre ranch in Aromas, an unincorporated community outside Watsonville.

Chelan October 2021

Rogelio still remembers bringing his first few crates of radishes to sell to a nearby organic grower-shipper. “Ugliest radishes in my life” he says with a chuckle. “The tops weren't even that good.” But the radishes ended up making the grade, and Rogelio returned home with a modest check—and Sun Valley has been growing organic vegetables ever since.

Cheddar/orange cauliflower, Sun Valley Farms, Watsonville, CA

Because Sun Valley Farms wasn’t bound by a contract for its vegetables, it was able to sell them directly to a variety of retail and wholesale customers. And at the end of 2019, the Ponce family decided to go independent with their berries as well, so they didn’t renew their contract with the large berry company they had been growing for for well over a decade.

NatureSafe October 2021

In 2020, Sun Valley Farms entered into an exclusive sales agreement (for the Sun Valley label) with San Francisco wholesaler Earl’s Organic Produce, who had been a customer of its organic vegetables for several years at that point. Sun Valley now only grows organic produce, and its crops include kale, chard, colored cauliflowers, cilantro, broccoli, beets, turnips, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, strawberries, raspberries, and more.

Rogelio says he chose to shift Sun Valley to an all-organic operation because he found a sense of community and appreciation in the organic world. “[It] just felt like a home—like welcome home!” he says. “A lot of the people who buy organics recognize the effort and the time and energy and see the value in the hard work that the farmer puts into growing organically. When I get an email from someone that says, ‘You guys did a really good job,’ it reinvigorates me, my family, and my employees.”

Sun Valley now only grows organic produce, and its crops include kale, chard, colored cauliflowers, cilantro, broccoli, beets, turnips, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, strawberries, raspberries, and more.

Growers Ice Co October 2021

This spring, Rogelio expanded Sun Valley’s growing operation, leasing 48 acres on Watsonville Slough Farm, an organic property owned by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. In his office, he keeps a picture of the first Swiss chard harvested off the new acreage. “I have it on the wall because I'm so proud of [it],” he says, “It looks beautiful!”

Photo in Rogelio’s office of Sun Valley’s first chard harvest from Watsonville Slough Farm

The True Harvest label, which Rogelio founded last fall, began gaining momentum at the beginning of this year when nonprofits like the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA), and the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) started referring him small organic growers. (Rogelio has been a board member of both CAFF and KTA since 2020.)

Jacobs Farm October 2021

“A lot of the people who buy organics recognize the effort and the time and energy and see the value in the hard work that the farmer puts into growing organically. When I get an email from someone that says, ‘You guys did a really good job,’ it reinvigorates me, my family, and my employees.” – Rogelio Ponce Jr.

In addition to sending him growers, CAFF also introduced Rogelio to True Harvest’s first customer—Good Eggs. “We were immediately drawn to Rogelio’s community-minded outlook on how he developed his business,” says Ben Hartman, Good Eggs’ senior category manager for perishables. “Through the success of his family's Sun Valley label, Rogelio clearly understands the importance of postharvest handling and the marketing side of the business.” 

“Rogelio created the True Harvest label to provide critical infrastructure and relationships for smaller growers so that they could find the same success he's been fortunate enough to have, while keeping their focus on growing, harvesting, and packing,” says Hartman. “By partnering with True Harvest, we're able to help Rogelio in his mission to enable everyone in our greater community to flourish."

Green chard field, Sun Valley Farms, Watsonville, CA

"Rogelio created the True Harvest label to provide critical infrastructure and relationships for smaller growers so that they could find the same success he's been fortunate enough to have." -Ben Hartman

“I'm very much about paying it forward,” Rogelio says. “I just feel like it's the right thing to do. A lot of the True Harvest growers are like my father was almost 30 years ago. They're trying to establish their family, and they're trying to lay down their roots, and they're trying to start their personal little legacy.”

Lakeside October 2021
Ocean Mist October 2021
Growers Ice Co October 2021
Organic Grower Summit October 2021

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