Farming family turns roadside stand into education attraction
July/Aug. 2005 California Country magazine
By Ching Lee
Robert Ramming runs a "pick-your-own produce" roadside stand alongside a strawberry patch, an apricot orchard, and a variety of vegetables—all organically grown.
When people ask Robert Ramming whether farming is hard work, the Yolo County farmer likes to say, "No, it's easy. You just throw the seeds out there and let nature take its course, and then everybody comes and gives you money and hauls the stuff away. You should try it."
Most people know he's being facetious, but they ask because they are often boggled by what he and his family alone have accomplished on their 40-acre farm in Woodland. For today's standards, 40 acres is small for a farm, but for the Rammings, it is the right size for a family farm that has also become a community roadside attraction.
"We're big for a garden, but we're tiny for a farm, so we're looking for our niche," said Ramming, who runs the farm with his wife, Debbie, and their four children, whose ages range from 13 to 21.
That niche happens to be Pacific Star Gardens, a "pick-your-own produce" roadside stand alongside a strawberry patch, an apricot orchard, and plots of tomatoes, melons and a variety of vegetables all organically grown.
As the federal government urges Americans to control their bulging waistlines and improve their health by eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, it is no wonder that more customers are finding their way to the Rammings' roadside farm in search of the very foods being recommended by the government's newly updated food pyramid.
They're rediscovering how good fruits and vegetables taste when they are picked ripe and eaten straight from the tree and vine, Ramming said.
Roadside stands may be common sightings in rural California, but "you-pick" fields are now rare, said Ramming. Commercial farms today tend to be on a much larger scale, and many farmers choose to sell their goods wholesale rather than retail directly to individual consumers, as the Ramming family does.
Robert Ramming grew up on a farm in Santa Barbara County during the "back to the land" movement in the 1970s, but he didn't start farming as a business until 1994. Initially, he grew strictly organic tomatoes for wholesale marketing. After three years, however, he realized that his farm was not large enough and couldn't produce the volume needed to remain viable.
"For tiny acreages like ours, there's no way you can make a living wholesaling," he said. "You produce so little that if just one customer says, Oh, nothing this week. We'll call you next week,' and you have a highly perishable product like ripe cantaloupe, well, you just lost your profit margin for the year."
The roadside stand evolved by way of a little lemonade stand that his children had set up on the farm. When customers got wind of the homegrown tomatoes that were growing in the fields, they were no longer buying just lemonade.
"It's funny, but we had harvested lots of tomatoes and boxed them up to sell to wholesalers, and in the meantime, there was this line of people at our stand buying tomatoes," he said.
To make ends meet, the Rammings also hit the farmers' market circuit, where they built a steady following and sold more tomatoes.
"At that point it became real obvious we had to go one way or the other," said Ramming.
They decided to shrink back and focus on the farmers' markets and roadside sales. In doing so, the Rammings were able to scale back production and reduce their overhead dramatically. They also focused on producing items that people would drive miles to get, produce that the Rammings would enjoy growing and eating, too.
Ramming began experimenting with strawberries, a crop that could be harvested before the tomato season. But the strawberries deteriorated too quickly sitting out in the heat, and people often wanted to pick fresher ones, he said.
"That's when the light went on in our head: you-pick," said Ramming.
Since then, Pacific Star Gardens has become a favorite destination for loyal customers and passers-by seeking the fresh pick of the season. In addition, it is a recurring educational tour stop for schoolchildren learning about agriculture and life in the country. Ramming said the tours enable him not only to educate the children about farming, but also to inform the adults who accompany them.
"It gives me a chance to get on my soapbox about agland preservation and urban limits and the politics of water," he said. "People just don't know a whole lot about agriculture, and this gives us a good chance to do a lot of education."
Marty Kelly Nugent, one of the Rammings' regular customers, was picking strawberries on a day when a group of second-graders from César Chávez Elementary School in Davis was touring the farm. She said it was wonderful to see the children partaking in an activity that educates them about where their food comes from.
"This farm is a kind of community effort in that it invites the public in to share," she said. "It's an organic consciousness and it's a wonderful thing to share that with the community."
Shulamit Glazerman of Davis said she has been frequenting the Rammings' farm for the past five years and considers the experience "the highlight of the year."
With a stroller in one hand and her 9-month-old son, Eitan, in the other, Glazerman joined in the treasure hunt with her 3-year-old daughter Leah, 5-year-old son Hillel, and 4-year-old neighbor Serafina Hilliard.
"The kids love it," Glazerman said. "The strawberries are fresh and they're organic, and it's a great activity for the kids.
"When the weather is good, we come out once a week," said Glazerman, adding that the Rammings' farm is the first and only "you-pick" farm she's ever visited.
Ramming said the "you-pick" concept is a way for small farmers to reduce labor and harvesting costs while providing customers the freshest, ripest produce. He hopes it catches on.
"This is almost a retro' thing, a novelty," he said. "People maybe feel too urban and want to have the fun of going out in the garden and picking fresh stuff. They really don't have the time to grow their own, but they still want the experience. I think it's a real primal thing. It's hard-wired into us."
He said he would like to expand the "you-pick" farm, but realizes that would mean setting consistent hours of operation and hiring someone to tend the stand, which is currently on a self-serve honor system. Although he has not experienced any major theft or crime, petty vandalism incidents have occurred, and he knows that he has missed potential sales opportunities. But for the most part, he said, his customers have been generous and respectful because the hard work that he puts into his farm is evident to them.
"It's nice when they pay you a big chunk of money for what you're doing, but that can't be everything," he said. "Sharing it with a whole community just feels better. That's a nice emotional value to me. It makes me feel like I'm providing for a lot of people. I like showing them what we do and sharing it with people."
(Ching Lee is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)