Meet our farm partner Jay Ruskey of Good Land Organics. Jay is an innovative, first-generation farmer based in Southern California. We recently interviewed Jay about his unique background and inventive approach to growing food, and we are pleased to share his story with our readers. Words by Jonnah Perkins, a writer, farmer and food activist based in southern Wisconsin.
This story is the first in a series of awe-inspiring, editorial content we’re proud to publish. At FruitStand, we send out journalists and photographers to get the true story behind the food, connect you with the extraordinary farmers, and introduce you to their craft that beautifully blends art and science to produce something wonderful - and something worth sharing.
Finding a holistic balance between the business of agriculture and the production of agriculture
Growing up in southern California, Jay always had a connection to his natural surroundings, both on land and at sea, as a surfer. He followed his curiosity for working with plants to an agriculture business program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. After he learned that he was most drawn to farm production, he shifted into a horticulture track, which also wasn’t the perfect fit for Jay.
“I don't like to spell long Latin words. I started thinking about plant identification and was like, I don't want to do this." I started to fight with the deans about, "Hey, I want to grow ag. What is ag?”
Jay answered his own questions when he and his parents found the Good Land Organics property in 1990. He realized that he could learn about fruit production while learning the ins and outs of the fruit business at the same time. With the real-world context of managing a farm, Jay has become a leader in his region. He now supports other farmers in introducing new crops into their farms, establishing new markets and trialing unique fruit varieties.
Thinking three dimensionally
In farmer speak, we hear the word acre tossed around to quantify the productive potential of the land. How much can we grow on X amount of acres? Jay doesn’t just look left and right, he also looks up and down.
Jay remembers the impetus for reframing his farming strategy into a three dimensional mindset:
“Years ago we got into a water restricted time. I started looking at farming more in cubic meters, cubic spaces.”
This led Jay to experiment with interplanting to create windbreaks and canopies. Jay talks about the benefits of having multi-layered companion crops together:
“We found efficiencies in labor. Avocados got better. The coffee was better protected from wind and other elements that come in California. Overall, we look at a more productive state of being per acre or per cubic area. We know that we're even bringing in some soil benefits.”
By bringing in more diversity into each cubic yard, the farmer has built-in agility in unpredictable markets, as well as physical protection in extreme environmental conditions.
Jay on multi-story perennial crop systems: “It actually reduces the risk to the farmer by having multi-crops not only from dealing with the risks in the market changes, but also in creating a resilient system of farming to deal with the windier conditions that we get through a La Nina year or hail.”
Finding a community of unique fruit growersKristen reflects on the origins of Jay’s path to rare fruit varieties
“It started that there were cherimoyas on this farm. Those are native to the coastal Andes. I think when Jay started to farm it as a college student, it took a lot of effort to learn this plant and how to make the best of this fruit. He joined the California Rare Fruit Growers. They are a group of people that are passionate about the idea that everything that is in your backyard should produce food for you; and exotic food at that.
“Most of the varieties that the California Rare Fruit Growers are producing are things that a lot of grocery stores would never see. But that group of people helped to introduce Jay to a lot of the contacts that supported his path. Which led to getting started with lychees, longans, pitaya and passion fruit.”
What’s the big deal with soil?
Soil is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reasons. Science is now showing that organic agriculture, and regenerative practices in particular, are doing more than growing great food that is healthy for people; they are sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. According to the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, limiting soil-disturbing activities improves soil carbon retention and minimizes carbon emissions from soils. Orcharding is a perennial system, which means that the trees stay put for years, eliminating the need for soil disturbance.
In addition to holding carbon in place, complex soil biology also increases water holding capacity, which is very important in water restricted areas. Jay talks about why measuring soil quality is so important in his production, “Generally, from the practical sense, we look at how we can increase water holding capacities of soils, which usually is related to organic matter. Now that we have high spectrum testing, we can see what are the beneficial microorganisms that are changing in the soil. We can also get a look at the carbon sequestration. Every day it's more carbon talk. As we know, perennial crops do a good job of sinking the carbon in the soil.”
Jay on California water access, water rights, and the value of taking care of soil
“Geologically speaking, California is super unique because it has ways to store water. That's what water rights are built on, storage and distribution from snowpack, rivers, and aquifers. Our farm has rights to a large 350,000 acre lake, which we have gravity fed to us.
“It's crazy how much water wheeling is done in this state and how people have been pretty innovative on how they get their water. What that leads to is how you become the most efficient and effective. That's why our layered system of farming more densely - layering in and protecting from wind while building soils that can hold water and nutrition - is so important. When water gets scarce it then becomes a water quality issue. Before a drought or when waters get scarce, water quality drops. The salts will kill the plants before they actually run out of water or become unproductive. You have to be quite a bit of a water chemist to grow anything in California.”
How does Good Land Organics irrigate their fruit trees?
- Water leaves Lake Cachuma and piped through the Santa Ynez Mountains to Good Land Organics
- The Cachuma water get integrated into the irrigations system with regulators and automated controllers
- Pumps pull water from a well and can blend with the Cachuma water.
- Depending on the trees and terrain, drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers saturate soil specifically around the trees.
- Mulch is used to help retain water soil moisture creating microbial diversity as part of the overall irrigation strategy
A decade of getting caviar limes ready for marketGrowing fruit isn’t as easy as picking a piece of fruit off a tree. There are years of development and production trial and error along the way. With rare or heirloom varieties, when the trees are finally fruiting, the farmer often needs to teach their community what is so great about this unique fruit. Jay talks about the path of his limes,
“Caviar limes took me 10 years from introductions, planning to grow them, on to four years of virus screening, then two years of rootstock development, and four years of growing - all before our first crop. That was a long haul. But I like that by being at farmers' markets, you get to meet the customers...and chefs! In restaurants, everybody's trying to garnish with something new.”
Getting caviar limes from the farm to the plate - or margarita glassKristen talks about her process for lime harvest and handling
“There is a lot of hands-on work here. You have to have a perfect knowledge of exact ripeness, and there’s a lot of training involved. That's why we're really grateful to keep employees year-round, because we can just continue to train and learn together.
“For the person who's harvesting, they will get an idea of what our sales are for the next week then we'll go out across our farm and a neighboring farm of about 1,400 caviar lime trees, and begin the harvest process. The trees are quite prickly! When the limes come into the barn we start to sort the fruit based on quality and separate apart leaves and branches. Then we use the Organic Apeel solution from Apeel Sciences to spray onto the fruit to give extended life to the skin, so that it doesn't lose moisture.
“Caviar limes are a long lasting fruit already. But with the Organic Apeel, it gives them quite a few more days of shelf-life. Then they go into the cooler. Within a day to three days from harvest we'll be packaging the limes and shipping them out all over the country.”
Farming between the ocean and the mountainsThe farmers on growing food in one of the most beautiful places in the world
Kristen: We are up in the foothills about three miles up above the ocean. It is a windy, steep road to get here. As you get to the farm, you'll have views of the ocean and the Channel islands facing down towards the coast. Then straight up from the farm, you've got the Los Padres National Forest right above us. It's all hills. It's mostly hand labor and there's not a lot of tractorable locations on this farm.
Jay: The coastal influence in the summer makes it possible. It can be 100 degrees five miles away but it's 75 degrees up here. Our location is very distinctive and allows us to grow those subtropical fruits and even beyond the avocados and lemons. This is classic California terrain.
Citizen in CommandWildfire is an environmental reality of agriculture in California. In 2020, according to CAL FIRE, the California Department of Forestry and Wildlife Protection, more than 4.2 million acres of land was burned; much of that in agricultural areas.
Kristen talks about the threat of fire as a real factor in their operation, “It's something that we prepare for and think through very thoroughly. We have a very detailed list of what we would evacuate if we come to that moment. Some instances of fire in this community, people haven't had time to move their things out of the way. But we've evacuated just myself and my kids and our pets off of this hill here.
“Jay is usually staying behind and working with fire crews directly, because he knows the road systems of all of the farms that are back this way. He can be a point person. They actually have given him the title of Citizen in Command. They've given him the yellow jacket and the walkie-talkie. He will basically advise on all the water systems back here, as well as knowing the topography and where the bulldozers might want to cut a fire break.
“It's exhaustive work, 24/7. Some of these fire events are two weeks long. Jay will be up here all night, seven days a week. But we have had fires burn around the perimeter in the Los Padres, around the perimeter of our farm but we have luckily not seen actual fires come to our land or our neighbor's land as of yet.”
According to Jay, “If you want to be a farmer in southern California, you’ve got to be a firefighter.
That's what it comes down to. It's a very interesting complexity of the farms in southern California. It's part of our landscape.”
The silver lining of the pandemic
COVID-19 created an unprecedented crisis in the national and global food system. Many areas of agriculture experienced crushing bottlenecks in their distribution models. Kristen points out that being niche fruit producers gave them the opportunity to be nimble in a chaotic time:
“The COVID year has been an interesting experience because so many of the traditional channels weren't buying anymore. It became much more of a direct to consumer type of world. For our farm in particular, because we are a niche producer and because we've had some outlets like FruitStand who have a direct communication with the customer. We've been doing a lot more individual smaller orders and sending them off to consumers all over the country.”
jonnahperkins.com IG @_.jonnah
Jonnah Perkins is a writer, farmer, and food activist. After over a decade in organic agriculture, her passion for food has spilled into understanding the lives and work of farmers and food specialists around the world. Her curiosity is focused on the intersection of agriculture, environmentalism, food procurement, and adventure. Jonnah writes for national and global organizations and publications including Patagonia, Whalebone, BESIDE, Savory Institute, USDA, and The Drake.