At the foot of the Sierra Nevada
Just 50 minutes by car from the entrance of Sequoia National Park, K & K Ranch, is small by Central Valley standards. 80 acres of owned and leased land planted in dozens of varieties of stone fruit, citrus, pomegranate, persimmon, grapes and nuts, K & K Ranch is under the benevolent watch of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which can be seen from the farmhouse kitchen window.
“Our farm is very beautiful. I used to cry in the car with my uncle on my way home from the farm because I didn't want to leave. We're in the foothills outside a little town called Orosi,”
“Our farm is very beautiful. I used to cry in the car with my uncle on my way home from the farm because I didn't want to leave. We're in the foothills outside a little town called Orosi,” says Kevin Laughlin, co-owner of K & K Ranch. Kevin goes by Kimo to avoid confusion with his business partner and uncle, Kevin Kashima.
According to the United States Geological Survey, the Central Valley provides a quarter of our nation’s food, including 40% of our fruits, nuts and fresh produce, making it one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. This roughly 18,000 square mile basin was once an ancient inland sea that left behind fertile sediment. The semi-arid climate of the Central Valley was made exceedingly arable in 1930’s when hydro engineering made vast quantities of water available for agriculture.
Growing up in a farm family
“I started coming up here with my uncle Kevin when I was five. I would help my uncle and my grandfather Stanford, work the farm. My mother has been doing the farmer's market since she was a kid. And I have been part of the farmer's market since I was a kid, but I liked farming more. I was always drawn towards doing the farm work,” Kimo remembers when asked about his childhood on the farm. In the family business, the opportunity to try out different aspects of the farm was very important in finding his unique role in K&K Ranch.
“When I made the decision to farm full-time, it was really hard. It still is hard. But we have these really powerful moments, when we can take the next step in farming all together, as a family.”
In a sea of mono-cropped citrus and nut trees that surround K&K Ranch, Kimo takes pride in the holistic authenticity of his family’s farm: “We're a small family-owned farm and we want to keep it that way. We have a lot of quirks and a lot of things that I believe give us character, but might not be looked at as the prettiest. Our rows aren't straight, they're bowed or they're wide or they're skinny, and our trees aren't perfectly aligned or perfectly spaced. But they don’t need to be.”
Keeping the farm name
When Kimo and Kevin took over the farm, they debated over whether to keep the K&K name, originally named for Kashimo and Kano, the surnames of Kimo’s great-grandparents, who came to California by way of Hawaii. Kevin & Kevin Farm was briefly considered, but they ultimately decided to keep the legacy of their grandparents, Stanford and June Kashima, to honor their family and because the K&K name holds deep respect in their local food community.
The riddle of getting the next generation into California agriculture
The 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture found that the average age of the California farmer is 59. A generational wave of retirement is approaching California farmers and Kimo, 31, sees this as an opportune time for farm land consolidation; ownership tipping even more toward industrial agriculture and residential development.
Affordable land access is a key barrier to entry for emerging farmers, not just in California, but across the nation. With mounting land prices, it has become even harder to enter the agriculture space without family land or capital investment. Kimo explains, “There's a very big problem of nobody wanting to farm anymore, not just because of how hard it is, but because you have these old farmers who have been doing it forever, and they're getting to the age where they're going to retire within the next 5 to 10 years. A very large portion of the Central Valley farmers are either passing it on to the next generation or they're getting ready to sell to the highest bidder.”
Farming is ultimately a business, so making the agricultural life profitable is critical to keeping small farms in the food system. “I definitely see with the next generation, there are people that can see a profit in it, but there's also not a lot of appreciation in California, in terms of the balance of how much it costs to grow fruit, considering how much labor is right now. It's interesting to see the next generation being scared by that, even myself at times.” K & K Ranch prides itself on being small enough to have a hand in everything they produce, which is in direct opposition to the scaled-up fruit operations that make up the majority of California fruit production.
“I think part of being a farmer, especially for my generation, is considering everything that is happening environmentally with global warming,” Kimo says about the evolving challenges that young farmers face. While industrial scale agriculture has largely worked around environmental warning signs, farmers who are putting down roots right now are shouldering much of the consequences of the go big or go home farming approach. Kimo goes on, “It's super important for the next generation to take that extra step in agriculture. And by that, I mean, not only focusing on regenerative farming but finding a way to make it financially sustainable. Regenerative agriculture is very hard, it takes a lot more time and this adds onto your workload at a higher expense, which means your labor costs just went up.”
Kimo on why farming matters to him and looking at the long game
“For me, it’s a family thing, as well as being fulfilling. I like feeling like I'm doing something real and not working for someone else who just doesn't appreciate it. Also, I like working with Mother Nature and I understand that every single year the farm changes. Actually, it changes every six months.”
The harder you work, the more rewards you're going to see but you're not going to see them right away.
“Whatever you put into it is what you get out of it. So the harder you work, the more rewards you're going to see but you're not going to see them right away. A lot of trees will take three years before you're even going to see a yield and five years before you're going to be making good money. It's definitely a very patient career path.”
Ancient water as a nonrenewable resource
Though the Sierra Nevada Mountains provide fresh water to the Central Valley, inconsistent rainfall and a slowing trend in annual snowfall can’t keep up with the rate at which farmers use water to irrigate their crops. This makes groundwater a commodity that is a race to the bottom of the aquifers - and ultimately belongs to the guys who can dig the deepest wells, the fastest. Aquifers are being drained at such a rapid rate that the ground is sinking up to 60 centimeters each year in the Central Valley, according to the US Geological Survey.
“Growing up, I think our well was 80 feet; we’ve had to drill all the way down to 200 feet now,” says Kimo of the change in the water table he has seen in just a few decades. “So quite a bit of a difference, in terms of how fast the water's been drying out. I’d like to help make people more aware that it's not just rainfall and snowpack, which are very important water sources. It is also the water table below that people don't see. That's a huge issue for agriculture in general.”
The Central Valley subterranean water challenge is ultimately won by those who can invest in the most infrastructure. “It's this vicious cycle. The people who get the most water are the ones who can take it the quickest,” explains Kimo. He and his uncle, Kevin, have found ways to grow their premium fruit with the water that is available to them, but Kimo is concerned for what the future holds for the entire region, particularly farmers operating on slim margins. “When you pump from a well, it's really expensive if you're not on solar, but these big farmers would rather just spend that money pumping from the well, rather than buying water [from the California State Water Project utility - CSW] where it's way more expensive.” The CSW sources water from a dam, reservoir, and canal system that serves urban and agricultural areas.
Nostalgia for heirloom fruit
“We brought in some rare varieties of blood oranges, which we hadn’t grown for a long time. My mother, Terri, loves them and she says that people ask about them every year at the farmer’s market. The old heirloom varieties remind us of our grandfather. They might not have the best shelf life and are very hard to grow but that’s why they’re sought after. They're not as common anymore because they're a little harder to farm,” says Kimo about K&K Ranch’s heirloom fruit trees.
Heirloom varieties are plants that are passed down through generations and shared among growers outside the framework of patents and intellectual property. “We're trying to keep a lot of the old varieties, and as long as we have a few heirloom trees, that's what's most important because you can always propagate old varieties that are not patented by companies,” Kino explains. In the modern fruit landscape, efficiency takes precedence over rich, nuanced flavors. But K&K Ranch has slowed down the clock and made space for the pleasure of fleeting fruits. “These old varieties are meant to be eaten close to harvest,” Kimo explains about the condensed timeline. In a fruit industry where grocery stores prioritize consistency, K&K are letting seasonality lead the way.
On choosing varieties from familial knowledge
“We're a small family farm so we plant a lot of different varieties of fruit and we don’t just stick to one thing. And because we're so small, if something were to happen and we lost our leases, the fruit grown on this 20 acre property that we own, would sustain us through farmers' markets. This is because of the range of varieties we have,” says Kimo of the home farm, where he lives in the original farmhouse. Kimo works with the wisdom of his mother and uncle to choose varieties, starting with the family land as the homebase and fanning out to the land they rent from adjacent landowners.
“My uncle has been very supportive of my planting ideas. He has guided me by saying, Hey, this is what I've learned, and then this is what I think you should do. But you're the new generation and this is up to you. We trust you and so it depends on how you want the farm to be.” Kimo also relies on the familial transfer of knowledge from his mother through her work at the farmer’s market. “My mother has been at the farmers' market since she was a kid, so she sees what sells. She understands the market. She talks to a lot of chefs and she's very involved in the food community. So my mother can add her strength to the table and say, This is what I know has sold and what I've seen sold consistently in the market."
Rather than trying to match the colossal fruit farms that surround K&K Ranch, Kimo and his family are using their nimble size and generations of agricultural legacy to carve their own path. Combining traditional knowledge with feedback from the food community, is how Kimo explains it, “A lot of our trees are old varieties from my grandfather. We also find newer varieties that are more realistic with the weather and the environment that we have today. Our niche is being the farm that grows rare and special things to get people excited about agriculture again.”
FruitStand taking a stand for the true value of fruit and fruit farmers
K&K Ranch sells their produce directly into their community through restaurants and farmer’s markets. Reaching more people through harvest-to-doorstep relationships is also integral for Kimo and Kevin to stand their ground in the increasingly consolidated fruit ecosystem. “It's nice to see companies like FruitStand supporting small farmers like K&K Ranch. So that's the market we focus on: FruitStand, chefs and people who are willing to pay the price because they understand the quality of their food. Plus the true cost of what it takes to grow fruit, both on the farm and the natural resources.”
Why small farms?
“My uncle, Kevin, can see what does really well in this environment and with the new environment coming because he's farmed this land for so long. He knows our soil really well, he knows the weather, he knows where the wind is coming from and at what times of the year. And because of that, we can strategize where we want to plant a tree, whether that's behind the house to break the wind or in front,” Kimo details the intimacy his family has with their land. The larger the farm, the less time a farmer spends with each acre.
Agricultural integrity becomes more challenging the farther removed the farmer is from their farm. Labor welfare, protection of natural resources, and ability to manage diverse crops all require vested interest in the health and wellbeing of the farm ecosystem. When asked why small farms are important, Kimo talks about trust and support, “You're not just buying the food from the farmer, you're buying their trust. You're buying into them. You're investing in them, you believe in what they want. And that's why we try to focus on smaller markets. And we focus on the food. Because we love food, we want to focus on the chefs and our relationships with real people through FruitStand.”
“Supporting small family farms is the number one priority because that is what protects the environment. There's enough to go around for everybody by sharing the abundance and making sure people can still have these rare things.”
For Kimo and his family to have their lives woven so intimately through every aspect of K&K Ranch means that taking care of their land, water, trees, and crew, is integral to the farm’s success. Kimo on why small farms are the path to holding onto diverse fruits and the future of sustainable agriculture: “Supporting small family farms is the number one priority because that is what protects the environment. There's enough to go around for everybody by sharing the abundance and making sure people can still have these rare things.”