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A childhood of fruit and adventure
“When I was younger, I would be handed a machete and sent on a mission to go chop down bananas from the tree that had the most mature looking cluster. That was how we harvested them,” says Nick Brown of Rincon Tropics, a diversified 250 acres of planted orchard in Carpinteria, California.
“My dad's side of the family has been on this farm since 1871, growing various specialty and commodity fruits. When I was little this was where my grandma and uncle lived. Growing up we would come over here to hang out and see what fruit was ready, climbing the trees and scouring the property for choice fruits.”
Nick’s early exposure to rare fruits has shaped how he experiences food and his philosophy around how he can share his deep knowledge with others. Unbraiding food from place becomes an impossibility for multigenerational farm families; it is stitched into the tapestry of their farm. For Nick, the farm represented both fruit and adventure: “I would make forts in the banana trees, climb the cherimoya trees and look for ripe avocados for snacks. I just thought that’s what kids did. Running through these green orchards in Southern California as a kid, that was always magical.”
Growing up around the energy of fruit packing house
“When I was younger, my family’s packing house operation was a big production. That was where we would pack and ship all of the fruit that our family and neighboring properties grew.” Fruit packing houses are facilities that sort, grade, pack and ship fruit—a busy, bustling, continuous stream of fruit flowing in and out. “I would make forts upstairs in the pallets of boxes. And my first job actually was putting fruit sticker labels on all the fruit coming down the production line. From a very early age, I was completely immersed in the farming, packing and shipping world. Fruit was how I grew up,” says Nick of fruit being at the forefront of his life from the beginning.
Teenagers at the farmer’s market
From his early teens, Nick and his two older sisters sold their family’s fruit at local farmer’s markets. This childhood exposure to the entrepreneurialism of the market established Nick as a community fruit connector.
“Being face to face with the consumers of our harvest was foundational for us.”
Being a food communicator is second nature for Nick, given his experience teaching strangers about the value and wonder of fruit during the formative years of his life. “The knowledge, skills, and values taught to me by my parents from the beginning was fundamental in my relationship with the plants we grew and how we shared that with others.”
Certain that he didn’t want to be a career farmer
Even though Nick’s access to a life in agriculture was at his fingertips, he wasn’t convinced that he wanted to make it his life’s work.
As a kid, I was very adamant that when I grew up, I didn't want to be a farmer.
"There was some divide there. I enjoyed my childhood adventures and gardening projects so much, I didn’t want to turn it into work.” Split between the notions of never make your hobby your work and do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life, Nick put his farm prospects aside and went to college out of state to figure out what he wanted to do. “I didn't study ag [agriculture] in school. It was always more of a passion and a relaxing thing to do. In general, if I study something, it usually kills the interest for me. I saw how hard my parents worked, both in and out of the fields, and wasn't sure I wanted that for myself."
Learning by doing
Growing up in a farm family has given Nick a holistic education in fruit production and resource management in his specific ecosystem on a level that could not be learned in a lecture hall. While he was in college, Nick did give the formal study of agriculture a shot through, “It didn't really sit well with me to be reading a textbook about how to do something that I'd already been doing for a long time. It just was odd to me to be reading about the theory versus just doing it. Growing up, if there was something that needed to be done, we would figure it out through trial and adaptation. No two farms are alike, so you just figure out what's best and try to make it work.”
A cherimoya adventure
In the 1970’s, Nick’s father traveled throughout South America to learn about cherimoya production from farmers who had been cultivating the fruit for generations. “He collected seed and graft wood and really devoted himself to learning everything he could about cherimoyas. As a child, his family had a cherimoya tree on the property and he thought they were the best things in the world. But you couldn't find them here and no one else knew much about growing cherimoya.”
Nick’s father became an expert on cherimoya, which has become a primary fruit of the family farm. True with most fruit varieties, the development of knowledge and material production is slow work that takes years or even generations. “In the process over those decades, he created several varieties that are unique to our property and our family. The latest one, we actually patented a few years ago and named it the Rincon variety—that was years in the making. Changing weather, growing conditions and locations, and the maturity of the experimental new varieties are just a few factors that you have to consider when searching for new varieties. From seed, to graft, to about a decade of testing and observation, we were finally satisfied with this particular new varietal, and made it official. So all of those years of work were worth it.”
Where the ocean meets the mountains
Carpinteria sits between Ventura to the south and Santa Barbara to the north. Steep mountains rise off the coast creating the ridgelines of Los Padres National Forest. Though this landscape is beautiful, there is a striking elevation change. “There's not a lot of flat land,” says Nick, “it goes dramatically right up into steep mountains. Our farm is directly overlooking the ocean. That means we also get a lot of foggy weather. This can greatly impact our crops—and the flowering and pollination—if it's sopping wet with fog. That can really hamper certain facets of the farming that we do.”
Ideal conditions for orcharding are drier air, with access to water for irrigation. This allows the farmer to keep environmental pressures low while managing moisture in the soil. But growing up in a holistic orcharding system, Nick has spent over a decade observing this microclimate and working intimately with histhe trees to continue to create the best growing conditions he can given the water and ecosystem characteristics on the family farm.
Challenges of the Southern California landscape
Drought and wildfire are a constant concern in Southern California. For those who make their living from the landscape, environmental challenges are a double-edged sword. While it is the Mediterranean climate that makes fruit production profound in flavor, wildfires and access to water are primary issues for farmers. “We get very little rain here in Southern California. This year we're at about four inches of rain. The annual average is changing rapidly, but it historically has been between 15 to 20 inches of rain. So we're well below our normal threshold for this year.” Climate change has catalyzed these extreme conditions. According to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) wildfire season is starting earlier and ending later due to record-level heat and drought. Rincon Tropics is feeling this. When FruitStand spoke with Nick in October, he was monitoring a fire, “We get a lot of fires. There's currently a fire up above Santa Barbara, so it's pretty smoky here. In 2017, the Thomas Fire burned about a third of our ranch. That was pretty devastating, with some total crop loss in areas.” Nick goes on to say that it is not only direct fire that causes damage, but smoke as well, “The smoke releases a lot of ethylene gas which ripens fruit. So there was a lot of fruit that fell off the tree before it was mature. And it's taken quite a few years to build the orchards back.”
Earthquakes, water, and wildlife
Rincon Tropics get its water from a gravity-fed system coming out of Lake Casitas, southeast of the farm. When the water reaches the orchards, it flows through a combination of sprinkler and drip irrigation systems. Getting water to the farm is only the first step. As Nick points out, there are ongoing challenges to keep it flowing where it needs to go: “We're in Southern California, so there are earthquakes from time to time. Our PVC piping for our irrigation is flexible, but there are some systems that are a couple of decades old that get brittle and sometimes fracture.”
It’s not only the trees that need water to thrive, the wild animals that pass through the farm and live in the surrounding hills and chaparral are also seeking water. “Coyotes, deer, gophers, and mountain lions chew holes in our irrigation systems. We have worked around this to an extent by putting out little watering stations so that we can encourage animals to drink there instead of causing chaos and mayhem.” Because Rincon Tropics is so spread out, with canyons separating orchard groves for example, if there is a breach, it can take time for Nick to realize that the trees are not getting the water they need. “It's a constant effort with the irrigation to maintain and observe to be sure that every drop of water is going to where it's supposed to go.”
Goats for wildfire mitigation
Wild and domesticated ungulates (hooved animals) have been part of the Southern California ecosystem for millenia. These herd-based animals like sheep, goats, deer and cattle, eat vegetation that can be challenging for land managers to control. While wildfire is also a natural part of the ecosystem, without animal populations to eat the underbrush, wildfire has become far more intense.
“After the Thomas Fire in 2017, we started to put up sections of goat fencing so that we can have a roaming herd of goats that manages the brushy steep canyons that we just can't access, even by foot, which is the perfect playground for a goat,” says Nick. By putting a herd of goats on land that is both unproductive for cultivated crops and an ideal grazing area for goats, creates multiple solutions. “We are moving in this direction to help with any future fires, and still have the soil stabilizing plants there, but just to keep the brushiness down to a more manageable level. That's the goal, but it takes a lot of time and infrastructure to put the goat herd in place. We are at just a handful of goats so far, with a long way to go, but just like with every other aspect of farming, it takes time, flexibility, and constant problem solving to figure out how to make a new idea work for the property under our stewardship.”
Shortening the knowledge gap
In the consolidated food system, the knowledge that reaches consumers rarely comes from those producing it. Keeping an open face-to-face dialog channel with his customers feels very powerful to Nick. “I want to shorten that knowledge gap between the grower and the consumer. I get to say:
This is what your food is, this is how it got here, and this is how you're supposed to ripen it and eat it.
Communicating the knowledge that I have passively absorbed growing up, is a really valuable thing for me. And as a kid I took my exposure to fruit production for granted. Now it’s my time to share my knowledge of fruit.”
One of the most important ways that Nick shares his knowledge is to teach people how to eat fruit. Many of the varieties that Nick grows at Rincon Tropics are not part of the American fruit ecosystem. Nick sees his role as a fruit connector to show others how to enjoy rare fruits. “So many people unintentionally eat tropical fruits either underripe or overripe. And that can be a really crucial factor in whether or not they enjoy the fruit. I try to give as much information as I can to help people have the best possible experience with our fruit. What I found is not only do they like to hear the information firsthand, but also they often do me a favor because they then share this knowledge with their circle. This knowledge and information chain has been a process that has taken years to build.”
Origin of Rincon Tropics as we know it today
COVID-19 rattled the national and global food supply chain. Bottlenecks in the fresh fruit and vegetable market were felt in grocery stores across the country. For Nick, his access to his farmers market customers was severely impacted. “We stopped going to the market temporarily. And that was when all of my regular customers realized that they still wanted to know what we were doing, what we’re up to, and how they could get our fruit."
I had a couple of my regulars say, We really miss you. How can we get some fruit? Can you ship to us? So I gave it a shot.
Nick was soon inundated with people asking for fruit shipments all over the country. The direct-to-consumer delivery model of Rincon Tropics was born from the limiting factors of the pandemic, andhas opened Nick up to customers far beyond his farmers market table.
Nick on access to good fruit
“I understand that people can't get passion fruit or cherimoyas at their grocery stores, but a good lemon can be hard to find too. The food disparity across the country is so stark at times. It's been really rewarding with Rincon Tropics, and this new version of packing and shipping fruit, for my family to shorten the gap between what we do and the people that get our food. I love having them reach out to say
This is how I ate your fruit or I had no idea how good this could taste.
As a farmer, that’s a really good feeling to know that I helped open people up to new, good, fruit experiences and rekindled memories.”
The long-game of fruit production
Orcharding is a multi-generational endeavor, not only in the familial sense—because knowledge passed through the family certainly strengthens the orchard—but also in the way that orchards work on the scale of decades.
Nick has been part of his family orchard's evolution since he was a kid. “It's a constantly evolving space. Farming, especially with orchard crops, is really a long game because not only does it take years for the trees to reach maturity to have any kind of crop on them, but it really takes even more years until you know what works or doesn't work in your region.”
Creating a Holistic Ecosystem
While our national and global agriculture paradigm is trending toward monocropping, specializing and mechanizing, Rincon Tropics continues to lean into diversification. “There are so many reasons why diversifying is good, not just for commercial reasons, but for the overall property health,” says Nick about his family’s intention to create a holistic ecosystem. He points out the ways fruit trees interact with pollinators like insects and birds, “We have the pineapple guava trees that have their flowers bloom in the summer when there's typically not too much else for birds and bees to feed on. But that provides the food and nectar source for the pollinators. We have huge flocks of migratory birds that come in and eat the guava flower petals, and therefore, pollinate the pineapple guavas. We grow bamboo as a windbreak to protect the orchards, but also use the long and strong vertical poles to create hawk and owl perches to encourage natural pest management.”
Farmers recognizing and working in tandem with wildlife and environmental pressures is in direct opposition to the direction that our consolidated food system is headed. When farms like Rincon Tropics consider the entire ecosystem holistically, the way we interact with food becomes whole once again.
There’s no off-season
When asked what is the most misunderstood thing about what he does, Nick said that there’s no off-season. A misconception about orcharding in Southern California is that there are built-in rest periods when, in reality, the cycles of harvest and crop management roll right into each other. “There's really no time off, there's always something to do. We grow seasonal fruit for all the seasons. So we somewhat intentionally, but unintentionally, made it so that we would never have a break,” says Nick.
“There are so many different facets to being a farmer: You're a scientist, you're a chemist, you're an economist, a business person, and a gambler, among many other things.”
Betting the farm on weather, earthquakes, fire, and wild animals sounds like a folkloric myth, and that’s because it is. Farmers have been in a never-ending partnership with nature for milenia and it is up to those eating their food, to be part of the story as well.