Erik Jertberg worries. The Watsonville, CA, blackberry grower worries about his own farm, about his hoop houses flying away in the sometimes windy Pajaro Valley just north of Salinas. But he also worries about farming in general, about the vast majority of the population not involved in agriculture, many of whom don’t know — and even worse, possibly don’t care — about where their food comes from.
“Farming has a diminishing profile in modern culture, and because of that our voices in society have become whispers,” he says. “We are overrun by narratives born in provocative blogospheres. They feed off an anxiety that exists because 98% of people are not involved in agriculture, and therefore may lack a good compass to discern fact from fiction.”
Jertberg, a GenNext Grower, believes the distance between farmers and general consumers in the U.S. is greater than ever.
“If you look at today, from the perspective of a farmer from generations ago, he’d tell you you’re crazy to farm in that hostile of an environment. The reality is that I’m here, it’s what I do, and I will continue to adapt to the conditions around me unless I can’t. I don’t know what technologies will be available in the future, but I can only hope that the tools will be there.”
The problem is acute because most voters are in urban areas and rarely think about farming, says Jertberg.
“To put it bluntly, I fear the disconnect from food to fork feeds the disconnect of ballot box and wallet,” he says. “Without an understanding of where their food comes from, and what it takes to get it there, our consumers will believe in an ideological standard when they vote, but purchase the food for their table based on a free market economics standard.”
He’s not so sure U.S. consumers, in the main, even care that their food is produced in the U.S. “In a global marketplace, food is relatively cheap and abundant for the American consumer. If regulations push farmers out of the U.S., but they can still supply American consumers with the food by farming somewhere else and delivering it back at the same price point, there is no impact on the consumer,” he says. “There is no sense of consequence related to supporting those regulations. There are some that will notice the new country of origin sticker but for the most part, as long as the product delivers a pleasurable experience, trust is created and the product thrives.”
The American consumer, disconnected with the nation’s farms, supports onerous regulations that just feel right. Consumers generally don’t know any better.
“Without a good compass, they can’t really tell if their decision in the ballot box will have a positive impact or not on the farm. We, as American voters, may demand our farmers to uphold ethical, environmental, and economical ideologies not enforced outside the U.S., creating an unlevel playing field, and yet we may purchase food based on what’s cheaper when both options are presented to us. It’s those situations when I hope they reach for the U.S. grown option — knowing that that food also intrinsically represents the votes they cast in the ballot box. If U.S. grown isn’t an option, as is often the reality for a year-round fresh food offering, then look for those grown by U.S. brands to fill the void.”
“If we don’t support those regulations with our wallets in the grocery store, we run the risk of degrading the integrity of our food supply instead of affirming it,” says Jertberg. “In my opinion, the wider the disconnect gets, the less supportive of our U.S. farms we may become, and the more unstable the whole food supply is for the U.S. consumer. It reminds me of the saying: ‘When you have food, you have many problems. When you don’t have food, you have only one problem.’”
Tell Your Story
How to bridge the gap? Jertberg believes it boils down to growers needing to engage with and educate the general population, and there’s no time like the present.
“I believe we are offered some major tools right when we need them, and social media can be a powerful combatant to the misinformation circulating about,” he says. “Unfortunately it is also a useful tool to spread fiction, and we are outnumbered, but as long as truth is injected when possible, it is a gateway for people to connect with real farmers like no other.”
However, because those in agriculture are in such a small minority, they really need to make their voices heard. It’s not natural for the average grower, who’s not inclined to toot his own horn. That’s why farmers need to avail themselves of their associations, many of which are happy to provide media training.
“Organizations like the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation are extremely valuable to young farmers looking to tell their true stories,” says Jertberg, noting that such help is invaluable. “Media outlets are naturally full of skilled media experts. It is intimidating to tell your story, especially when you don’t know how it will be received. But to be given even just a few tools for the toolbox, so to speak, can be exponentially inspiring.”
While previous generations of farms didn’t face the farm/fork disconnect to such a degree because so many people were involved with agriculture, there are some real advantages to farming today. Jertberg points to all the technological advances, and those too should be highlighted for the average consumer.
“Our farms have continued to innovate and produce more with less. Innovations that sprung from my grandfather’s fields continue to be improved upon today, and we have so much potential ahead. Technology has become integrated into our farms,” he says. “The need to efficiently get the most from every resource has spurred that integration. From irrigation sensing technologies to GPS-controlled tractors driven to within 1-inch precision, numerous advancements utilizing technologies exist today that weren’t around then.”
It also helps for growers to remind themselves that though they may face problems their forebearers did not, farming is tough, and always will be, says Jertberg. “The challenges I face are no greater than those of the generation that gave me all of the awesome opportunities I have today,” he says. “I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Born To Farm
Ask Erik Jertberg why he chose agriculture as a career path and he will tell you his fondest memories as a youngster were of his grandfather and his strawberry farm in Chino, CA, located in the state’s Inland Empire.
Jertberg’s family lived nearby one of his grandfather’s ranches and he’d walk over there in the mornings and get started with the crew. One of his first jobs was putting the green pint baskets into strawberry trays. He got paid a penny apiece, but of course he wasn’t in it for the money. “I loved the atmosphere there, and I loved being on that farm,” he says. “I loved my grandpa, and I guess I wanted to be like him.”
In 1996, he moved to Watsonville, CA, which years before had taken over the mantle as the epicenter of the strawberry industry from Southern California. He got a job with a cousin who grew strawberries for Driscoll’s, the berry giant he has had a relationship with to this day. “They’re fair, honest, they have integrity,” Jertberg says of Driscoll’s, “and they’re really good marketers.”
In 2003 he got his first management job, for Reiter Berry Farms, one of the earliest berry growers in the Pajaro Valley. After a four-year stint he went to work directly for Driscoll’s in grower relations. In 2011, along with a partner, he was able to buy 28 acres of blackberries from his cousin. Heart Mountain Farms was founded. They added a second, 38-acre ranch in Salinas one year later and planted almost immediately.
This year, when they can harvest the second ranch, they will have a total of 66 acres of blackberries. All of it will be going, as one might guess, to Driscoll’s.
$30K An Acre
Why plant only blackberries? After all, Erik Jertberg freely admits that when he meets growers of other crops, or growers from other parts of the country, they’re taken aback by the costs involved. With all the trellising and hoop houses, etc., Jertberg says it costs $30,000 an acre to get that first crop to harvest.
But he has reasons. For one, he’s banking on new Driscoll’s proprietary varieties that hit a sweet spot that has proved elusive in the past — great taste and high yields. Second, sales of berries are growing at a far faster rate than any other segment of the produce department, and blackberries in particular are flourishing.
But there’s a third factor, one he doesn’t cite, though he’s happy to tell the story when asked what it’s like to grow blackberries. Jertberg says someone once told him that growing strawberries is like a baseball player’s season. The hitter has several months to tweak his stance or swing. Growing blackberries, however, is like getting a single pinch hit at-bat.
“If you strike out,” he says, “you have to wait until next year to get it right.”