Thursday, June 03, 2010

A visit to Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol

Photo of Baia Nicchia Farm in Sunol, CaliforniaI first learned about Baia Nicchia in 2006 when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about their tomato breeding efforts. What set them apart from other breeders was a focus on the S.F. Bay Area, a region with multiple microclimates — hot and dry in Walnut Creek, cool and sunny in the Mission, damp and foggy in the Sunset, and so on — that create challenges for backyard gardeners.

In the years since, I have bought produce and tomato seedlings* from them at the Berkeley Farmers Market; have been reading their blog; attended a tomato growing lecture at Magic Gardens in Berkeley; and most recently attended their open house.

The Sunol Ag Park
On a recent weekend, a friend and I went to an "open house" at Baia Nicchia's farm in Sunol. Baia Nicchia is run by Fred Hempel and Jill Shepard and has been on the Sunol land since 2006. They lease the land from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (which provides water to the City) and buy water from the Commission at rates somewhere between wholesale and retail. Their farm is part of the Sunol Water Temple Agricultural Park (a.k.a. the Sunol Ag Park), a project that came about because of efforts by the Berkeley nonprofit Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE) in 2006. At the time, San Francisco was developing a food policy that stressed food production within city limits. SAGE realized that it made sense for San Francisco to apply that to city-owned lands outside of city limits — like the Sunol plot — and convinced officials to launch a one-year pilot project in 2006 that eventually turned into a nine-year lease for agricultural uses. The San Francisco Chronicle had an article on the Ag Park in 2008. At that time, there were five groups working the land besides Baia Nicchia, including Oakland's People's Grocery and a group of refugees from Laos.

Photo of edible ChrysanthamumWhat and How They Grow
For a small, organic farm, Baia Nicchia has a relatively low number of crops. They have plenty of tomatoes, of course, most of them producing fruit for sale and some being used to breed new varieties. They also grow melons, peppers, squash, beans and microgreens in the summer, but no lettuce, chard or root vegetables. This makes their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program simultaneously somewhat more adventurous and more focused (or, perhaps, monotonous) than the average CSA. However, their on-line materials indicate that they are open to customizing the box, for example, replacing squash with more tomatoes.

To replenish soil fertility, they plant an off-season cover crop of bell beans, which is a nitrogen-fixing plant. Some time before the real planting season begins, they disk them into the earth. They also get rabbit manure from a nearby breeder and apply that to the fields, a stinky and messy job. Drip irrigation is installed throughout the farm to minimize water consumption.

Tomatoes are supported using techniques borrowed from grape vineyards: trellises that encourage the tomatoes to grow along a vertical plane instead of as cylindrical, sprawling bushes. The tomato seedlings are given a few weeks to get started before the first level of trellis is strung between the posts (pictured below). Periodically during the growing season, they hire vineyard workers to come in and install new trellis levels.

Photo of tomato trellising at Baia Nicchia Farm

How They Make Money
Like other small farms, Baia Nicchia has multiple ways of making money. They have a CSA with various drop-off points around the Bay Area (and is open to adding more, so if you are interested in their CSA but aren't near a current drop-off point, send them a note). They also sell specialty crops to restaurants, caterers and retailers, like the edible chrysanthemum (pictured above), microgreens, and special varieties of tomatoes. The "Taste" tomato, for example, was developed specially for a catering company in San Francisco and was sold exclusively to them for a period of time. This year it is making its public debut as a seedling and I think it will eventually be at Seeds of Change. Although they used to sell produce and seedlings at several farmers markets, these days they only go to Menlo Park — apparently the return on their time investment was too low to continue with the others. The tomato breeding business is probably another source of revenue, with their seedlings being sold at the farm stand and in a local nursery (Magic Garden in Berkeley) and seeds sold through Seeds of Change (I'm unclear how this works, i.e., whether they provide the seeds or only the breeding services).

You can follow Baia Nicchia through their farm blog and CSA blog. On August 16 they are hosting a "Seeds of Change Field Day" that will include some of Seeds of Change's top new varieties of summer vegetables, produce sales and food prepared by local chefs.

* This year I have three of their seedlings in my tiny backyard garden: Blush, Black Cherry and Maglia Rossa (tomatoes from 2007 are pictured above).

Cross posted at La Vida Locavore

Random link from the archive: When caramel doesn't turn out right, make pudding

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