A Conversation with Farmer Phil of Sage Mountain Farms
written by Misty Spicer
As the new intern working with Savraw, it was exciting to get my first assignment. What was even more thrilling, was that the assignment was to travel to one of our most beloved farms, and meet the Farmer first hand. Am I lucky or what?
Last week, I got to travel to Hemut, California and hustle around with Farmer Phil of Sage Mountain Farms, who not only has an inspiring and often humorous take on life, but who also strives within that outlook, to know what needs to be done to feed people despite any obstacle. Farmer Phil is most certainly carrying on a name that his family, and customers can be proud of.
1. When did you become a farmer? (what brought you into it?)
“7 years ago…Well, my dad had a garden when I was a kid and we tended that.”
Fun Fact about Farmer Phil: He worked in insurance before becoming a farmer!
2. Does your family farm?
“No. Well, my son used to help.”
Farmer Phil openly shared his oldest son’s goal to become a professional motocross rider and how that encouraged the family to leave the city life behind and head for the high desert. In between carrying loads of fresh picked produce from his truck to the washing area, Phil took joy in telling me about his choice to support and encourage his son’s dream.
3. You are organic. Why?
“Because it’s the right thing to do for my customers. People give the USDA a hard time, but they are really working hard. If there is something that I want people to know, it’s that the USDA is a good program.
I remember after our first farmer market, a woman came up to me and she said, “Thank you for growing this food. Will you be back next week?” That was the moment for me when I knew we were doing the right thing.”
4. How do you view access to organic food?
“It’s getting better….organic food is a lot of work. A lot. And it’s expensive to maintain.”
For more information on why you should buy organic, please visit Sage Mountains FAQs on their website; http://www.sagemountainfarm.com/faq/faq-about-organic-foods/why-should-i-buy-organic-foods.html
5. What has been your greatest challenge as a small farmer?
“Making money. You would think with all of this food (Farmer Phil point’s to a load of produce being washed by a farmworker) That’s a $65,000 lot right there. You would think it is a money maker, but it’s not. And weather. You see, it’s hard to get everything just right with the weather. I’d also love to be able to take time off. I would love to take my family camping for a weekend. That would be nice. But there’s so much work to be done!”
Farmer Phil asks if he can draw me a picture. I love picture tutorials, so I’m pretty excited! He touches his finger along the window of his dusty farm truck and draws a full diagram of the weather patterns of the region and the difficulty or opportunity in quick weather changes that can occur in Mediterranean climates. Extremely hot days and dramatically cooler nights can be an organic farmers best friend, or greatest challenge.
6. Have you had financial struggles in the industry?
“Yes. We almost shut down last year…We lost 4 crops back to back…it was brutal. I would take the responsibility to say it was in part poor planning. My wife had our baby early and was also in the hospital for a month. So we went through a lot. I would also say it was lack of skilled workers. I pay my farm workers fairly and so it is expensive. We couldn’t afford enough workers.”
Farmer Phil was heartfelt in sharing that Sage Mountain Farms had to file Bankruptcy as a result of the devastating crop loss. He offered to take me on a ride with himself and one of his many lively farm dogs, Jake, who made himself cozy in my lap through the bumpy ride. Phil showed me where the crop loss occurred. He explained that Sage Mountain is downsizing a bit to cope with the sudden financial losses. Crop loss is a difficult obstacle to spring back from for many new farmers. We as consumers can support local farmers by regularly buying their product and eating seasonally.
7. Do you think your challenges correspond with what is happening in the industry at the time? “Yes. agribusiness can do work on a large farm with a few workers and large machines. My farm doesn’t work that way. It takes a lot of work. I’m not putting agribusiness down, I’m not here to do that. I believe it takes all kinds and we need all of it to work. But they can do a lot more work for less money.”
8. Is this a business for you or a passion?
“It’s definitely a passion first. Definitely.”
9. How do you view your role in society? In your community?
“Some people call me a superhero (laughs to himself for a second and reaches down to pet one of his loyal farm dogs). Seriously, I see myself as an important part of the community. There aren’t many organic farmers around here! I see it as carrying on a legacy of American history.”
10. How many people does Sage Mountain feed roughly?
“Hmmm. Good question.”
Phil consults in Spanish with a farmworker who seems happy to answer the question. They agree on about 5,000 people per week. The average farmer, according Americas Farmers feeds 126 people. And according to the EPA, “There are over 313,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation.” That makes Farmer Phil, a pretty special guy, and the work he and his farmworkers do, an amazing feat indeed.
11. What extra steps does Sage Mountain take to ensure quality?
“We use clean water. (He waves for me to follow him over to a large tub soaking fresh picked chard) Taste that water. That is the cleanest water you can get.”
Farmer Phil was right. I felt like I was drinking right from the waterfall. This was indeed the cleanest water I had tasted in a long while outside of my own grandfathers organic farm. I was in love, yes, with water.
12. You have multiple heirloom varietals. Can you share about some of your favorites, like the amazing Hon Tsa Tai? (which I ate for dinner last week!)
“Want to drive over to the field and pick up a crop?” (*do I ever!)
We take a ten minute or so ride up the winding desert road to another plot of land, surrounded by 80,000 olive trees belonging to a farming friend of Phil’s who passed away this year. He tells me the trees are for sale if I know anyone.
The land is amazing. Every row at Sage Mountain is planted with stewardship and care. The crops look so beautiful, it’s hard to believe that pesticides are out there on the market. Farmer Phil and his pool of talented workers demonstrate through their everyday work the commitment it takes to farm. Phil continues the conversation as we drive alongside the crops of Hon Tsa Tai:
“Well, I picked the Hon Tsa Tai up because it looked like an interesting seed and I knew no one else was growing it. Lucky for us, it is delicious.”
Lucky is right! Hon Tsa Tai (aka Purple Choy Sum) may be new to many of us, but it is a rather well known flowering green with purple stems found in Asia. It is used commonly in Chinese and Cantonese cooking and is outstanding in recipes that call for bok choy. You can also simply quick steam these yummy greens with olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper for a delicious and simple side dish.
14. What is your favorite thing to eat right now?
“Hmmm, that’s a hard one. I love the Hon Tsa Tai for sure, and beets. Mmmm. And the carrots this year.”
I don’t know about Farmer Phil, but all this talk of organic fresh food is making me hungry.
15. If you could close with a final thought to the consumer, what would it be?
(thinks for a second or two) “Follow your dollar. Follow your dollar from your wallet back to where the food comes from. Make sure that your money is going to the farmer, because a lot of time, it doesn’t.”
In argibusiness, food can travel thousands of miles to get to your plate, meaning that your money does not go directly to a farmer, but often to a corporation, a distribution company and a grocer at the least. Buying local and organic not only supports efforts to grow sustainably, it allows farm workers to be paid fair wages for their hard work and allows small farms to stay in business. How awesome!
Through supporting efforts such as Savraw, you are directly supporting local farmers like Farmer Phil and Sage Mountain. Rest assured that your weekly farm box is not only fresh and delicious, your membership eliminates the need to support far traveled food.
For more information on Farmer Phil, or to schedule a tour of the farm, please visit the website: http://www.sagemountainfarm.com/