September 1, 2014

KMK Farms Growing Jobs & Produce

Michele and Kyle Reynolds
Kyle Reynolds spins a great yarn about how he and his wife, Michele, grew their Central Valley farm, KMK Farms. It is a story of pluck and tenacity, but it also involves listening - listening to his customers, to his employees, and to his own passion. Additionally, in growing their farm, Kyle and Michele's decisions have added to the resilience of their local economy.

In the beginning, there were heirloom avocado trees. Like a zucchini plant in many a garden, when an avocado tree matures, most people can't figure out what to do with their bounty. With an avocado orchard, Kyle and Michele were giving avocados to their friends, family, coworkers, and eventually to strangers. Seeing their predicament, a friend offered his farm stand. Two of them sat out all day selling avocados at 4/$1. At the end of the day, they netted $6. Clearly, this was not the way to go. They gave a local farmers' market a try and haven't looked back since. Their first year, they were the only vendor selling avocados, so they made out okay.

Over time, their customers became their friends. And their friends pushed them to grow fruit that they couldn't find anywhere. For example, one customer wanted Fay Elberta peaches. They bruise easily, have virtually no shelf-life, but their flavor is awesome. A neighbor with four fallow acres offered to lease his land to Kyle. He evidently approved of the way KMK Farms treats the land, building up the soil with manure and whatever nutrients are needed. Over a period of six years, KMK Farms expanded slowly, until they were farming the full four acres. As they grew a greater variety of produce, Kyle and Michele were able to sell at the market year-round. And some of their customers wanted to work for them. When the land they farmed hit 3 acres, they needed help, so Kyle was pleased to have people who wanted to work for him. It was year-round work providing a weekly paycheck on a farm that does not expose them to toxic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. Most of the local agricultural workers are not so fortunate. Kyle and Michele's challenge is to balance the demands of producing and selling that come when you create community with your customers and your employees.

KMK Farms started farming on 1 1/4 acres they owned. Seventeen years later, they are now farming 80 acres. Almost all of it is leased. As I toured the farm, I saw many fruit trees that KMK Farms had planted, growing on leased land with 6-month and 1-year lease agreements. If those agreements are not renewed, those trees will be a gift to the landowner. But Kyle prefers it that way; he is free to walk away if he wants. And that probably explains why all the landowners sought out Kyle. If nothing else, KMK Farms is building up their soil over the years with the addition of manure and compost.

KMK Farms started with one product - avocados. They now sell at 3 farmers' markets all within a 30 mile radius of the farm. Market customers want a continuous and diverse supply of fruit and vegetables. Kyle now typically makes 40 different crops available each week. With such crop variety, KMK Farms now employs 22-25 full-time and part-time employees. Even so, profitability can be capricious. Last year, they plowed the proceeds from the farm back into the business to open a farm stand. Their bookkeeper had to ask "Why do you do this?" For Kyle, the answer is that farming is his passion.

Kyle says that the biggest driver for their overall expansion has been to provide steady work for their employees. Kyle feels they treat their employees well, paying a living wage. At the time of my visit, they were paying $1/hour above the minimum wage. They would like to provide health and dental insurance for their employees, but they are not in a position to do that right now. On the other hand, when the farm has a good year, they share the profits with their employees. I spoke with one of their long-time employees who was out picking fruit. He seemed genuinely happy working at KMK Farms. What he appreciated most about working there was that he was not exposed to pesticides.

The KMK in KMK Farms stands for Kyle, Michele, and their daughter, Kristi. Kristi worked on the family farm growing up, and she is now adding her own stamp to the family business. Kristi has started a new type of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that is more customer focused and delivers produce from more than one farm. The Farmer's Daughter CSA sources the majority of its produce from KMK Farms. Beyond that, Kristi is exploring an innovative model. She allows her customers to fill up their online shopping cart with what they want, rather than delivering a box based on what each farmer wants to sell. There are no weekly or monthly commitments. With several locations in the California Central Valley and a variety of pickup days and times, The Farmer's Daughter CSA is looking to make it easy for consumers to support the farmers who grow their food.

In order to make 40 different crops available each week, KMK Farms grows hundreds of varieties, and plans for 60 to be maturing at any given time. Pest pressures, viruses and fungi, experimenting with new varieties, and the weather can take a toll on the marketability of any particular crop. It was 99°F the day I visited. Michele served iced water with mint and lemon from their yard to keep us all cool. They now have 35 days/year over the 100°F mark. The hottest they've seen is 117°F. Ripened tomatoes baked on the vine, anyone? Extreme temperatures are the biggest worry at KMK Farms. After the weather, critters take the highest toll. The gophers eat whole plants. Owls and traps work against them. The coyotes eat/damage the irrigation lines. They tried leaving buckets full of water for the coyotes, but, unfortunately, that did not deter them. Squirrels eat the fruit, so they have to shoot the squirrels. Kyle discovered that once the squirrels were gone, the coyotes left of their own accord; evidently coyotes find squirrels to be a tasty treat. On our walk around the farm, we saw Bermuda grass growing up around the trees. Kyle says this is a problem for all the organic growers in the region. Even weed fabric does not hold Bermuda grass at bay. They mow it, if necessary. But to truly take care of it, a farmer needs to pull it up by the roots. Dealing with the weather, the animal damage prevention, and the weeds are all part of day-to-day life at KMK Farms.

I am in awe at the level of organization that is required to grow so many different vegetables and fruits on five non-contiguous fields. But on top of that, Kyle and Michele like to experiment with new varieties. I sampled a cherum - a cross between a cherry and a plum that tastes more like a plum. Fortunately, the doughnut peaches are not a cross between a doughnut and a peach. They are tasty, white peaches growing in a flattened, doughnut-like shape. Kyle says that many perennial herbs thrive in their soil.

With long rows of rosemary and lavender, they still haven't found the best varieties for their farm. Rosemary is susceptible to the piddle bug, which makes the herb unsellable for a portion of the growing season. Kyle says he is pretty happy with Grasse - a French lavender - but he's still scouting for better ones. Michele gave me a gold cherry tomato that was heavenly. She was kind enough to give me a couple to take home with me; I'm hoping they will grow in my Florida garden.

During the day, chickens roam freely in their fenced area. You never know where you will find eggs.

Given such a large focus on farmers' markets, I figured there must be leftover produce each week that does not sell. And, indeed there is. They raise a few farm animals, including a goat, some sheep, and many gorgeous chickens, which all benefit from the leftovers. After the farm animals have picked out their favorites, what's left gets tossed into large bins with earthworms. Next year, the resulting compost will be fertilizing their fields. Waste, what waste?

As Kyle and Michele shared their story, I heard clearly how the avenue of distribution dictated the direction of their farm's expansion. With the decision to sell at local farmers' markets, came the need to sell year round. At a farmers' market, vendors and customers make connections with each other. Customers expect their favorite vendors to be there every week, or they might stop coming. Customers also like a nice variety of produce to choose from. This led directly to the type of farm operation that Michele and Kyle operate. For example, they started growing citrus, so that they would have fruit in the winter. Growing hundreds of varieties of crops must be a management nightmare, especially when they have to track all aspects of their operation for their organic certification. Clearly, they grow this wide array of produce in order to please their farmers' market customers. And the farmers' markets provided something critical for the farm. We live in an age when it is difficult for farmers who are not engaged in large-scale, industrial agriculture. By selling at farmers' markets, KMK Farms could stay small, grow at their own pace, farm organically, and still be successful.

With KMK Farms using local farmers' markets as their method of distribution, they are benefiting the larger community economically. Kyle is clear that a large part of their expansion was triggered by a desire to provide year-round work for local residents. But it goes futher. According to Tracie McMillan,
For every dollar we spend on food, only about 16 cents goes to the farmer. The other 84 cents ... ensures food makes it from farm to plate. Those 84 cents pay for the diesel and truck and driver to move the food from farm to processing plant or warehouse; the mill or the factory where food is processed, or the cost of storing it until it is sold. They also pay for the people who sell it wholesale or to grocers, the restaurant cooks who prepare it for us when we eat out, the satellite and databases to track shipments, and the workers, forklifts, warehouse and refrigeration at the grocery store.
KMK Farms and a growing number of small farmers nationwide is changing this equation, keeping more of their community's food dollars in their community.

Where to find KMK Farms certified organic produce -