At first, Joe Rodriguez didn’t believe his farm was poisoning him. He had been growing crops for more than 40 years when he and his family realized his illnesses were being caused by exposure to the agricultural chemicals and pesticides that he used on their farm.
“At first I didn’t believe it when my son tried to convince me that the pesticides were catching up with me.” Rodriguez, 78, stands overlooking his 80 acres of land filled with crops and greenhouses. “But we decided in 1986 to be certified as organic after getting rid of the poison we were spraying on the crops. You know, when you spray [the pesticide] it kills everything, so it made sense that it could be killing me.”
Rodriguez has just driven up in a dusty old no-name car, one of his great-grandsons on his lap, laughing and steering the car. He proudly points to his greenhouses, their plastic roofs gleaming in the sun, and tells me the story of how his father, Amado Rodriguez arrived in America from Mexico in the 1920s as a member of a railroad gang when he was only 15.
“After the railroad he drifted around and ended up in Buena Park,” he says as his great-grandson runs off to play. “He grew cabbage and later strawberries and was able to make a living. He had nine kids but only two of us stayed on the farm.”
His father did so well he bought property near what is now Knott’s Berry Farm. But soon he began to feel squeezed out as shopping malls and tract houses began to surround his farm, so he moved to Escondido.
“I thought I might go to college and be an engineer someday,” says the patriarch, smiling. “But here I am still today.”
Rodriguez’s son J.R. led the way for his family’s ranch, Rodriguez Family Farms, to become certified organic after he, too, became ill. Now pests are controlled by favorable insects, crop rotation, and soil management. J.R. overseas the fertilizers, including rock phosphate, green sand, worm castings, and kelp instead of synthetic pesticides.
Rodriguez Family Farms
Joe Rodriguez discusses the Rodriguez Family Farms CSA produce box and Michael Clark gives a tour of the farm, located in Escondido, CA.
The Rodriguez farm lies in the rolling hills of Escondido, a few hairpin turns from Valley Center. Where chaparral once grew, organic lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, and more now thrive in the North County sun below ranch-style houses that crown the hill. People of all ages work in the sheds, packing flowers, fruits, and vegetables while men in the field bend over in the sun and hand weed the strawberries. Lazy mutts sleep in the sun and toddlers run in and out of the shed for a hug or a piece of ripe melon from their grandfather. Everywhere you look there are tractors, plows, cultivators and other types of farm equipment. Rusted windmills stand tall among rows of lettuce and spinach.
Almost everyone in the extended Rodriguez family works on or for the farm. Erma Rodriguez-Clark comes out of one of the houses and joins us. She is the patriarch’s daughter and works on the business side of the farm. When the heat wave in September forced temperatures over 100 degrees, some crops didn’t make it, she says, and that hurt the family’s bottom line. “The kale and collard greens got hit with the heat and then a new beetle came in and finished the job,” Rodriguez-Clark says with a shake of her head. “When that happens, all you can do is pull it all out and start over as fast as you can.”
Rodriguez-Clark said that last year the farm brought in about $700,000. This year — with sales from 18 farmers’ markets from San Diego to Los Angeles, retail markets, and community-supported agriculture programs (which offer weekly shares of seasonal fruits and vegetables delivered in boxes to customers) — she hopes they will hit the $1 million mark.
To get the full tour of the farm, I climb into a truck driven by Michael Clark, 24, grandson of Joe and son of Erma. “Our strawberries are big sellers at the farmers’ markets,” Clark says as the truck bounces and squeaks down the dirt road, “Recently the family started growing blueberries,” Clark says. “The more strawberries we grow, the more they sell. And blueberries are a super food, so I expect we will do well with those. I think people of my generation really want to know where their food is coming from and that it’s safe to eat.”
I first met Clark at the Little Italy farmers’ market. Clark works on the farmers’ market end of the family business and travels up and down Southern California during the week, pleasing and appeasing loyal customers. On that sunny Saturday in September he was busy selling heirloom tomatoes. (J.R.’s grows six varieties of the popular fruit.) “The thing about growing organic,” he said while making change and bagging fruit, “is that if something happens to a crop and you can’t sell the produce, people are disappointed and they want to know why. Growing without pesticides is very difficult. That’s why most farmers don’t grow organic. There are rules and costs to doing it this way. But to us it’s the only way.”
Now in the truck, we pull over to inspect some squash and Clark explains that he hasn’t always worked for the farm. And he didn’t grow up on the property, either. But something pulled him in.
“I’ve always been a part of it, but I didn’t think I would be a farmer,” he says. “I like being on the sales end. I’m learning a lot from my Uncle Joe, and I want to continue working for the family.”
We climb back into the truck and pass the entrance to the ranch, where a colorful sign advertises Rodriguez Family Farms. Odd metal sculptures of horses are displayed in front of the sign. Clark smiles. “My grandfather just started bringing those things home one day because he liked them,” he said. “They’re kind of funny.”
We drive near the pumpkin patch, where a lone palm tree looks out of place. Trailers in which farm hands live dot the area. We bump along and finally stop in front of the greenhouses and walk into one of the plastic-walled structures. The aroma of herbs, mostly basil, makes my eyes water.