Spotlight: Coke Farm’s Unique Approach Empowers Organic Growers

Posted on Friday, March 29th, 2024 by CC Ciraolo
Photo Credit: Coke Farm

Coke Farm started out as a quarter-acre of strawberries in Watsonville in 1980. The following year, the farm became one of the first certified organic farms in the Central Coast. Today, Coke Farm supports the next generation of organic farmers by connecting over 70 local small and mid-sized organic producers to markets. Ninety-five percent of Coke Farm’s growers are minority and women-owned, cultivating over 4,000 acres of organic farmland in the Central Coast and Central Valley. The following interview with Coke Farm’s Food Safety and Compliance Manager Lily Nugent has been edited for brevity. 


Photo Credit: Coke Farm

CC: Coke Farm helps growers get their products to market through quality assurance, compliance and logistics. What does that process look like? 


LN: Our grower liaisons will start working with a grower by evaluating a site, looking at the soil, and making crop recommendations based on market predictions and grower experience and preference. Once growers are bringing in product, we provide pre-cooling and cooling services. Any product that goes into the supply chain at a wholesale or a large retail level needs to be pre-cooled; the field temperature needs to be brought down before it enters the cooler in order to maintain shelf life and quality. Coke Farm offers hydro cooling, ice injecting services, and forced air cooling. 

We have an in-house quality assurance team which is coordinating with growers throughout the season so that their stem length, bunch size, etc. will get them the highest value and meet customer demand. We also provide washing and packing services and our label brand, which is well known in the specialty market. Our sales team does a great job of understanding customer’s needs and finding the right home for products. There’s a lot of thoughtfulness in where our product goes – that allows us to serve smaller growers while being conscious of relationships with customers. 


CC: What have you been working on as the Food and Safety Compliance Manager? 


LN: One of the projects I started in the last year was reimbursing growers for their mandatory food safety certification. If a grower isn’t running into language barriers or computer literacy challenges and can write their own food safety plan without a consultant, the food safety inspection will cost about $2,500. With a consultant, which the majority of growers use, it’s about $5,000 a year every year. Through a two-year reimbursement pilot funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, growers are eligible to be reimbursed for 50-75% of their certification costs. That’s a big deal for small farmers! I’ve also supported some disaster relief grant applications for farmers affected by crop loss from floods.  


CC: How do you see Coke Farm’s grower services evolving over the next few years?


LN: The three areas I’d like to build out are technical assistance for climate smart agriculture applications, food safety training, and access to capital. For some growers, these [climate smart] practices are new. There’s education needed to understand the benefits of cover cropping and composting and how it will affect yield and soil health in the long term. 

For food safety training, I want to facilitate peer to peer learning and develop a suite of services and resources that growers can turn to like bilingual training videos to help prepare for inspections. And of course access to capital is huge, especially for small growers. This year, Coke Farm provided almost $160,000 in advances. Sometimes, folks can have product in the ground, and they spend all their money on seed fertilizer. If we don’t have cash to pay for the harvest of it, how do we get that product to market?

Photo Credit: Coke Farm

CC: How have you seen funding for the Healthy Soils Program (HSP) affect growers?


LN: I’ve seen at least a dozen growers receive funding for compost and cover cropping through HSP. The beauty of the program is that it’s three years. That’s enough time for growers to actually feel the difference in the soil, see yields increase and see the quality of the product increase. When the funding runs out, growers continue to implement these practices because they know they work. I’m really excited because I helped a grower apply for funding to cover crop their lemon orchard for the first time. To give a grower the opportunity to try a practice for the first time without investing that $30,000 on their own…that’s a game changer. They’re two years into owning that lemon orchard. If they understand the value of implementing that practice, build up their yields, their growth, their soil health, they’re going to take that with them for the rest of their life. 


CC: What about the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP)?


LN: With SWEEP, I’ve had mixed experiences with the consistency of funding. That same lemon orchard had already opened their application and paid $90,000 to put in a new pump and well casing when the funding ran out halfway through the grant cycle. They were out $90,000 which could be the difference between staying in business and not for a small grower. Irrigation management systems are really costly. If we want to see a shift in water management in California, we have to support small growers in adopting these new practices. We have to support these growers to protect our aquifers. When the funding is there, it allows growers to make long term investments in their operations which is incredible. 

I worked with a grower here in San Juan Bautista that got SWEEP funding to switch over from overhead irrigation sprinklers to drip irrigation. They put in soil sensors and small emitters in to be able to understand when they needed to water. Instead of using a watering schedule that may not have been as effective, they’re able to really base it on what the soil feels like and what the plants need, which is incredible. They were also able to upgrade their pump with a solar panel, reducing their energy costs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 


CC: Technical assistance and access to capital are essential for small, beginning, and underserved farmers. Who are some of the other organizations offering support in these areas and how does their work impact Coke growers? 


LN: The work that CAFF (California Alliance with Family Farmers) does in so many different areas is incredible. With the Healthy Soils Program, they have the capacity to have one-on-one calls with growers and complete the applications with them. That’s something I really want to build capacity for here at Coke Farm. FarmLink is an amazing funding resource that provides access to capital for growers. That’s allowed one of our growers in the San Joaquin Valley to secure their own land with a house on it. The son was able to purchase the land for his parents and put his parents in a home. 

On our team, Ernesto Soto is amazing at connecting growers with these resources, always vouching on their behalf for any of these funding opportunities. He’s built beautiful relationships with these growers. And I think that’s what makes Coke Farm special is focusing on long term relationships with growers and always having our doors open. 

Photo Credit: Coke Farm


CC: What inspires you most about working at Coke Farm?


LN: Going out to a grower’s farm and seeing the love that they put into their crops, that’s what puts a smile on my face. When a grower describes what they want to do, and you are able to bridge those practices to resources that can help them get there – that’s the most rewarding thing. To see small growers succeed and build their family farm and feed their children and feed our children with organic produce that they put their love and heart into, that feeds the soul.

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