Russian River Organics - Dave Pew
Our latest Meet the Farners interview is with Dave Pew, owner and operator of Russian River Organics. His farming operation is located in Healdsburg, California, an area that has developed a robust reputation for its viticulture, agriculture and a thriving community driven by sustainability. Sonoma County has a tightknit feel to it, while still welcoming weekenders from San Francisco and sharing its homegrown products with visitors who come from all over the world to one of the most famous wine regions. Where grapevines flourish, so do many other crops. Dave’s farm is a microcosm of the North Bay community with their connectedness to the land and their collective response to addressing food equity.
Dave perfectly encapsulates the confident, down-to-earth friendliness of so many Northern Californians who know they have settled into a life and place quite special. He’s made it, but on his terms. It’s not in a sense that he’s rich but in the sense that he has accomplished what he set out to do. He has a successful farm, he is tied to the land and he provides for his community. His hard work has been rewarding. The fruits of his labor are paying off. He is actively using his skills, working with nature and wholesomely contributing to his community by providing high quality sustenance.
Dave’s trajectory has a few consistent themes: he’s always been into gardening, has participated in co-ops and had an affinity for nature. He’s smart, diligent and involved. In Sonoma, residents are dialed in to one of the best agricultural areas of the world and Dave has worked hard to build a farm business that is an integral part of this community. Dave’s participation in FEED Sonoma reflects his hopeful future as a farmer, small business owner and activist.
Hi Dave, can you tell us about yourself and your farm?
The farm is called Russian River Organics, located in Healdsburg, California. We are a small farm, about three acres, with a handful of employees. We sell our produce to restaurants and at local farmer’s markets and contribute as a member/owner of a cooperative distribution hub called FEED Sonoma (Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights). FEED Sonoma distributes food to the greater Bay Area and does a multi-farm CSA. At Russian River Organics, we grow specialty produce and a wide variety of vegetables for the community.
About FEED Sonoma Co-op:
Russian River Organics is a proud member of a co-op called FEED Sonoma. FEED Sonoma became California’s first employee and farmer-owned produce cooperative in 2020. It is described on their website as, “A food hub community of 70+ local farms, supporting ecologically sustainable farming and ranching practices.” They have been around since 2011, “cultivating a network of buyers in the North Bay Area, enabling the farm community to distribute their produce with ease to restaurants, businesses, and home consumers alike.” Their goal is to build a more equitable food system. FEED Sonoma was founded by Tim Page. He started it as a business but he always had it in mind to turn it into a co-op as it grew. During the pandemic, when restaurants and corporate account demand dried up, FEED Sonoma’s mission to support farmers accelerated.
FEED Bin was launched by FEED Sonoma as a multi-farm CSA and ordering platform to help struggling farmers sell their produce when demand plummeted. Their pivot helped the community immensely during the pandemic and has addressed the importance of local food security. Their mission is to support farmers. They manage the logistics of a multi-farm model, provide diversity of products to customers, set up drop-off points and more. This allows farmers more time with their crops and less time trying to manage the selling of their products in a new and unknown environment. FEED Bin successfully unified farmers through a single platform and made an actionable plan. It’s an excellent model for a sustainable food system and customers who subscribe are supporting several local Sonoma County farms.
Back to Dave. How did you get started?
Well, It’s been a long road. I went to UC Berkeley to become a geologist. I lived in a co-op for awhile when I was attending Berkeley. After I graduated, I came to Santa Cruz. I was always into cooking and gardening. I reconnected with gardening after college. I befriended some guys who were working in the organic farming industry at Dirty Girl produce and worked there for a bit. During my time in Santa Cruz I learned a lot about farming from the operational standpoint. I realized this was something I could make a career out of so I went back to school. I was drawn to the aspect of working outside, toiling soil. I enrolled in the apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz CASFS, the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. It is an intensive organic farming and gardening program that dates back to the 1960’s.
According to the CASFS website, agroecology is the “integrative study of the entire food system, encompassing ecological, economic and social dimensions.” Their vision statement is to “envision an equitable food system that empowers local communities, builds relationships, and nourishes all people and the environment.” This experience paved the way for the development of Dave’s farming and management techniques, as well as instilling a social and communal aspect of providing for his community.
Back to Dave. Where did that program lead you?
After my CASFS apprenticeship, I stayed in Santa Cruz and bounced around some farms. I knew by this point that I wanted my own farm. I eventually realized the farms in this area were already pretty well-established and I needed to find my spot somewhere else. I moved up North to manage a farm at a vineyard in Geyserville.
That’s what brought me to Sonoma County. I always had a vision for my own farm operation. I kind of manifested the idea of my perfect farm. I envisioned a beautiful piece of land that someone was willing to lease, flat, with good soil, and close to town. One day I met a guy out at a bar in Healdsburg and we started talking. I told him what my idea was and he told me I was the person they were looking for. It was serendipitous. He connected me to the land that is now Russian River Organics. I signed up for a 10-year land lease. It was a modest beginning, but I slowly built it up. We are seven years in and the farm is thriving. It’s mostly a seasonal business since the growing months here are so fruitful, and It’s really rewarding. I have a sweet spot, with a tiny little farm where I’m trying to maintain quality, not necessarily look to grow quantity. It feels good.
What are you growing today?
It’s a large lot of land with a small crew so we manage the space to make the most out of it, but with labor costs in mind. It’s important for us to grow some vegetables that are lower maintenance. It balances out our high cost or higher labor crops.
We grow everything from main and specialty lettuces, melons, watermelons, strawberries, cucumber varieties, eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, peppers and more. We can grow a lot of one thing knowing that we have distribution for it. Understanding your product and your market and the distribution of it has helped us immensely. It has also helped us build up recurring business.
What ONP vegetables have you grown?
I discovered ONP on Instagram. I was first interested in your Zuccurì because of our success with other winter squashes. Winter squash is no problem to sell, and the restaurants love it. We can grow unique ONP vegetables and if a few SF chefs are interested, we’re set.
The Negi is going to be my experiment for the year. I’m into it. I have a chef in mind who will love these Japanese vegetables. Negi is cool and different and I’m excited to try it out.
How would you like to see your farm business grow?
I’m at the point where I’m not necessarily looking for more customers. I’m selling all of my produce. I’m not trying to do a ton of marketing. We have a great customer base that satisfies our business. We try to take really good care of the customers that we have. It’s always important to be open to new things and new relationships, but I am pretty satisfied with my business right now. I’ve found a business model that works and I feel good about providing something of quality for my community.
For our last questions, we always like to ask: What do you love about this industry?
I love that farming is a blend of art and science. There is so much information out there and you have to use finesse, intuition, a scientific mind and an eye for detail. It draws in my focus and attention. I’m very detail-oriented. It’s rewarding to teach our employees our system of farming. It’s not the only way to farm, I’m no expert, but we’ve found what works for us. We work hard and things are orderly and getting our employees to buy-in to our system and teach people our way of farming is huge.
People get so excited to see what we produce. Our walk-in in the summer is stacked to the gills. Like, four times a week we are full and empty, full and empty, and it repeats itself. Failures are also important. If you grow food that you can’t sell, that's depressing. If you are growing beautiful food, it's exciting that people want the food. The farmer’s market customers are awesome and there is a devoted customer base. Building relationships with customers, being on a first name basis with customers and seeing their kids grow year-to-year is a highlight, too. People keep coming back because they think highly of our products. They buy our products because it’s the freshest, highest quality produce. Chefs buy our produce because they want to provide a fresh experience to their guests. The circle of supporting each other’s businesses is a very rewarding business. I’ll go out to these fancy restaurants that would be beyond my normal budget, but if they are buying the hell out of my produce, I feel like going to splurge at one of those places is totally acceptable. Being a small business person in a smaller community and supporting each other’s businesses is very rewarding.