Smarter Business: Case Studies
Swanton Berry Farm
Organic, Unionized Strawberry Farming
Photo: The Compound
Strawberry farming is tough. Strawberries are prey to a wide array of pests and pathogens, require intensive upkeep, and are so delicate that one heavy rain or a strong wind may decimate a harvest. Many farmers in the business have long thought that breaking even requires heavy use of synthetic fertilizers, toxic soil fumigants like methyl bromide and chloropicrin, and cheap labor.
Getting into the organic business is tough, too. A farm must essentially be organic for three years before it can be certified. There are few programs supporting farmers through the transition period and federal crop insurance is higher for organic farmers. These "barriers to entry" can discourage growers from transitioning to organic.
Jim Cochran blazed a trail for environmentally friendly, socially responsible strawberry farming. His Swanton Berry Farm is a successful, profitable, certified organic strawberry farm. What’s more, his business is fully unionized. Jim Cochran is a NRDC Growing Green awardee for 2011.
The key to Cochran's strategy is minimizing water and fertilizer inputs in order to produce a better tasting, higher quality product. His organic farming practices ensures healthy soil that requires less inputs and helps create a more flavorful, less diluted fruit, which gives Swanton Berry Farm competitive advantage.
Crop rotation is central to soil health and fertility in organic farming. 70 to 90 of Swanton’s 200 acres contribute directly to sales each year, while the rest are left fallow to rejuvenate.
Cochran grows crops that naturally complement the health of soil for strawberries, particularly brassicas like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, as well as artichokes, peas, bush berries, kiwis, and more. Climate is also a factor: Davenport’s coastal, temperate climate makes tomatoes a major investment but greatly reduces required upkeep for broccoli and peas.
Land ownership is prohibitively expensive for many small farms on the California coast. Swanton leases its land from five different landowners. Swanton also uses its small size and local retailer network to its advantage. Strawberries make it to market as soon as two hours after picking; most of Swanton’s clients are within 100 miles of the farm.
Swanton makes about 55 percent of its revenue through wholesale to retailers such as Whole Foods, with whom Swanton has a regional partnership, and a handful of Bay Area restaurants. The other 45 percent is made through sales at 14 local farmers' markets and on the farm itself. Customers can visit Swanton off Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and San Francisco to buy jams, pies, T-shirts, or take a u-pick walking tour. Swanton’s business as a whole has also benefitted from the tremendous growth of the American organic industry over the last 20 years.
Photo: The Compound
Labor in the strawberry industry is notoriously difficult, and pesticides like methyl bromide have earned their reputation for harming the health of those who work around them. Cochran significantly reduces worker turnover and increases productivity through Swanton’s safer growing practices, certified unionization, and revolutionary impressive employee stock ownership program. He even builds his strawberry cultivation beds twice as high as the industry standard to reduce muscular-skeletal injuries to workers. Many of Cochran’s workers have been with the Swanton Berry Farm for decades, with correspondingly high experience and expertise.
Jim Cochran is happy to report that since he began to farm organically in 1987, his business has gone from being 100 percent of the California organic strawberry market to just about 1 percent. His pioneering organic efforts has proved to California's farmers that organic strawberry cultivation can be profitable and many have followed suit. Cochran's business goes through good years and bad years, but gross profits average out to about 3 percent annually.
Photo: The Compound
Organic strawberry farming is a small but growing part of the U.S. strawberry industry. In no small part thanks to innovations at Swanton, research and available information on organic strawberry farming techniques has expanded greatly in recent years. Through new scientific research and the documented experiences of farmers like Cochran, major information needs (especially integrated pest management) are being met.
Swanton Berry Farm is a certified organic, 100 percent unionized, employee-owned berry and vegetable farm based in Davenport, California. California Certified Organic Farmers and the USDA National Organic Program certify Swanton’s organic status, and unionization is certified through a contract with United Farm Workers.
- Swanton Berry Farm Home Page, featuring resources for other businesses and farmers
- NRDC 2011 Growing Green Awards and Growing Green video
- OnEarth’s story on Swanton Berry Farm: Kicking the Chemical Habit
- Jim Cochran’s blog post on OnEarth: “When it Comes to Food, One Size Doesn’t fit all”
- Rodale Institute Report on Swanton’s Labor Practices
- National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service Guide to Organic Strawberry Farming
- Community Food Enterprise Case Study on Swanton Berry Farm
- Agricultural Marketing Resource Center Resources on Organic Food Trends
- Gina Solomon’s NRDC Switchboard article on Methyl Bromide and Methyl Iodide
last revised 6/17/2011