Love for the locavores at Pescadero’s Fifth Crow Farm
How UCSC classmates became converts to sustainability and purveyors of delicious farm boxes for the SF Peninsula.
Words and photos by Molly Cornfield
It’s 8am on a Friday morning, and I’ve managed to get myself out of my Mountain View apartment, over the foothills, and to Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero.
The farm is quiet and the air is fresh. Rows of different crops — kale, squash, and corn were just a few that I noticed — lie at the foot of a small hill, giving the farm a secluded feel despite the openness.
This is where founder Teresa Kurtak and her partners in farming, husband Mike Irving and friend John Vars, lease 80 acres of land where they grow 30 different row crops, 24 varieties of apples, and produce three varieties of eggs. The three founders all met at the University of California–Santa Cruz Farm and Garden Program, where they each established a commitment to sustainable food systems. “We want to farm in a way that improves the environment,” Kurtak says.
Her words are on my mind this morning. By the time I arrive at the farm, the Fifth Crow staffers are an hour into their workday, packing produce and preparing boxes for the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
“One of the things that appeals to Americans across the political spectrum is that they want to support the local economy.” — Teresa Kurtak
Since crop diversity is central to sustainable farming, the harvest list is long and colorful. Among many other things, it includes baby greens, beets, strawberries, and basil.
Casey Gooding, Fifth Crow’s CSA coordinator, directs my attention to a cluster of silver Oscar-The-Grouch style trash cans. But these aren’t filled with garbage (or ill-tempered Muppets) — rather, each contains a different variety of bean.
Of all the produce harvested at Fifth Crow, the beans are the most notable. I peer into the cans, marveling at the colors, patterns, and textures of the beans. I’ve never considered that such a simple food could be so pretty. To me, the most beautiful is the Calypso. It looks like a little bean-shaped yin-yang: a black-and-white surface with a speckle of black on the white side and a dot of white on the black side. According to Fifth Crow’s website, “They’re often likened to a new potato” and go well “slow-stewed with a ham hock, in soup, or cooked al dente for a salad.”
Planting variety, threshing by hand
The farm grows 16 varieties of beans (and counting), to which they’ve dedicated over five acres. The Fifth Crow team meticulously hand-threshes, sorts, and cleans these beans, which means they’re fresher than the typical grocery store bean.
Freshness isn’t the only motivation for doing it the old-fashioned way. Modern-day bean farming machinery is expensive, built for large batches, and only made to accommodate a single variety at a time. The combine needs to be re-adjusted for each bean size, and at a small farm that values crop diversity, the time saved wouldn’t justify the price.
Fifth Crow’s dedication to diversity extends far beyond its bean production. It permeates every aspect of what happens at the farm.
“Diversity means that we don’t end up with a high number of pests,” Kurtak says, explaining that by reducing the concentration of any single crop, they limit the pest’s capacity for destruction.
Plus, she tells me, farming sustainably means tastier, healthier produce. “By doing the right thing, you end up with a better product.”
As I venture across the farm, the flower garden catches my attention. It’s a vibrant assortment of varieties, with grid-like splashes of color.
While you might not think of flowers when you think of farming, these pretty plants aren’t just for show. They’re an important piece of the farm’s ecology.
“Flowers are part of a diversified farm,” Kurtak explains. “They provide food for pollinators, which then pollinate the crops.”
Delivering from Santa Cruz to San Francisco
Every week, Gooding manages field walks and matches available produce to the CSA box. While these boxes of fresh produce, delivered to subscribers at central locations for weekly pickup, are a fairly typical offering of small local farms, Fifth Crow’s is unique. It offers a variety of different add-ons, from pasture-raised Fifth Crow eggs to meat, honey and herbal remedies from partner farms in Pescadero.
Seemingly, this unique element is working for the Fifth Crow team. While many CSAs are struggling to compete with the new-age convenience of meal kit delivery services, Fifth Crow’s continues to expand.
Gooding and her team deliver CSA boxes all over the Bay Area — as far north as San Francisco and as far south as Santa Cruz — with 15 pickup locations at farmer’s markets and other local spots, such as private homes or businesses. The Peninsula is home to 10 of those locations.
Each box contains eight to 10 different produce items and is accompanied by a weekly newsletter with helpful recipes and other supporting information. CSA members also get a pound of those beautiful dried beans each month.
Most importantly, CSAs like Fifth Crow’s fuse the modern desire for quick and convenient shopping with the value of buying local. The box provides you with everything you need to make a meal while providing farmers with insurance against risk: even if best-selling produce were to fail, they’d still have a guaranteed market.
“CSAs provide direct connection to food and farmers,” Gooding says.
While she’s not too optimistic about the future of food systems, Gooding’s two years and counting at Fifth Crow have created for her a kind of silver lining.
“In general, I think that most people don’t see food systems as part of the larger system,” Gooding tells me. “But as this business grows, it seems like there’s a lot of hope.”
Growing and selling locally is a key tenet of sustainable agriculture, and luckily, supporting the local economy is something that many Americans seem to agree on.
“The local food market is nationwide,” Kurtak says. “One of the things that appeals to Americans across the political spectrum is that they want to support the local economy.”
Every week, the Fifth Crow team sells their produce at six farmer’s markets around the Bay Area: on Wednesdays in the Castro (SF), Saturdays in San Mateo, and Sundays in Palo Alto, Campbell, Inner Sunset (SF), and St. Clement (SF).
One Sunday, I popped by Fifth Crow’s booth in Palo Alto. The market, as always, was a mishmash of bright colors, pleasant aromas, and oddly shaped produce. And yet, even with so many beautiful stands overflowing with fresh produce, Fifth Crow Farm stood out from the rest.
Flowers framed the booth, which stood brimming with fragrant fruits and fresh, pert, noticeably un-wilted veggies. A handwritten sign greeted market-goers at the entrance, providing a menu of the week’s harvest.
“We want to grow what people are looking for,” Kurtak told me. “We focus on building a connection with our customers, so we know what the farmer’s market crowd wants to eat.”
And their attention to community certainly seems to be appreciated: a line snaked through the stand and out the entrance.
Of course, it’s no secret that life, and land, in the Bay Area comes with a hefty price tag. And those dramatically rising land prices come with a host of implications for those who farm nearby. While land prices increase, the price of food items remains more or less flat.
“The price for many standard produce commodities hasn’t changed in 25 years,” Kurtak explains. “Food prices haven’t gone up, but the cost of production goes up every year.”
To keep up with costs, the Fifth Crow team has found itself in the stressful position of having to raise prices of produce. But that, too, is aided by being a small operation.
“We’re lucky—we can actually talk to our customers and explain what’s going with prices or odd produce,” says Kurtak.
But despite the challenges of a life in agriculture, Kurtak wouldn’t do anything else.
“I think about doing something else, and everything pales in comparison,” she says. “It’s diverse work that is endlessly challenging, never gets boring, and there’s always something new to figure out.”