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The Organic Way
Be Wise Ranch has found success through tenacity and innovation
Originally published October 8, 2010 at 2:19 p.m., updated October 9, 2010 at 9:50 a.m.A tall man stands in the field, surveying a vast sea of green. It is late summer, and veteran organic farmer Bill Brammer has rivulets of sweat running down his neck. The mercury passed 100 degrees around midday. This oppressive heat is hard on people but great for ripening tomatoes. At peak harvest, workers will pick more than 60,000 pounds of the juicy red fruits from these fields in a single day.
If you buy organic heirloom tomatoes, grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or Jimbo’s, chances are, your future tomatoes are growing under Brammer’s gaze. Back in spring, the organic strawberries you bought at these outlets also came from “Farmer Bill’s” fields.
Farmer Bill Brammer is founder and owner of Be Wise Ranch, the only organic farm in the San Pasqual Agricultural Preserve and one of the oldest organic farms in San Diego County. On this property, just a stone’s throw from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly the Wild Animal Park) and several acres in nearby Black Mountain, Brammer’s crews grow organic produce for San Diego specialty markets, supermarkets and local Costcos. Be Wise Ranch organic tomatoes and strawberries travel even farther, to Denver , Texas and the Pacific Northwest.
Farming wasn’t Brammer’s intended career path. Or maybe it was. He grew up north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley at a time when the Valley was mostly chicken ranches, and orange and walnut groves. He went to college on a golf scholarship and studied business and philosophy. Still, his heart was in growing plants.
In 1977, Brammer decided to try his hand at farming. He and his brother took turns driving the bulldozer as they cleared 20 acres of a steep hillside in what is now 4S Ranch. They planted early season peaches and nectarines with the intent of creating a niche market. Alas, deer stripped their first harvest from the trees. The bank was giving farm loans only for citrus and avocado, so that’s what they planted next.
While they waited for the trees to mature, Brammer planted three-quarters of an acre of tomatoes. With those profits in hand, he rented another five acres. Be Wise continued to expand until it encompassed 900 acres between the fields east of Rancho Santa Fe and those in San Pasqual. But, as farming seems to inevitably give way to development, so has most of that land. Today, Brammer has a smaller but much more manageable 230 acres under cultivation.
Fighting the odds
Be Wise Ranch’s organic history goes back to Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” about the perils of chemical farming. After reading that, Brammer just couldn’t fathom farming with synthesized pesticides and fertilizers. In fact, he says, “the idea for the name Be Wise came from ‘be smart, be wise, eat organic.’ ”
It was a good name, but where to start? Early on, Brammer contacted UC Davis for help. “When I asked about organic farming, they told me it couldn’t be done, that I’d starve,” he recalls.
Undaunted, Brammer determined to figure it out himself. He became part of a group of like-minded farmers who gathered at EcoFarm Conferences, where they shared their successes and failures. From 1990 to 1995, he was president of the California Certified Organic Farmers. During his tenure, CCOF was instrumental in passing legislation that established both statewide and national organic farming standards.
Brammer has more than disproved the prediction that he’d starve. Be Wise produces at the level of a “conventional” farm — a fact that is even more impressive considering the huge challenges of farming in San Diego’s poor soils and with irrigation water that is four times saltier than drinking water. “You aren’t supposed to be able to farm under conditions like this,” Brammer says, “but we do, and we do it successfully.”
Brammer has developed a sophisticated fertilizer regimen that includes 14 tons of compost applied to each acre of soil, every year.
In addition to compost, Be Wise crops get regular infusions of liquid nutrients added to the water that flows through the farm’s drip irrigation system. Still other nutrients are sprayed onto plant leaves.
While the water delivers healthful nutrients to the crops, it also delivers deadly salts that linger in the soil after the water is gone. So Brammer adds gypsum, powdered calcium sulfate, which counters the salts.
The labor involved in this effort, not to mention the cost of the materials, is huge. Each season, Brammer sends soil and plant leaf samples out for laboratory analysis. The results help him decide how much of which nutrients to apply and when.
The CSA explosion
Climate is Be Wise’s saving grace. In our nearly year-round growing climate, he can grow two crops on his land each year. So farming 230 acres here produces the same amount as farming 460 acres elsewhere.
That volume and the diversity of the produce fuel Be Wise’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. CSA is a system where members of the community “subscribe” to a share of a farmer’s produce.
In the early 1990s, Brammer read about CSAs in Japan and on the East Coast. He had tried selling at farmers markets but found it just wasn’t profitable. So, he says, on Earth Day in 1994, “we set up a booth in Balboa Park. We had 200 people sign up. The next weekend, we invited everyone to visit the farm, and that got us started.”
Be Wise CSA chugged along until about five years ago when local interest in CSAs exploded. Today, 25 percent of Be Wise production goes to feed more than 2,900 member families. Be Wise trucks deliver 1,600 boxes each week to 40 drop sites.
CSA boxes are filled with fresh-picked, organic, locally grown produce — whatever is ripe that week. Lettuces are year-round, as are oranges and carrots. Spring and fall bring succulent strawberries. Basil, squash, tomatoes and peppers dominate summer boxes. Broccoli, chard and turnips are stars in the cool months.
Farming is hard work, and a hard way to earn a living, according to Bill Brammer. Still, he says, “It is fun to look back over the last 30 years and see how much better the fields look now, and how much better the crops are and all that we’ve learned.
“It is still fun to realize you can plant a seed in the ground and if you do things correctly and nature cooperates, you get a crop.”
The Cardiff School District Cafeteria Manager, Sandy Smith, has been working in conjunction with ourSchool Lunch Committee and a chef from Chickpeas (with funding from the Rob Machado Foundation) to continue our efforts in improving the taste and nutrition of our school lunches. We think you will like the results!
Here are some highlights of the changes that have taken place:
• Spaghetti and other pastas are whole wheat
• Breads are whole grain
• Many entrees are now “vegetable enhanced,” which means that pureed vegetables are included in the recipes for items such as our spaghetti sauce, Mac ‘n cheese, refried beans, turkey tacos, etc. You won’t even have to tell your kids!
• More menu items are homemade in the cafeteria kitchen, such as baked potato wedges instead of frozen French fries, homemade burritos instead of frozen, and many more!
• The cheese pizza now includes a “Choose your own Topping Bar.”
• More fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables will be available daily from our “Fruit and Veggie Bar.”
• Salad dressings are homemade in the cafeteria kitchen
• BeWise Farms is donating fresh, local, organic produce to the school cafeteria on a regular basis.
• Students at Cardiff School are participating in a "Grow your Lunch"
program where they are growing salad items to be harvested for the school cafeteria.