How many times do we travel down the same familiar roads in the course of a year? For Southern California commuters, the challenge of arriving anywhere on time is increasing daily. The rising price of gas is making hawk-eyed per-gallon price spotters out of all of us. Our AM radio dials are programmed for traffic reports, and we set out each day on roads fraught with uncertain delays. The distance we travel to our local farmers’ market is mercifully short for most of us, at least, and we have come to rely upon the promptness of the farmers’ arrival.
During the very rainy early spring, it was nothing short of heroic that farmers were able to negotiate road closures and extra heavy traffic to bring their products to market each week. Farmers have come to expect uncertainty, so they were better prepared than most casual commuters to plan ahead and arrive on time.
Spending hours on the road is a necessary part of commerce for the self-employed farmer. Low wholesale prices are just one of the many squeezes put on farmers that have made direct marketing at farmers’ markets their last hope for staying on the farms. Farmers benefit when they are able to control their product from the field to the table, so driving a lot is just another aspect of good farm management.
Bernard Ranch in Riverside is a family-owned citrus operation that has learned how to add highway time management to its repertoire of farming know-how. Vince Bernard grew up on a dairy farm in Escondido. When development zoned out the family dairy, Vince’s father bought a Valencia orange grove, but the undervalued juice oranges were not making any money on the wholesale market.
After Vince got out of college and worked some jobs not related to his architecture degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he was hired as an avocado inspector in San Diego County. He and his high school sweetheart, Vicki, were married in 1974, but the challenge of selling Valencia oranges resulted in most of the crop being left to fall to the ground. Vince heard about the new farmers’ market in Gardena, so he began taking his truck full of oranges up there every Saturday morning at 6 a.m., and was on his way to a career in direct marketing.
Later the same year he was hired as an air traffic controller at Ontario airport. He and Vicki were present on opening day of the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers’ market in 1981, and Vicki has memories of very busy sales her very first day at the market. Valencia oranges have a ten-month season, so the Bernards took time off from farmers’ markets in October and November each year. Meanwhile, Vince was driving back and forth to work in Ontario and he found a navel orange grove to buy in Riverside. With the addition of navel oranges, Bernard Ranch was able to attend the market year round. The Bernards’ two children, daughter Gina and son A.J., literally grew up at markets. At a very early age, they were able to accurately count out customer change, and their parents are certain that their children’s exposure to good, hard farm work imbued them with a deep seated, unshakable work ethic.
Currently, Bernard Ranch is selling in seven southern California markets. In addition to oranges, the ranch grows grapefruit, Seville oranges, tangelos, pommelos, and avocados. In response to customer demand, interesting culinary citrus like Bergamot, Kaffir and Australian finger limes are now being grafted for future harvest that may still be several years away.
Gina and A.J., both business degree graduates, will not be returning to work the farm, so Vince and Vicki are managing their markets, farming and off-farm employment on their own for now. I recently went with Vicki on a road trip to San Luis Obispo in her fuel efficient Toyota. She mused on how pleasant it was to drive a vehicle that got more than eight miles per gallon, which is what her market pickup gets. Fuel costs have made the price of commuting to some markets $60 each way. What that will do for the future of farming remains to be seen. In the meantime, we had a gorgeous drive up the 101 past beautiful rolling hills, right into California’s farming heartland.