Jacobs Farm / Del Cabo: Growing the Organic Movement Exponentially

Aug 1, 2013

By Linda Richards
The Organic Report from The Organic Trade Association

Today, Larry Jacobs and his wife Sandra Belin operate two well established businesses. The first is Jacobs Farm, a 300-acre farm in central California and the nation’slargest producer of fresh culinary organic herbs. The second, which evolved from thefirst, is Del Cabo, a cooperative of 1,300 growers in Latin America that sells organic produce to mom and pop stores as well as national chains, among them Safeway, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market.

The practices employed by these two businesses recently earned Jacobs a Growing Green Business Leader Award from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)—an award the international non-profit environmental organization bestows annually on food businesses that pioneer healthier, more sustainable food systems.

FORMATIVE EXPERIENCES
Several early experiences molded Jacobs’ and Belin’s mission. In 1970,Jacobs was managing a tree nursery in southern California. The countyinspector recommended the pesticide Metasystox (now banned) for aphids.Spraying it without concern, he exposed his skin to the pesticide, and pesticide leaked from the canister down his back. Overcome by dizziness followed by nausea, he passed out. When he awoke, he vowed to never use anything toxic on his crops.

Later in the 1970s, after the two met, they did community development work in Guatemala. The country’s civil unrest was ramping up. “We were in our early 20s which was a pretty impressionable age, and it insulted our sense of justice," says Jacobs. Through their experience, they decided a for profit model would best improve the lives of the people with whom they lived and worked. They ended up on the central coast of California, wherein 1980 they founded Jacobs Farms.
 
In 1985, Jacobs and Belin finished harvesting their garlic and pea crops,and found they had money in their pockets. They vacationed in Mexico.

“We’re not types to lie on the beach so we thought let’s go see what’s growing around here. We started talking to farmers, who were having a rough time financially,” says Jacobs. They decided to take their organic food business to Mexico. Beginning with eight families, they established the farming cooperative with two goals: lessen poverty while protecting the environment on the Baja peninsula and across the gulf in Sonora Mexico.

Today, Del Cabo's 1,300 growers in 10 communities in Latin America provide basil, herbs, fruit, specialty tomatoes and vegetables to North American markets.

DEL CABO MODEL
In the Del Cabo model, farmers ineach community set up and run themselves. These are called growers associations in the more populated areas. If small, the farmers are very involved in decision-making, where as a community of 300 farmers is run by a board of growers who oversee a management team.

The business model has enabled them to combine their two passions: encouraging organic farming and reducing poverty.

“Organic food is very important to us,” says Jacobs, who admits he’sthe extroverted spokesperson while Sandra is the brains behind the company. “The organic part is important because the chemicals used in conventional farming don’t stay where they’re put. They end up inthe air and water and food. And poverty is a terrible thing. We’ve been fortunate to be able to provide a solution to help both."

The Castro family in Tepentu, an isolated community in the middle of the Baja California desert, is an example of one family operation in the Del Cabo network. Its primary income had been making charcoal from mesquite trees, which ended when mesquite became environmentally protected. Today, Castro siblings have moved back to dedicate themselves to their ranch, which now produces specialty organic produce. The operation employs 30 families permanently and an additional 120 people in their community. Baja California Sur’s government showcases the Tepentu group as a successful example of sustainable community development.

MOTIVATING FARMERS
Jacobs and Belin have also been successful in encouraging the adoption of organic practices in the United States, although Jacobs acknowledges the conservative community of Pescadero where Jacobs Farm is located was resistant.

“I had a neighboring farmer who would say, "You’re wrong, Larry. There’s nothing wrong with these pesticides. You’ll end up using them.’ Before he died, he asked me, ‘What can you tell me about how to get certified?’” In the 30 years since Jacobs Farms opened, Jacobs says his neighbors are realizing this organic food business “isn’t a bunch of kooks and hippies. They recognize we’re still around, and that much of what we use are traditional practices.”

The biggest drive in both regions is economic success. But in Mexico particularly, Jacobs says, people are anxious to not use chemicals. It’s a perceived advantage, and people prefer working for their company.

He’s also sensitive to the lure of pesticides and how all farmers are trying to make the best decisions to save their crops. “With many farmers who are second or third generation, they know pesticides are going to work versus the potential of losing their crop and then perhaps their home. They’re getting their information from the pesticide salespeople. It’s market driven,” says Jacobs.

SUSTAINABILITY COMMITMENT
Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo commits itself to sustainability as evidenced by its awards. In addition to the NRDC award, these include OTA’s Organic Farming Leadership Award in 2007 and a Sustainable San Mateo County award. In addition to initiatives such as recyclable packaging, the operations are most proud of a sustainable biofuel venture called Farm Fuel. In this, oil in mustard cultivars is siphoned off for use as fuel for machinery and farm trucks, while the mustard mash carries natural herbicide and biocide properties. “It’s all about using nature."

Recognizing the properties that mustards have developed against being eaten, we’ve worked with UCSC researchers and are developing a product that provides a soil fumigant alternative for anyone with nematodes. You don’t have to use pesticides. Instead, you apply it to the soil to change the soil microbiology. The yields have been very promising. It’s all about using nature.” 

That same focus on what nature teaches us has led to interplanting on the company’s farms. Del Cabo farms showcase tomato and basil crops that are interplanted with fruit trees, palms and compound flowered plants such as sunflowers and alyssum, which host beneficial insects that will control harmful
insects. As Jacobs puts it, “It’s getting out of the paradigm that the only good bug is a dead bug. We need to stop using the word pest and see it as a bug trying to do its living. When there are lots of them eating your plants, that’s a problem. If a few, that’s not an issue. We also need to remember that in nature, the hillsides aren’t denuded because of all the insects."

In addition, the company is a key participant in Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC), an industry wide effort to develop metrics for specialty crop growers concerning sustainability.
 
LOOKING AHEAD
The next horizon for Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo is Eastern Africa, where the operations have been approached to establish the Del Cabo model, backed by private investment money. Within the next year, they plan to begin with 300 farmers, and then expand to 5,000. The eventual plan is to include 35,000 farmers in Africa.
 
“It’s very exciting to expand our business model in another continent,” says Jacobs.

Back in the United States and Latin America, Jacobs Farm / Del Cabo is also expanding its Food for Us program— producing organic fruits and vegetables for local school programs as well as to their farm, warehouse and sales staff.

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I just purchased your Sugar Plum Grape Tomatoes and they are without rival the best tomatoes of any kind. Thank you for the heavenly organic produce.

—Paul from Berkeley, CA