By Doug Porter
Suzie’s Farm did all the right things over the past eight years, growing a wide variety organic produce, selling at farmers markets and direct to consumers, getting listed as a supplier on restaurant menus, always with an eye toward building community involvement. Above all, Robin Taylor and Lucila De Alejandro built a brand.
Now the farm is closed. The announcement came via a Facebook live post on Monday. Although they’d brought in partners with financial experience in organic agriculture last year, the business never made money. De Alejandro told viewers the farm was losing “five figures a week.”
The farm was established in 2004, on property adjacent to Sun Grown Organic Distributors, a sprout and wheatgrass company (which will continue to operate) operated by Robin and Lucila for twenty-five years. The ‘Suzie’s’ name came from a now-deceased Norwegian Elkhound who appeared on the property in early 2004.
Located in the Tijuana River estuary south of Imperial Beach, the 14140-acrearm was certified as USDA Organic in 2009.
In the ensuing years, the operation’s name became synonymous with high-quality local produce, and as a venue for events staged amid the agricultural splendor. Over 100 crops, including flowers and exotic vegetables grown throughout the year allowed Suzie’s to maintain a high profile in farmer’s markets and restaurants throughout San Diego.
Organic farming comes with its own unique set of business challenges, and Suzie’s location–on a former artillery range leased from the US Navy–had more than its share.
Some of the fields were off-limits, having been deemed unsafe for the public in the lease agreement. The militarized nature of the border zone was another challenge, with Mexico just a short distance away.
The company backed off from doing business with restaurants in recent years. The boutique-type eateries more inclined to buy from local purveyors often had cash flow problems.
And then there was what San Diego Magazine writer Troy Johnson referred to as “Farm to Fable.” More than a few restaurateurs sought to sell the allure of locavore dining as part of their image. With Suzie’s brand established through a high profile in area farmers markets, they were often on the receiving end of this scam.
The worst kind of farm-to-fable is the pure, intentional deception. There are less obvious ways of using the farm’s name. “What you see on menus and grocery stores is ‘We buy Suzie’s Farms,’” says [Catt] White [farmers market manager at Little Italy Mercato] “When in reality a couple of heads of lettuce do come from Suzie’s, but the rest doesn’t. By implication, customers assume the rest is coming from the farmer.”
“You’ll find a lot of people say they use local produce,” says [David] Barnes [of Crows Pass Farms]. “They’ll buy $5,000 worth of produce, but only $100 is local.”
Or a restaurant will throw a “Famous Farm X Dinner.” They’ll buy all the produce from that farm for the special event, reap all of the positive brand association with postings all over Facebook and social media. Afterward, they’ll never buy anything else from the farm.
I’m sure there were other economic issues, imperceptible to the average outsider. The biggest challenge for the good food concept as a business is getting customers to put their wallets where their mouths are. (I’m guilty as charged)
Suzie’s sought to bridge that gap by building community ties, staging all kinds of events designed to make the human connection between grower and consumer.
In an era where Amazon is buying Whole Foods and commodity farmers continue to get government support, being an independent operation anywhere in the food industry has got to be a challenge.
Suzie’s Farm wasn’t perfect. They never claimed to be–though you wouldn’t know that from what got said in social media. Getting to be famous brings its own set of challenges and expectations.
I’ll miss Suzie’s, even though I was just an occasional customer and visitor. They stood for something. And that’s all-too-rare in the business world these days.
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Bob Morgan says
Very sad to see this great business close. Their produce, which I bought at Farmers Market every week was superb in quality and taste. Their friendliness and cheerful attitude always made shopping with them pleasant. The tours of the farm were a fantastic field trip opportunity for schools, as well as the general public. I participated in one and was both a learning experience and fun. It is sad to hear that people dedicated to putting wholesome food on our tables are going the wayside. They will be missed
I worked in the food business in my ex hometown of Boulder CO and witnessed many examples of the “farm to fable” examples that you mention. There is a lot of scamming going on in restaurants that claim “organic” or “local”. Not just produce, either. It also happens with meat, fish, and poultry.
Suzie’s really did stand for something–quality and doing it right. They will be missed.
I was SO sad to hear this last week at the farmers market in La Jolla. I love Suzie’s produce and loved the farm tour. The tour gave me real appreciation for the work involved in growing healthy food. It is a pitiful situation when an organic farm cannot make enough money to stay in business but huge traditional agribusinesses are doing fine.
I loved bringing my family there for strawberry and pumpkin picking…
How come they expanded a couple years ago if it was never profitable?
This is all such a bummer….
Jennifer Widmer says
So sad to see them closing. My children did summer camp there the last year they had it and had an experience they will never forget!!!
I’m sad they couldn’t keep the kid summer camps going as we would have done them every year.
They are a very sweet family and we loved meeting them and so wish they could have succeeded.