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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