Diversification: Sierra Valley Farms breaks new ground

Diana Jorgenson
Staff Writer

I come from third-generation farmers on both sides of my family, said Gary Romano of Sierra Valley Farms, by way of introduction.

He was raised on a flower farm near San Jose and spent summers haying with his cousins in Sierra Valley.
This underground greenhouse was originally built on a neighboring farm to raise tropical plants. Sierra Valley Farms arranged to put it into production this winter. Winter and summer, the earth temperature keeps the greenhouse an even 58 degrees. Photo by Diana Jorgenson

I spent my childhood farming and swore Id never do it again.

His grandfather emigrated from Italy in 1906 and bought the first of several family ranches under the Homestead Act.

Garys mother was born in Sierra Valley, and family members continued to run the ranches through the 1970s.

Although Romano disliked farming, he liked plants so he got a degree in horticulture and went to work for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

He also loved Sierra Valley and when his aunt and uncle, Emilio and Betty Folchi, were ready to sell their 65-acre family farm in 1989, he was ready to buy it.

Although he bought the farm for its family value and for historical reasons, Romano noted, My roots started tugging at me, trying to grow things.

Nevertheless, he had no illusions: Sierra Valley is the worst place in the world to start a farm.

He continued to work for Parks and Rec. He was based at that time in Tahoe City and later in Truckee. He invested in three greenhouses costing $80,000 and spent about five years figuring out what would grow in his part of the valley.

At that time, there was a big market for native plants because planning departments were requiring that land be re-stocked with native plants after development.

Sierra Valley Farms began, then, as a native plant nursery.

Romano soon discovered that there were no local outlets for native plants, so he got his license and became a landscaper.

That carried him and his family for about seven years, long enough for the organic farming industry to begin to move and organize.

He worked with the organization of a farmers market in Truckee as part of his job with Parks and Rec and saw an avenue for his produce.

Gary and his wife, Kim, were now ready to leave salaried employment behind and become farmers.

Going organic was an easy decision. Organic farming was just the old-style farming he had been taught.

Romano laughed that his Italian forbears were so cheap, they wouldnt spend a dime on fertilizer even if it did help.

The farm had lain fallow for 30 years and was a great candidate for organic certification.

The Romanos concentrated on cool season crops like salad greens and radishes, after noting that they were no longer available in the Central Valley after June.

Today, that is still their mainstay. They grow lettuce, greens, spinach, beets, carrots, broccoli and kale and sell it at four different farmers markets as well as supplying several restaurants with their salad needs.

The quality of their produce is what differentiates their produce from others. Naturally occurring boron in the soil and the hardiness required of plants in this climate make the Sierra Valley Farms lettuce durable, often lasting three weeks in the crisper.

Today, Sierra Valley Farms hosts its own farmers market, one that has evolved over the past 15 years.

Back then, there was no farmers market in Plumas County, so the Romanos began by buying up produce from their fellow vendors in Truckee and bringing it to the farm for re-sale.

They had the idea of bringing customers to the farm, and agritourism was born at Sierra Valley Farms.

The market grew and attracted vendors of its own. People came and bought, often staying two or three hours to watch the cooking demonstrations featured at noon.

The old 1936 buildings on the farm were memorabilia to Romano and worth saving. To his customers, they were history and they were charming.

One successful venture with the public led to another, when one of the chefs, Mark Estee of Moodys Bistro, asked to do a photo shoot on the farm.

That led to a Dinner in the Barn fundraiser, which has since become a successful summer series of dinners. The unusual setting and the delicious four-course dinners served at Sierra Valley Farms recently made the list of the top 10 things to do when you come to the Lake Tahoe region.

Sierra Valley Farms has incorporated a number of enterprises to expand its income from the farm over the years.

Indeed, Romano admits that he spends much of his winter thinking of crazy ideas that might work for him.

Some of them take time; like the 40 wasabi plants he imported from Japan seven years ago. He has increased his wasabi plant numbers to 400, but has yet to decide on the best preservation method.

The Romanos have started asparagus beds, but lost their first attempts to voles. They seem to have licked the problem with pine needle dressings and are optimistic about the new beds for the future.

Value-added products, like horseradish, keep them working after growing season, and greenhouse grown micro-greens allow them to serve high-end restaurants throughout the winter.

Being creative with markets is the biggest challenge they face, Romano said, and land and capital investment is their biggest obstacle.

Most farmers dont like public contact. They just want their face in the dirt: Just let me farm. For the small farmer, its been one of our biggest deficits: we dont toot our horn enough. Every time I get an opportunity to get in an article or to speak, Ill do it because Im trying to promote the little guy. To me, were definitely a dying breed the small farmer, Romano said.

Bringing the public onto the farm can help with that public relations deficiency and it creates strong bonds between the customer and the farmer.

It comes down to customer service, said Kim Romano. Its the one consistency through all of this. Customers have been coming for 15 years. They are now part of our family and our farm is part of their experience.

Romanos Farmers Market is held just outside of Beckwourth at Sierra Valley Farms every Friday from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. through Sept. 16. A cooking demonstration featuring chef David Lutz of Evergreen Restaurant in Tahoe City is scheduled for June 24. See for the complete summer schedule.

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