John and Cindy France were in the first wave of citrus growers in California to go organic when they certified John’s family farm, France Ranch, in 1989. The ranch was established as a dairy in 1938. John had grown up on the farm during the years his father ran it as a dairy and fruit farm, and had taken over running the ranch right out of high school 10 years earlier. But, even with all that experience, growing food organically required learning an entirely new approach to farming.
“In the early days, there wasn’t a lot of university support for organics. Anything the organic growers were learning was on their own, through experience basically, or researching like I did by reading really old publications,” John recalled. “We’d get together, and we’d go over things: what works, what doesn’t, sharing what we were doing on our own farms. It was interesting, it was fun.”
John says in his 25 years of farming organic citrus, every year is different and change is a constant you can count on. But, even with the yearly changes in the orchard and the weather, and the continual developments in the farming industry, the fundamental of the importance of soil nutrition stays the same.
“I want to farm below the soil,” John said about his focus on creating a balanced ecosystem below ground. “Because ultimately, that’s where virtually all the nutrition for the fruit set comes, the characteristics of the sugar levels, the size, the smoothness of the skin, and the ability for the fruit to handle the rigors of picking and packing, that’s all set in the soil.”
John says the best thing a farmer can do to stay on top of the condition of his fields is to have a regular time every day that’s spent driving and walking in the fields. “That’s what I generally do in the afternoons,” he said, “Just drive around not looking for anything specific, but as you do this on a regular basis you begin to recognize the cultural rhythms of an orchard and if you see something just a little bit off then you can ask, ‘Ok, what is that? Why is that happening?’”
Those questions are the first step toward finding an organic solution.
Getting the fruit to market can require the same investment in learning and risk-taking as solving problems in the field. Years into their organic conversion and out of options for help in sales, John and Cindy co-founded a company to market and sell their organic fruit. At the time, they were the only grower represented, and today, Homegrown Organic Farms represents over 80 organic growers. The Frances continue to grow grapes and citrus for Homegrown.
“I think all farmers have a love for growing things. It’s the wonderment of seeing this miracle occur of putting something in the ground and waiting a year and seeing something come out that’s totally different—and you’re able to consume that or provide it for others to consume and live,” John said, “I like the fact that I can plant a tree or plant a grapevine and see something that looks like nothing like the grape vines do in December, grow throughout the year, and then all the sudden you have a great big cluster of sweet grapes. It’s amazing. And, on top of that, you know that tens of thousands of people are going to eat the fruit of your labor.”