Just past the seven-store town of Davenport, 12.5 miles north of UC Santa Cruz on Highway 1, stretches a little slice of paradise.
Swanton Berry Farm, this lush, utopian place, includes forty acres of rich, fertile soil from which ruby-red strawberries, sunflowers and a dozen other foodstuffs burst. Old Army barracks sit nearby and now serve as low-cost housing, and the former mess hall today turns out mouth-watering masterpieces.
“We’re the first organic strawberry farm in the state, the first organic farm in the country to have a unionized work force. Our employees get a health plan, a retirement plan. We have a profit-sharing plan,” gushes Forrest Cook, a manager at the Farm.
Swanton, which took root in 1983 as a four-acre plot dreamed up by two plucky buddies, now sends its produce to more than ten different markets in the greater Bay Area, including downtown’s Wednesday afternoon farmers market.
Though the company has grown since its beginnings, a concerted effort by all, from the owners to the pickers, has kept Swanton true to its original farming principles. It uses no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and continues to treat all employees with dignity and respect — a rare phenomenon in the modern farming world.
“I absolutely love working here,” said Amber Duncan, a fifth-year UCSC sociology major who spent her summer working at the farm. “I’ve learned how to make jam, make cobbler. I’ve learned about organic farming and sustainability. In the summer, people come from all over the world and everyone is so excited to be here.”
As she speaks, Duncan is scooping filling for olallieberry cobbler, a Swanton staple, while Laura Rodriquez (known as “Mama Laura” around here) prepares crust for strawberry cheesecake. When she’s done, Duncan will start chopping leeks for soup to be served at a community dinner the farm is hosting in honor of the firefighters who doused the summer blazes in nearby Ben Lomond.
“The farm is like a big strawberry-obsessed family,” Duncan says while she scoops. “It’s different from everything that is becoming so commercialized and impersonal.”
During peak harvest time in early summer, Swanton hires temporary workers to supplement their regular crew. The farm offers affordable housing to all employees and, instead of paying pickers by the pound, as is the practice at most produce farms, an hourly wage keeps workers from pushing themselves past their physical limits.
All of Swanton’s employees are well-versed in the principles of the place, ticking off the positives as they merrily go about their tasks. While they are clearly satisfied in their work, visitors are drawn to the farm’s homey vibes, where they can pick their own berries and indulge in succulent eats.
“We love to pick berries,” Soquel resident Jessica Adam said while putting together a puzzle with her three-year old daughter. They come up to the farm at least once a week. “We love to play the games when it’s windy. It seems like an awesome place to work, and of course the strawberries are organic and delicious. We use them for everything. They are consistently good.”
The kitchen and Farm Stand, where the goods are sold, house plush couches, picnic tables and old-fashioned games, including an antique, wooden fuzz-ball set. Strewn about the walls are black-and-white photos of Cesar Chavez and migrant workers, and dangling over the window that peaks into the kitchen is a sign that reads “Si Se Puede” — the Spanish motto of the United Farm Workers, meaning “Yes, it can be done.”
Customers don’t suffer from what Cook calls the “low blood sugar means,” as experienced in some restaurants, because all the food is ready to serve, or pick. People can choose from an assortment of organic, kitchen-fresh confections like chocolate strawberry truffles, natural jams and cauliflower soup. Best of all, Cook said, is watching first-timers figuring out how to pay.
“They usually stand around, not noticing the honor till,” he said, referring to the prominently displayed cash drawer that invites customers to put in as much or as little cash as they feel necessary to purchase what they want to take home.
“The trust of the honor till always cheers people up,” he added. “I feel very privileged to be at a place where the honor till can work.”
Both Cook and Duncan can’t seem to figure out why more people don’t find their way to Swanton, especially students, but they are hoping to get the word out. For now, they’re happy to be part of a dream that’s personally enriching and beneficial to the world and its future.
“It’s great being part of the big change of eating local,” Cook said. “There’s nothing more local than taking your kids out to pick their own strawberries.”