Vendor Stories: Coleman Family Farms
Plus a recipe for Spicy Herb Salad with Ginger-Lime Dressing
Farm Liaison Sam Rogers speaks with Romeo Coleman of Coleman Family Farms about the farm his dad started, the changing landscape of farmers markets, and his ever-growing passion for farming.
Tell me about Coleman Family Farms, let’s do some basics:
The original six acre farm was started in Carpinteria on land with an existing lemon orchard. My dad, Bill, purchased it in 1963 and transformed it into a farm consisting mainly of row crops. We have farmed here, chemical free, ever since.
What made him want to become a farmer?… Since he's a first generation farmer, right?
My dad was born in Santa Barbara and has always enjoyed plants. Actually he loved plants, and you can see that when you visit the farm. There are so many different varieties plated all around the house and fields. He acquired these from nurseries, friends, shows and such, just because he found them interesting.
And how did your mom come into the plant romance?
She married my dad in 1969. My mom was living in the Philippines when she was introduced to my dad through my aunt Luming (living in the US). They became pen pals and wrote to one another for almost two years before my dad went to go visit her. Within two weeks they were married. They came back to the farm in Carpinteria and started their farming life.
What were the farm's first crops out of the ground?
Snow peas, which leads into a great story… In the mid 60’s there was a big freeze in Santa Barbara County, my dad had all these snow peas on the vine and had to quickly harvest them. He was able to sell the crop to local Chinese and Asian restaurants, and through that he was able to pay off his property, so the story goes… He then tried to get into the big market in LA (the downtown produce market), but he quickly realized he was way too small to compete with the prices there. He and 5 or 6 other local farmers decided to create a sort of “Farmers Market'' in the Santa Barbara Mission parking lot… and that’s actually what began the Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market (SBCFMA) of today.
And that evolved?
We continued selling at the Mission for a little while in the parking lot, which then grew and moved to the Santa Barbara High School parking lot. As it continued to grow, it was moved again to downtown on Anacapa Street, where it is now located on Saturdays. It became a Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market, and became more legal and legitimate. It turned into such an awesome thing and allowed a lot of people to make a living from selling there.
All of you worked the farm as kids and worked the farmers market as you became teenagers?
My five siblings and I grew up on the farm and selling at the farmers markets. We all grew up working the markets on the weekends, and it helped put us through school. As my siblings and I got older we started going off to college and my dad started losing the free labor. After graduating everyone went on to pursue their own careers. However I decided to study agriculture and came back to the farm.
You’re the only one that came back to farming?
Yes. After high school I went to SBCC and was taking courses there. It was then that I really realized that I was interested in agriculture. I liked plants and I liked the lifestyle, and figured I could make a run at it. I decided to study Agriculture on a larger scale. I wanted to work on the family farm, with hopes of expanding its operation. After graduating Cal Poly in 1996, I came back to Carpinteria and set out to find additional property to farm. I worked on the family farm and rented additional land for about two years. The owners of the rented land decided to sell, so I had to move to another property. Unfortunately it seems this happened too often. Luckily in 2004 I found 12 flat acres that I have been able to lease for a long time. This is part of the land that I farm currently known as “The 33 Field”. Hopefully I am able to produce here for another 15 years.
And on that property you grow mostly:
Kale, lettuce, basil in the summertime, and tomatoes and squash. The microclimate here is a little warmer in the summer and a little bit colder in the winter. We are in Southern California, you can grow stuff year-round. So farmers get to work 400 days a year — IT’S AWESOME!
Can you tell me about your relationship with the current farmers market/restaurants, etc.?
The relationship with restaurants really goes back to the late 90’s and early 2000’s with Campanile restaurant with the late Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, and also Chef Nicholas Peter from Little Door, those were the early people who would pick up produce from the market, bring it back to the restaurants, and do their thing. When I first came back from school, we were just selling to the general public. It was great, but when the chefs and the restaurants started coming, it really started to click that this could be a good thing. I learned a lot from Nancy and Mark about what they should expect from me as a farmer, and it really helped me grow. From Campanile came Suzanne Goin and her restaurants, among other chefs. But, yeah, that really blew up, turned out great. Chefs — they like the product, hopefully they see a difference between using farmers market produce versus using conventional, and that it’s helpful to them.
Yeah it definitely makes it easier to cook when all the ingredients actually taste good.
Haha, exactly. I think the most beautiful thing about it is that all our growth has been by word of mouth. We haven't had to go into restaurants and try to push our product. It has been people like you, for example, who come and taste stuff and bring it back to the kitchens and give it to chefs and they get excited about it. Concentrating on these two markets has allowed us to grow more and be able to service a lot of wonderful restaurants.
Are you ever in conversation with chefs about what to grow? Was that ever a part of your process, possibly during the Nancy Silverton timing?
Yeah, there is always some sort of relationship when chefs are interested in something new. I will bring something new to the market, and if it is something that no one else knows or grows, like the spigarello, people get really excited. We have been growing spigarello since the mid-90’s. That seed was brought to us from a guy, Paul, who worked with Mark Peel, who brought us the original seed from Italy. It was originally a “just-for-chefs” thing. Now we grow it specifically… and I think I do a pretty good job at it.
I think you do too, sir! Have you seen a change in the general public with the questions people are asking?
No, not really. We have mostly had really nice customers. The one thing though is that we are not certified organic, but people trust us, you can tell by looking at our product, sometimes it's a little buggy, sometimes not. Lots of farmers market customers now want to see an organic certification, and I have seen people walk away from our table because we are not certified, and honestly I don't really want that customer. We simply don't want to do the paperwork and don't want to pay the certification fees. But more importantly we don’t sell across the country to people that need the certification — we sell to farmers market customers and restaurants, we deal with all our customers ourselves. People are welcome to ask us any and all questions about how we grow. We believe that our own standards go above and beyond. The certificate standards are not what we want to live and work by.
Do you still feel the same passion for farming as you did when you were younger?
Yeah, yeah I really do. It's exciting, certain times of year are more exciting of course. Like now, coming out of winter and looking through seed catalogs and planning for spring and summer. I know how much work is going to come of it. Like “oh I can try this or I can try that!”
This is going to sound lame, but I want to ask: what are your favorite things to grow?
I love the purple shiso and the basils, because when you walk through the field that fragrance is incredible.
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Actually, one of the best summer salads at Gjelina is a mixed herb salad, using all your herbs. I just walk down your table and grab whatever herbs you have, and that’s what we use. [Recipe at bottom]
Back in the 80’s and 90’s the cool part about the farmers’ market was that it was mostly immigrants from other countries who would shop there because the market environment was what they were used to. My dad would always talk to them and they would say, oh there's this plant from my homeland… and he would research it, somehow get the seed, and try some things out. In the early days we would get new and interesting seeds that way, but now I guess I need to start traveling more!
Are your kids getting into farming?
They aren’t really getting into it that much. Same with my siblings’ kids. I mean, I'm not sure yet. They see it through such different eyes than we did. When we were growing up we knew how much work went into it, we all actually lived on the farm. We would have a deal in the summertime: if we woke up early and worked half the day we could go to the beach in the afternoon. I’ve done that with my kids as well. My dad was so stoked that one of his kids was interested and was able to take over the business and try to expand it. I make my own living off it, so my dad is stoked about that, but trying to push that on one of our kids? That’s hard. I don’t want to put pressure on my nieces or nephews or my own kids. To do this and not be happy with it…. you have to be happy with it. It's one of those true “lifestyle jobs.”
On a sadder note… can we talk about water?
The farm in Carpinteria runs off of a well that is shared by 9 neighbors. There used to be more avocados up there, so more people used it, but right now only 5 people use it, and we are one of them, and that well up there has been great… The water level has been good through a lot of situations. And part of that is because the properties up there are backed up to the Los Padres forest, there’s nothing behind them, so we have a good area to draw from. That property has been all good, knock on wood.
The farm up here that I lease, “The 33 Field,” pulls water from Lake Casitas, which is a municipal water system for the Ojai valley and Oak View and western Ventura city. So it feeds a lot of people and we have not had a lot of rain. (Now, as of March 2022, it is at 30% capacity and dropping). For about 6 years now we have been on water rationing. We get an allotment of water that you can use for the year, if you go over that allotment then you have to pay fines and pay extra. They have determined the allotment from statistics based on your past usage, and how they forecast extending the life of the lake… in the chance that we don’t get more water from rain. So I try to stay under that allotment of course. In order to not go over, I rent 12 acres but I only farm on about 7 or 8 acres.
We have cut back on some stuff that we grow during the summer as well. And I’ve tried deeper and different watering techniques, to irrigate more efficiently. We grow a little less lettuce in the summer and we don’t grow any other leafy greens in the summer anymore. I have started to grow tomatoes, which I hadn’t grown before, because you can get away with watering them less. Beans too, because like the tomatoes, you can really kind of stress them a bit, just giving them enough to keep them going. Leafy greens don't like heat and water stress.
Do you have any notes for young people who are interested in farming?
I think the biggest thing is that you have to have the drive. In farming, not everything is nice and neat, not everything comes out perfect. You have to be ready to fail and yet come out of it, but have more successes too. Much of the time I’m working by myself, so you have to be ready to work for yourself. Most of all you have to be able to kick butt.
Spicy Herb Salad with Ginger-Lime Dressing
From Gjelina: Cooking From Venice, California (Chronicle Books)
Serves 4 to 6
The list of herbs suggested here is by no means intended as a strict template never to be varied. Let the market be your guide and grab whatever you stumble on that looks fresh and intriguing. Use a dozen herbs or just one or two. A version that includes only parsley or cilantro can be perfect. The ginger-lime dressing is so piercing that when combined with the complex bittersweet notes of the herbs, the effect is reminiscent of a bracing tonic. The dressing recipe makes twice the amount you need to dress this salad, giving you enough on hand to quickly make the salad again later in the week.
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
1 medium-hot green or red chile, preferably Fresno, minced
1 shallot, minced
One ½-inch [12-mm] piece peeled fresh ginger
1 garlic clove
½ tsp honey
½ cup [120 ml] extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
4 generous handfuls of fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, opal basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, chives, tarragon, mint, shiso, dill or fennel fronds
¾ cup [85g] cherry tomatoes, halved
1 Japanese cucumber, cut into rounds
Freshly ground black pepper
To make the dressing:
In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, chile, and shallot. Using a Microplane grater, grate the ginger and garlic into the bowl. Add the honey and gradually whisk in the olive oil until well combined. Season with salt and pepper. (Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)
To assemble the salad:
In a salad bowl, combine the mixed herbs, cherry tomatoes, and cucumber. Season with salt and pepper. Drizzle in up to ¼ cup [60ml] of the dressing and gently toss. The dressing should coat the herbs but not weigh them down. This salad is best eaten the day it is made.