Walking down the dusty road along the produce field near Myrtle Creek, one of the first things I noticed were all the different sized footprints. They range from tiny, preschool-sized ones up to teenage, and then adult. This tells the story of the Valadez family; they work hard to make a living on their organic farm, and they do it as a family.
With Juan doing the tractor work, and Lucy selling at two area farmers markets, their five children are fully involved in everything in between. The youngest, twins Mayte and Jozef, and Katalina help plant, weed and harvest and do a lot of giggling and occasional tossing of well-aimed produce while picking.
Teenagers Buddy and Mariyah alternate weeks helping their mom at the farmers markets and will be helping at the roadside stand that will open soon. Lucy beams with pride as her two oldest take care of business, answering questions from customers, making change and offering advice on which melon is the best choice, what variety of corn they’re offering or explaining the difference in peppers.
As the only certified organic vendor at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market, Lucy says she does her best to explain the whole “organic” idea because people need to know why organic costs a little more. Seeds have to be certified organic, which tends to limit varieties in some things.
Records must be kept accurately as to where the seed came from, when it was planted, when it was harvested, what fertilizer was used and when and how it was applied. Well water and irrigation water drawn from the South Umpqua River must be tested. Inspections are costly, with yearly recertification costing from $500 to $1,000.
Compost has to be held for two years before use, no manure is used and any farm animals have to be kept a certain distance from the growing area. Strawberries have to be in the ground for two years before the berries can be sold as “organic.” The greenhouses, where Valadez Organic Produce start all of their own seedlings, require separate certification. Obviously, growing certified organic is only feasible if you’re in it for the long haul, which Lucy and her family are.
Currently, summer crops are being harvested, and fall crops are being planted. While the Valadez family grows the usual variety of summer produce, melons—specifically, watermelons—are their crown jewel. Buddy, known to the family and customers as “The Watermelon Whisperer,” can tell you more than you probably want to know about his melons, but mainly, how to pick a good one! After all, what else do you really need to know?
There are five varieties available, plus several kinds of cantaloupes and crenshaws. “People who only get grocery store melons don’t even know what they’re missing!” Buddy says proudly. “And you have to have a seeded melon for the best flavor. Seedless melons can’t compare.”
Tuesdays and Thursdays are harvest days, so while Lucy makes estimates of how much to pick for each farmers market, the kids start picking and loading into boxes and totes, which spend the night in the walk-in cooler, ready to be loaded in the morning.
Right now, green beans, corn, squash, beets, eggplant, tomatoes and those wonderful melons fill the tables at the markets with red cabbage, winter squash, pumpkins, Napa cabbage, chard, cauliflower, broccoli and kale coming along for later in the fall.
It was interesting to see some odd-looking plants in one of the hoop houses: lemon trees, lime trees and papayas! Juan, according to his wife, wants to grow everything! A patch of asparagus is dormant in a corner of the yard, and a small grove of cactus threatens if you get too close. Nopalitos, the fleshy cactus pads, can be harvested and cooked for traditional Mexican food or pickled.
Naturally, the conversation got around to cooking and eating. You’ll find several recipes that grace the Valadez table regularly, all with the approval of the kids. Lucy says her idea about kids eating vegetables is simple: “We grow it, and we eat it! We eat it out in the field when we’re picking, and we eat it at the table. The kids have seen the seeds pop out of the ground, we’ve all worked at weeding and harvesting and we all enjoy what we grew.”
As to the future of Valadez Organic Produce, Juan says, simply, “More!” They would like to farm more land and have a good-sized produce stand that would be open earlier and later in the season, and they would like to find another farmers market, possibly along the coast.
You can load up on Valadez Organic Produce on Saturdays at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market at the Methodist Church on Harvard. You might even find some rolls for those Eggplant Sliders!