When Tierra Vegetables founders Lee and Wayne James spotted a patch of land – a former plum orchard in Healdsburg – one summer afternoon in 1979, they planted vegetable seeds on the 3 acres and n have never looked back.
Now, after more than four decades of farming, Tierra Vegetables celebrates with a party, open to the public, on August 7 to commemorate the hard-working but fulfilling years of harvesting, growing and feeding the community. (See box for details.)
“I’m amazed at how many people love our food and how it’s grown,” Lee, 70, said of their decades of farming that began with this plot in Healdsburg. “It’s a nice feeling. … We did all of that.
Since that summer in the late 70s, the sister and brother have grown their produce on a succession of properties around Sonoma County. Currently, they farm on land they lease from the county’s Agricultural and Open Space Preservation District on Airport Boulevard near Highway 101.
Their list of fruits, vegetables, and herbs — organized by season on their website — is extensive. They grow heirloom corn, peppers used for mole and salsa, onions, strawberries, pumpkins and more. They grow beans and other produce for farmers’ markets in North Bay and Marin County and sell to Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco.
In 1979, Lee, who studied biology and horticulture in California and Sweden, and Wayne, who grew up farming and studied viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College, were hanging out by the Russian River one afternoon when ‘they spotted a field with some pruning trees. They were intrigued by its potential and discovered that it belonged to a doctor. The doctor agreed to rent it to them.
Wayne borrowed $500 from Lee to buy a
“We thought, ‘What a beautiful pitch. There is good soil and water,” Lee recalls.
Their landlord liked their products so much that he didn’t charge them for the lease. His only request was to be able to pick vegetables for his family.
In 1980, Tierra Vegetables blossomed. That year, Lee and Wayne planted everything from carrots, cucumbers, corn, broccoli and squash to Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes.
“We had free housing and free land. That’s the only way it all worked,” said 66-year-old Wayne.
At first, the siblings didn’t have an impressive vision for how their 3-acre project would evolve. They just wanted to grow good vegetables and enjoyed the process, Lee said.
“We just wanted to grow our own food,” Wayne said. “All we ever wanted to do was grow staple foods – staple foods to eat and survive.”
Wayne and Lee grew up in Orinda, Contra Costa County with two brothers. Their father, Walt, was a manager in an industrial manufacturing company. Their mother, Esther, was a florist.
After school, Lee and Wayne spent afternoons working with their mother in an orchard nursery, making flower arrangements or folding boxes. Lee was known for creating intricate terrariums. Wayne was intrigued by plants.
“I loved plants and houseplants in the early 70s,” Wayne said. “We all worked at the crèche. It was the thing to do after school.
In 1974, after high school, Wayne went to work on a 40-acre farm in Potter Valley with one of his father’s co-workers, Clarence Gericke, a retired chemist who grew up in a Midwestern farming family.
On the farm, Wayne learned how to grow food without using chemicals. He and Gericke began selling their vegetables at farmers’ markets in Ukiah and Santa Rosa. Wayne admired the idea of selling directly to customers. Gericke also shared with Wayne the value of excellent locally grown vegetables.
“He said to me, ‘We have tons of good wine. What we need are good vegetables,” Wayne said.
The James’ interest in agriculture and nature continued over the years.
During her summer vacation from college, Lee worked for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board to sample and test bacteria levels and temperature in the Russian River. And Wayne, in his thirties, volunteered with the Peace Corps as an agricultural adviser in Lesotho, where he introduced new vegetables to agriculture and worked on the African nation’s water supply systems.
“We had our vegetable garden in our backyard in Orinda in the ’60s,” Wayne said. “We grew as we grew up. We have always appreciated it.
Start with the ground
Last week, in the farm’s commercial kitchen in Windsor, several women were busy turning a harvest into tasty produce, including Tierra Vegetables chili jam, fire-roasted tomatoes, mole, enchilada sauce, kimchi, salsa and tortilla masa.
Queta, Norma and Mari, longtime friends and hardworking Lee and Wayne, prepare simple food using fresh ingredients. Wayne credited the soil at Tierra Vegetables Farm and the attention it receives for the quality of the ingredients. They apply ground green waste to the soil to retain moisture, resulting in tasty vegetables.