“We had a compost delivery arrive earlier than planned so the first challenge of the day has already arrived,” Erik Hjermstad shared with a laugh during our phone conversation. It was 7am on a Friday and he was on the way to sort out one of the many challenges Sweet Spot Farm faces as a new business. Erik and his fellow farmers bring a wide range of perspectives to the business, and grow certified organic garlic, herbs, moringa and turmeric.
Sweet Spot Farm, located near Ramona in San Diego County, is a worker-owned farm organized as an LLC focusing on environmentally sound agricultural practices that suit their ecosystem. When the farm began almost two years ago, there were seven founding members. Two have now left so the farm planned to bring on more farmers. Erik explained “We are prototyping a new collaborative model. [We] act like a whole organism, every member contributes the value that they are good at, like the right hand or left foot.” He stressed that each owner is equal, playing a significant role in the farm’s success whether someone is on the land everyday, or handling the farm administrative tasks and website management. Erik spends his time on the land, helping to implement the farm plan.
Before farming, Erik worked in media production and manufacturing, so while he is familiar with the challenges of running a small business, he needed more experience in agriculture before he could begin a farm. It took him a decade to prepare for a career switch to farming, entering through permaculture. The switch was predicated by concern for personal and global health. Erik shared, “It was really personal health that drove me to deeply consider how can I truly live a healthy life. And in consideration of how to live a healthy life, sooner or later you’re going to – or a person might – turn to the farm. I believe for the sake of the planet we are going to need hundreds of thousands or millions of farms, just in America alone, that are coherent with Mother Earth.”
The collaborative group who runs Sweet Spot Farm also shares Erik’s concern through a focus on the ecological health of their land. The farm was recently awarded a state Healthy Soils Program (HSP) grant and the compost delivery that happened the morning of Erik’s interview is a small portion of the HSP contract. Sweet Spot will also build a hedgerow and conduct a riparian habitat restoration. Their eco-centric farm plan will build a multi-layered agricultural system by emphasizing the importance of trees and herbaceous perennials. By using data and tracking market trends, they are able to choose plants that belong in the local ecosystem while growing a crop, turmeric, to provide income as the rest of the farm develops. Turmeric’s medicinal value and Southern California’s high demand has made it a useful cash crop for Sweet Spot Farm.
The partners spent years searching for property, followed by lease negotiations. “The process of coming to a beautiful agreement with our landowner is something that would have quite literally not been possible without California FarmLink’s assistance. Liya and Iris’ help was totally invaluable,” Erik revealed while discussing the lease process. California Farmlink acted as a trusted third-party in the conversation between the landholder and Sweet Spot, contributing to Sweet Spot’s desired collaboration.
Erik also shared thoughts about leasing agricultural land for aspiring and new farmers, “It’s a big deal to enter into an agricultural lease, so when the relationship with the landowner is new, it’s going to take time. It’s okay to be patient and diligent about creating opportunities to deepen the relationship.” It is advice that Sweet Spot has taken to heart as they continue to develop their new farmland. For the moment they are focused on being good stewards of the land and water table by planting trees and closely monitoring the farm’s water use.
Sweet Spot aims to develop a sustainable system that can adapt to a changing climate. The farm’s vision is to provide other farmers with an example and pathway of how to create a climate smart farm with community-scale, shared ownership. Through farm tours and educational opportunities, Erik explained, “other people can learn [from] this collaborative model and see how it applies to ecological land stewardship through the lens of a community farm so that it can assist the next…thousand farms.” It is an ambitious model, but throughout the interview Erik’s infectious spark and passion for better agricultural practices convinced me that Sweet Spot will be an important player in the Southern California movement to establish ecologically sound, healthy farms.
Kathryn Bailey was California Farmlink’s Farm Equity Correspondent in 2019. She guest writes for California FarmLink’s blog, focusing on farmers and landholders. A recent graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, her interests include sustainable agriculture, environmental justice, and equitable access to economic opportunities.