Saving Small Urban Farms

Saving Small Urban Farms

When the announcement was made that Jack O’Neill (of O’Neill Wetsuits fame) had purchased the land Route 1 Farms used to grow a wide array of fruits and vegetables on, Route 1 owner Jeff Larkey wasn’t the only person who breathed a sigh of relief.

Jeff Larkey-2“When we learned that the land we’ve farmed since 1981 was going up for sale, we quickly started looking around for a possible buyer so we could continue farming here,” said Jeff. Since all of the land that Route 1 farms is leased and not owned, a sale of the land would have meant that he’d have to find another tract to farm. The six acres that serves as the centerpiece for Route 1 Farms is located on the Ocean Street extension, a little traveled area just outside the Santa Cruz city limits.

“We were afraid someone from over the hill would buy the land and turn it into a horse property,” Jeff speculated. “It turned out that Jack O’Neill’s daughter, Bridget, lives in the area, and preserving this land as a farm for the time being fit into their vision. We were very fortunate to have the O’Neill family buy this land. They’re fantastic.”

The land sits in a unique micro-climate that’s several degrees warmer than the surrounding area. “Last year we got two days back to back where the thermometer reached 105 degrees. We lucked out because I’d decided to plant melons, so the hotter weather really helped,” said Jeff.

The San Lorenzo River flows nearby and his farm has a well, so water at his Ocean Street location isn’t an issue. Yet. “We also farm near Waddell Creek, and unless we get some rain we’re going to run into trouble getting enough water for the crops up there.” This year he’s going to plant Jerusalem artichokes on that tract since they’re drought tolerant.  The Ocean Street location will continue to produce leafy green vegetables and some fruit. At least now he knows there’s a small amount of certainty regarding how long he’ll be there. “We signed a lease with the O’Neill’s, and that was a huge relief,” Jeff said with a smile. “The big land conservation foundations look at buying much larger tracts of farmland. Six acres is nothing to some of them.”

“This site is a great example of what urban farming can be. We’re just a few minutes from Costco and the highways. This is a special place.” Jeff looked back on his 30 plus years of farming in Santa Cruz County. “I started farming on this site in 1981” he said. “Nobody was farming any of this land because it was too small. When the organic farming movement got going, all of these great spots were sitting idle.”

At a time when real estate prices are soaring and more and more people want to live “in the country,” it’s no small wonder that Jeff and everyone else at Route 1 Farms feels like they dodged a bullet. When asked how much longer he plans on farming, Jeff answered, “As long as it’s fun.”