Juan Perez's days start early. He first stops in his office to check emails for the day's orders. Then he heads to the place he really wants to be: outside on his farm.

"By the time I'm here, the sun is coming up, and we start to harvest produce and get the boxes ready for delivery," he says. "After deliveries, we come back and start harvesting for the next day, and we work until about 9 or 10 at night." 

What sounds like hard work is the American dream, says Perez: "Being outside in the fields is freedom, and we really love what we do."

Ten years ago, Perez and his father, Pablo, started J&P Organics—"J" for Juan and "P" for Pablo—a family-run farm in Salinas. The small enterprise grows USDA-certified organic fruits, vegetables and flowers on 10 acres and delivers weekly farm boxes of produce to more than 500 local customers.

"The Salinas Valley is known as the 'salad bowl of the nation,'" says Juan. "We have the ideal climate, not too hot and not too cold, and we grow winter, spring, summer and fall."

 

Access to Unexpected Opportunity

When Juan enrolled at California State University, Monterey Bay, he didn't intend to be a farmer.

His dad had worked on farms for decades, and Juan sometimes worked alongside Pablo, who told his son, "Either come work with me, or go to college and find a career of your own. Either way, you have to get a job." Juan opted for college.

He was accepted to four universities, and chose Monterey Bay because it was just a 20-minute drive from his parents' home in Castroville. Perez was the first in his family to attend college, and his mom, Florencia, didn't want him to be too far away.

So he picked the best of both worlds: living in the dorms and driving home on the weekends.

"At the beginning, I didn't know what to major in, so I tried liberal studies to become a teacher, but it wasn't right for me," he says. "I tried business administration, and that wasn't right either. Then computer science, but the computers drove me crazy."

Finally, he took a science course and he was hooked. "We were going on field trips doing research in the Fort Ord back country and working with clients," he says. "I realized this is what I want to do."

When Bill Head, Ph.D., a professor in CSU Monterey Bay's natural sciences department (now retired), suggested Perez apply for a summer internship at an organic farm, Juan was less than enthusiastic—until he realized it was a paid opportunity.

"I took it because I needed the money for books and clothes and food," recalls Perez. "I wasn't sure where this internship was going to take me."

That summer included research on fertilizers, seeds and pest control; Perez also created a small library of information for other organic growers to reference.

"The farm work and research turned out to be something I knew how to do," he says. "And I really liked it."

Dr. Head then urged Juan to take a second summer internship with a different organic farm, where he learned about marketing, the business of farm boxes, and how to promote the support of agriculture within the community.

By the time the professor convinced Juan to take a third farm internship, "I was more into it, and I was making the right connections with the right people," says Perez of the access he gained to people in the agriculture industry. "When I finished that internship, I was sure I could do it myself."

He hadn't graduated yet from Monterey Bay, but he knew what he was doing next.

"I owe a lot to Bill Head," says Perez. "He kept pushing me, even when I didn't think I wanted to do another internship. If not for him, I would've probably been in an office job that I didn't like."

 

 

 

Sowing the Seeds of a Family Transformation

Perez started J&P Organics a year before he walked at commencement in 2007; he finished his capstone project in 2009 and earned a bachelor's in environmental science, technology and policy.

"I had all this knowledge, and I thought, My parents know how to farm. I know how to farm. And I want it to be a family business."

He talked to Pablo about launching the business together, but his dad was hesitant: "He didn't know anything about growing organically," says Juan. "I told him it's farming without pesticides and no chemicals. He said, 'I can do that.'"

They leased one acre with the support of a $5,000 loan from the California Coastal Rural Development Corporation. They then leased a second acre, a third, and when they were farming six acres, they found a 10-acre farm in Salinas for sale.

California Coastal again supported their vision and helped father and son purchase the farm in 2013. With 28 commercial greenhouses, a packing shed, delivery vans, tractors, their own water well, fruit trees and acres of open fields, Juan says his dad, a second-generation farmer, could not be happier. "This is his American dream—to own a house, work hard and do what he loves."

A true family operation, Juan, Pablo and his brother, José, a mechanic, run the day-to-day operation. Florencia helps with transplanting, planting, harvesting and packing boxes, and his sister, Cristina, does their taxes. Juan's wife, Wendy, a high school teacher, helps out with phone calls and texts and responding to customer questions and orders. His parents live in the house on the farm, and they have no other employees—the family does it all.

"There are four families that depend on this farm, and everybody has a role to play," says Juan. "But the best part is that we are doing it together, and we get to be with each other every day."

 

Small Farm, Big Impact

Each week, J&P Organics emails customers to let them know which fruits, vegetables and flowers the farm box will feature, and they deliver the produce to members' homes or at drop-off locations.

"Everything in the box is fresh-picked," says Perez. "Our customers actually like that there's still dirt on the carrots, because they know they were just pulled."

As a strong advocate for organic farming, he regularly hosts field trips from area elementary and high schools through the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habits (WATCH) program and opens the farm to college student groups—a chance to provide the same hands-on education he received.

"There are a lot of large farms here in the Salinas Valley, many of them have thousands and thousands of acres, and they spray all of that with chemicals," explains Perez. "I think our little 10-acre organic farm actually has a big impact, because we provide the community with healthy vegetables. We depend on the soil, because it's where we get our food. Let's not destroy it."

Perez's customers also come to the farm for U-pick days. "Our members know our family. They know the farmer that grows their food, and our fruits and vegetables taste good," he says. "They want to feed their kids good food with no chemicals or pesticides.

"And it's grown right here in their own backyard, the Salinas Valley. I know that we are doing something good for ourselves, our health, the community and the environment."