Laguna Farm lives on despite closing CSA program and move from Cooper Road

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, April 7, 2021

csa

Ignacio Romero and Jennifer Branham ran Laguna Farm together for 10 years until April, when they concluded their lease on Cooper Road, Sebastopol, Branham said. Romero will continue the business on a smaller scale and hopes to eventually reopen a CSA program, he said, while Branham said she is happy to start a new life chapter. (Photo by Charles E. Phillips, from the Laguna Farm Facebook)

Laguna Farm has ended its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and farmstand on Cooper Road in Sebastopol, but the farm lives on, according to former co-owners Jennifer Branham and Ignacio Romero.

After 10 years of running the business together, Romero will continue the business on a smaller scale as Laguna Farm’s sole proprietor, while Branham opens the page to a new chapter in her life, she said.

The two concluded their lease on April 1, 2021. They bought the business together in 2011 from their employer Scott Mathieson, who owns the property, according to Branham, but even then the end was planned.

Branham said becoming a sole proprietor was a lifelong dream of Romero’s whereas she enjoys reinventing herself every few years, and that their diverging paths were planned and communicated when they stuck up their business partnership.

“I know it sounds odd — maybe most businesses or relationships or partnerships don’t start with an end in mind, but ours did and Ignacio knew that he would likely carry on the business,” she said.

Romero will continue to sell produce at the Sebastopol Farmers Market, farming the business’s remaining satellite acres on Sparks Road and Lyding Lane, he said.

The farmer said he hopes to acquire 15 acres or so in the next five months to eventually restart a CSA program. “That one is my dream,” Romero said, since the remaining acres cannot support the hundreds of members the business had before.

Laguna Farm’s legacy buds in the roughly seven acres of land between the Sparks Road and Lyding Lane locations, according to Branham, while the main farming site on Cooper Road spanned over 25 acres, per Laguna Farm’s profile on the Sonoma County Tourism website.

Branham and Romero became a team working for Mathieson when he owned Laguna Farm on his Cooper Road Property. “I ran the business side of the farm and (Romero) ran the growing side of the farm. He grew it, I sold it was kind of the split, and it was really easy to define and divide the business with those two roles, “ she said.

Branham praised Mathieson as one of the changemakers in bringing the CSA program, mesclun salad and organic, diverse agriculture into significance in the U.S.

Under Mathieson, Laguna Farm’s CSA program, farmstand, wholesale business and farmers market were going strong, but he decided to make a change and sell the operation, Branham said. He ultimately sold the farm and leased the land to Branham and Romero as business partners and coworkers of five years, she said.

“So, our lease was until the end of this year, and we exercised an option to end it early essentially,” Branham said. The co-owners said there came a point when Mathieson wanted to do something new with the land and when Branham and Romero could not find someplace else to move the farm, they decided the moment arrived when they would spread their wings as sole proprietor and independent agent.

The move from Cooper Road lowers Laguna Farm’s overhead costs and scale down for a solo-owned business for Romero, Branham said. The shift and her son growing into adulthood frees Branham up to travel, bike, explore her options and spend more time with family, she said.

“In the end it was a little challenging to figure out what everyone wanted, but I think all communication can be challenging and that’s not the biggest part of the story,” she said. “I think the biggest takeaway — once we all came to a decision that this was the time ‑— that we all moved in a direction that we wanted to go and I think that’s awesome.”

Both move on with decades of farm experience between them. Branham said she dedicated 15 years to Laguna Farm and Romero has been farming for 30 years, for 11 years before he came to the U.S. and then for 19 working for Mathieson at the farm.

The land yielded fruits and vegetables aplenty from A to Z, Branham said, adding she once counted over 100 different varieties of produce. With their leadership, the farm’s CSA program sustained 300 to 350 members on average, surpassing 500 members at its height and sliding below 250 at its low point, Branham said.

“This is hard work, it’s not easy,” Romero said. Guiding the fields through cold winters and floods is challenging, he said. The co-owners would grow crops at Sparks Road and Lyding Lane in the winter, spring and fall because Cooper Road lies in a floodplain, Branham said.

“I’ll keep trying and see how I do,” Romero said, adding that he sometimes feels stuck yet also happy, wanting to see if he can take on the farm himself. Running the business with his wife and two employees, Romero said he may be able to continue the wholesale operation selling produce to stores and restaurants.

He said people need to farm because they enjoy it “because money? You don’t make a lot of money farming, but if you like (it), you can live with a little money, too.”

Having farmed his whole life, Romero said working with the land is worthwhile to see the look on people’s faces when they receive their fresh food, supporting the farmers who feed them and the mutual happiness, Romero said. “And my heart feels good, you know?”

Branham said she consciously chose to seek opportunity at Laguna Farm as a single parent raising a young child in the recession, and now that the business has evolved and her son has grown, she is no longer tied to any particular place or job and can reinvent herself, she said. “Freedom defines my life, opportunities, expansion, travel, independence, family defines my life now,” she said.

Branham described the hurdles of the past decade with Laguna Farm as “predictable and manageable” and counted the victories of small moments, like children begging for carrots and offering families going through medical crises with free CSA boxes upon referral.

Branham said it became endearing how reporters would call over the years to ask how the farm was faring through gale force winds, unexpected frost, wildfires, smoke, wet winters and flooding.

“But it seems like there’s always something in agriculture that’s going wrong and there (was), every single year, something major (that) went wrong and that affected us, it was definitely newsworthy, but I would kind of tilt my head because every single year, there were always so many things that went right,” she said. “Like, there’s so many beautiful Sundays where people would flock to the farmers market and buy everything we had on the table.”

Branham said the hard times couldn’t measure up to the abundance of some crops, the community and support, pollination and germination rates and beautiful days.

“I think about the partnership of me and (Romero) in terms of, like, it’s such a blessing,” she said. “All of the fires, all the floods, all the freezing, that pales in comparison to the benefit of that relationship of the two of us and our families.”

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com