Fresas for the People

Javier Zamora
Photo: Bruce Cole

Javier Zamora doesn’t just grow the most flavorful strawberries—he pays it forward to his community.

“No, not that one. Try this one, señorita.” Javier Zamora pops a strawberry off the vine and hands it across a row. There’s nothing quite like crushing the best berry of the season, not those pale supermarket imports but the one you’ve been waiting for all year. This one looks unexceptional in shape or size, but on closer inspection, it’s brilliantly red, all the way through. So ripe and tender that you barely have to bite down. It’s not just a sugar rush but a burst of volatile flavor. Zamora is one of the small organic farmers dedicated to bringing back the Chandler, a special type of strawberry born and bred in California. It has kind of a cult following. “You should see the people at the farmers market. Once they try a Chandler, I can’t sell them anything else. They go cuckoo.”

Yes, there’s more than one kind of strawberry

Many people muddle sweetness with flavor, but there is a distinction. Albion and other varieties of commercial strawberries are large and loaded with sugar, designed to grow fast, grow big, and stay sturdy on long truck rides. But Chandler and other heirloom types contain complex essential oils, so they’re not only sweet, but they’re also truly flavorful. Chandler has a heartachingly short season, the plants don’t yield half as many berries as their peers, and the fruit is susceptible to bruising. Created by a professor at the University of California Davis in 1983, they rose to fame thanks to Swanton Berry Farm, the first organic strawberry farm in California, certified in 1987. Now, Swanton is joined by other farms who are willing to sweat it out for the ultimate strawberry. 

Zamora is the owner of JSM Organics in the Pajaro Valley, a region that sweeps up the Pacific coast from Salinas. He grows six varieties of strawberries, in order to satisfy California’s sweet tooth and give his employees steady work. He does raise the more ubiquitous Albion and Monterey because they thrive reliably year-round. But he also grows less common varieties with shorter seasons. Sweet Anne, recognized by its white shoulders, like a lady slipping out of a red dress, hits the early season. Mara du Bois is French, petite and pretty, with high gloss. Hood is the littlest, another rare breed, hailing from Oregon. Together with Chandler, they’re the limited editions, only available for a stretch of weeks between April and June, so hoard them while you can. In San Francisco, catch them at the Fort Mason Farmers Market, Bi-Rite, Rainbow, and through Good Eggs. If you’re lucky, you’ll find them on the dessert menu at A16, piled in a basket of chewy meringue and creamy ricotta, or at Saison, where the most minuscule berries star in modern concoctions.

A full-circle return to farming

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, Zamora was one of a dozen siblings in a farming family, growing melons and cucumbers. Following his older siblings to Los Angeles, he worked as a janitor, dishwasher, line cook, and finally bar manager at a nightclub. “I met all of California,” says Zamora. “Every kind of crowd walked through those doors.” If David Benoit was playing jazz, they were pouring wine and serving fish. If the Four Tops were in town, they were slamming margaritas and wings. Then the housing crash hit. Zamora lost his home, moved north, and at 43 years old, got his GED and went to college. He started studying landscape design, but it wasn’t until he enrolled in the organic farming program at a community college that he hit pay dirt. He couldn’t believe how easy the course of study was. It was exactly how his family had been farming all along. “I spent 20 years working in the belly of the restaurant and entertainment industries,” Zamora says. “I never imagined coming back to farming. It has been the greatest blessing of my life, to be able to feed people.”

Zamora started out alone, living in a trailer, leasing 1.5 acres. Today, he owns more than 100 acres and comes home to his wife and two daughters. He was only able to purchase this property in cooperation with a foundation for land conservation. Kick the mud off your boots and hop into the pickup, and he’ll drive around the rambling ranch, pointing out nature preserves, plots where he’s laying down drip irrigation, an acre he’s loaning to students to experiment with aquaponics, a few over there leased to a Latinx farmer who’s hustling to launch his first business. Every single truck on the road stops, tips up a cowboy hat, swaps a few words in Spanish. “We’re so lucky to have this land,” Zamora confides.

“We couldn’t let it go to the Salinas big boys or tech investors.”

A strawberry farm where everyone goes home for dinner

In fact, he’s defying the odds and reclaiming the story. It’s rare for a Mexican immigrant to own a strawberry farm. In California, 89 percent of farmworkers were born in Mexico, but only 12 percent of principal operators are Latinx. Strawberries are a dirty business, rife with accusations of child labor, sexual harassment, and starvation wages. The big farms look unnaturally clean, but the key difference is the pace. Zamora explains how they pay low hourly rates, plus a certain amount per case, so you’ll see workers running down rows to fill flats. “They’re incentivized to kill themselves,” Zamora says. “I can’t do business that way. This is my community. They’re human to me.”

In contrast, Zamora’s rates start at $13.50 per hour, up to $20 for managers. His acres have tulips popping up between rows, a few plants demolished by gophers. The work is more varied, and everyone goes home for dinner. “It’s my honor to have a place where people can earn fair wages and still enjoy time with their kids.”

Zamora acknowledges that he would not be where he is today without a college degree, a professor who encouraged him, and ALBA, a bilingual program that connects small organic farmers with resources. Now, as a voice for Latinx farmers, Zamora sits on several boards, speaks at local colleges, and mentors others, breaking down barriers to help them find land, get equipment, and buy their first strawberry crowns. On Cinco de Mayo, everyone is invited over to the farm, where you’ll be welcomed with a big abrazo, a blasting mariachi band, a chance to swing at the piñata, crispy carnitas, and aguas frescas, and of course, strawberries for dessert. But even if you can’t make it to the country, you can always pick up a pint at the farmers market. Look for the really, really red strawberries and the guy with the warm smile. He’s always busy, but he still wants to chat. “This industry is so hard. It’s all about the human connection,” Zamora says. “From the farm to the city, understand where your food comes from. Eat real food. Meet a farmer.”