For four-plus decades, Bay Area farmers Lee and Wayne James have done everything right. The challenges they face show why small farms across America are disappearing.
Crammed into a corner of Santa Rosa’s Airport Boulevard, angled between a Highway 101 on-ramp and a residential neighborhood, Tierra Vegetables Farm is not a blissfully bucolic scene. There’s a constant hum of traffic and aircraft, and on this overcast late March morning, not much green is showing yet, except inside the two hoophouses.
You’d never guess that this scruffy little piece of land produces thousands of pounds of landrace corn, unusual chiles and beans, and fresh produce ranging from asparagus to zucchini destined for the Ferry Plaza and North Bay farmers markets, an oversubscribed CSA, and multiple Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants. Brother and sister Wayne and Lee James have been coaxing such abundance from this and previous scraps of land together for 42 years. They’ve diversified and specialized, invested in processing machinery, added a commercial kitchen, dabbled in mail-order sales, and transplanted a historic barn that serves as a busy on-site shop.
Basically, they’ve done everything but agritourism. By any measure, they should be the poster children—elders?—for building a thriving, successful small-farm business. And for many years, they were. But starting with the 2017 Tubbs fire, Tierra Vegetables has been hammered by a series of catastrophic blows. Now Wayne is 66 and Lee is about to turn 70. They’re ready to pass the business on to someone else. The hurdles they have to overcome in order to do so are formidable—and all too common for farms Tierra’s size.
Seeds of Tierra
Walking the farm and talking about its roots, Wayne slips off his sandals and goes barefoot. “He hasn’t worn shoes in 60 years,” Lee explains. They look very alike, with their white hair, black eyebrows, rangy builds and slight stoop, black-and-white Shetland Sheepdog puppies (Breezy and Bita, Pomo Indian for bear), and they’re both wearing sand-and earth-colored clothes. Lee’s sweater and vest are made from her own sheep’s wool and dyed from the farm’s produce.
But don’t mistake them for aging hippies. The Jameses grew up Quaker in Orinda, not on a farm, although their parents, Walt and Esther, did raise sheep in their retirement. Walt was a shop manager for an industrial manufacturer, and Esther was a florist. “All the kids worked in the nursery,” says Lee.
In 1974, just after high school, Wayne apprenticed himself for the summer to Clarence Gericke, a truck farmer he met through his grandfather. He ended up working on Clarence’s 40 acres in Mendocino for two years, learning everything he could about growing “basic food”—sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, vegetables—without resorting to chemicals. Wayne was also taking classes in viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College; there were no sustainable agriculture classes back then. Everyone else was growing grapes, but Clarence said, “Good wine is nice, but you have to have something to eat with it.” When the Ukiah and Santa Rosa farmers markets started up, Clarence and Wayne were there.
Truckloads of corn would sell out in minutes. “Clarence knew right away this direct market would be a thing,” says Wayne.
After wandering around America for a couple of years, Wayne returned to Northern California. A doctor had 3 acres in the Russian River flood plain that he could farm for a cheap annual lease. Lee was home from college. Their parents had bought a piece of land with a house in Healdsburg they planned to retire to; Wayne and Lee moved into it and Wayne borrowed money from Lee to buy a rototiller.
In 1980, Tierra Vegetables was born. They only farmed in the summer because there were no year-round markets and because the flood plain…really flooded. “One time we got 18 feet of water; there were eggplants stuck in all the trees,” recalls Lee.
They were growing chiles but couldn’t sell them for cooking, only as the dried arrangements called ristras, which were very popular. On Tierra Vegetables’ entertaining Facebook page, Lee has posted, “Don’t know why we started growing kale in 1982 when our only customers were a few elderly Germanic women. Anybody else who was familiar with kale considered it to be chicken food.”
Their doctor-landlord liked their produce so much he ended up not even charging Wayne for the lease. Wayne got a weekly allowance of $15 from their parents, and Lee was also giving dog training lessons, “so the farm was really subsidized,” Wayne says.
Their farming strategy “was never a grand vision,” Wayne shrugs. “Just things we like.” He wanted to “just grow good food, but you can’t make a living growing potatoes. You have to specialize to make money.”
Around 1991 they hired their first field worker, and shortly after that, his wife Enriqueta “Queta” Reyes, who is still with them. Queta’s brother in law invited Wayne to spend Christmas in Mexico with him. And thus began Wayne and Lee’s love affair with maize and chile varieties.
Growing the business
When the Ferry Plaza farmers market opened in 1993, Tierra had a stall and has sold there ever since. They were at opening day for the Marin, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, and Cloverdale markets, too. They added fields in Santa Rosa, Windsor, and Healdsburg, including on their parents’ creek-fed property. Walt and Esther ended up selling the house they built and moving to Oregon “to retire again and get away from us; we had them working too hard,” says Lee. They also needed more grass for the Shetland sheep they were raising: Lee kept a small flock, and for a while Tierra sold wool products.
In the late ‘90s, wanting to consolidate their growing operations into one parcel, Wayne and Lee looked at Tierra’s current location with Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. Ag + Open Space was looking for a buyer to partner with; it would hold an easement. “We weren’t ready at that point, but in hindsight that would have been the best deal,” says Wayne. It would prove to be a painful mistake.
Ag + Open Space purchased the 20 acres—something it rarely does—and around 2000 it opened up the parcel for lease to a farm. Wayne and Lee applied and were chosen; they’ve leased it ever since.
The first 15 years on the Santa Rosa parcel were good ones for Tierra. They bought a steel-burr mill to make cornmeal; a masa molina followed. A wealthy visitor saw the labor-intensive way they were threshing dried corn and beans, asked if there wasn’t a machine that could do that—and then bought them a $27,000 thresher. A 2006 New York Times article about the explosion of interest in local food said Tierra Vegetables was grossing close to $500,000. That year Wayne and Lee outfitted and opened a 3,200-square-foot commercial kitchen in Windsor in order to sell their chile jam, a new product customers were clamoring for, and Queta began making fresh tortillas and hot sauce. Tierra’s value-added products include fire-roasted tomatoes, frozen strawberries and strawberry puree, mole, enchilada sauce, hominy, kimchi, pickles, salsa, chile powders and salts, cornmeal, and dried bean flour. They also rent the kitchen to other food businesses.
And in 2011, they purchased a nearby 100-year-old barn that was going to be demolished to build a new hospital. Sutter Health donated the barn if Tierra would handle moving it. Wayne and Lee disassembled, transported, and reassembled it, with electricity, as their new farm store and crop-storing facility—sitting on land they don’t own. The quixotic project cost around $300,000, some of which was donated from the Tierra community. Wayne and Lee don’t regret it. The Big White Barn, as they call it, does feel like it embodies the spirit of the farm in a way that no new construction could.
All the while, they were planting ever more kinds of chiles and landrace maize. Tierra now grows somewhere around 30 varieties of chiles—neither Wayne nor Lee is sure exactly how many—about half for sale fresh, the others exclusively for drying and for the smoked chipotles. Their website (tierravegetables.com) is a veritable encyclopedia of chiles.
“Landrace” refers to traditional varieties carefully adapted by farmers to their local conditions and food preferences. “Heirloom” varieties are examples of landraces, which typically have low yield potential, but are often more genetically diverse and stress-resilient than modern cultivars. In addition to summer sweet corn, Tierra grows more than a dozen kinds of brilliantly colored flour, dent, and popcorn for drying, including Michoacán Blue and White, Floriani Red, Otto File, John Deere Green (controversially often called Oaxacan Green) and their own Tierra Black. The Tierra Black originated from a strip of dried Peruvian black corn that someone gave them; Lee has crossed and replanted it until it flourishes in Sonoma’s very different daylight and soil conditions.
Many of their crops have come from seeds given to them by customers, chefs, friends and other farmers, like Nigel’s Bean, a spotted terracotta-and-cream, pinto-like bean from the late Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm. They remember and honor the origins of everything they sell, telling the seeds’ stories in faded laminated signs in the Big White Barn’s farm shop and more recently, on social media.
For example, as Lee wrote on Instagram: “Our Chihuacle Amarillo seed originally came from @cheferic65 [Millennium Chef Eric Tucker]….Wayne brought the Chihuacle Negro from a farm in Oaxaca. A chef from Chez Panisse brought us Espelette seed. Customers have brought us Aleppo, Choricero, Urfa, Jamaican Habanero. One customer had to go on a convoluted search to a farm in Spain to find the Nora.”
The range of other vegetables, fruits, berries, greens, herbs, and beans that Tierra also grows (or has grown) is simply staggering. Even the “plain food” has die-hard fans. “The carrots and beets are like candy,” says Cappie Garrett, a Santa Rosa resident who’s been eating what Tierra grows “for about 40 years.”
Chef Chris Bleidorn of Birdsong—which buys thousands of pounds of Tierra’s oversized carrots—agrees. “There are all the tangible qualities that make Tierra’s produce so wonderful to work with—the high sugar content of their Chantenay carrots, which is perfect for our barbecue carrot dish—the texture of the cornmeal, which is part of what makes Birdsong’s classic cornbread so special,” he writes in an email. “But there is also the fact that we’ve built a relationship with Lee and Wayne. These are the ties that make our whole ecosystem so valuable and worthy of preserving.”
Since 2017, Wayne and Lee have needed those ties desperately. That’s when the Tubbs fire swept through the area, incinerating the homes of many of its customers. Other fires have followed, and the resulting construction boom drove up local wages. The Tierra well’s casing collapsed and destroyed the diesel pump, significantly reducing their available water for irrigation—during the now-continuous drought. Then the pandemic hammered their direct sales. PPP loans helped a little, but Wayne and Lee began dipping into their savings to keep the farm—and their three full-time and eight part-time workers and their families—afloat.
Finally, in July 2021, they reluctantly asked the community for help. A CSA member made a video and set up a GoFundMe page that astonished them by raising $70,000. Val Cantu of Californios restaurant, which buys Tierra’s masa, chiles, and seasonal vegetables, donated $10,000. “They grow some of the most amazing vegetables that we have found,” he says. “They are also just incredible people and we are thankful to be able to serve their products at our restaurant.”
The GoFundMe applied a tourniquet, but the farm is still critically wounded. Wayne and Lee have downsized considerably, “cut back on a little bit of everything,” cultivating just 10 acres, growing fewer crops, and reducing the store’s hours. Even though they can sell everything they grow, cutting production means less income.
“We just can’t charge enough,” Wayne admits.
The pump is still not fixed; they’re only getting about a third of the water they need. They’re waiting for PG&E to bring a new, higher amperage line from the street to the barn, but PG&E is really backed up. An electrician will then run power through the field to the well’s new electric pump—for $40,000. (Wayne explored solar, but it would cost more than twice that.) Installing the new pump in the well will cost $30,000.
“Everything is bought and paid for, and we still don’t have water,” he says.
They’ve been looking for someone to take over the farm, and ideally Tierra’s whole business, with all the crops they’ve perfectly adapted to this little corner of earth and the customers who love what they grow. But neither has children, they have to fix the farm’s water problem, and they still don’t own the land—and they can’t sublease it. They’ve been trying to buy it for years, but negotiations with Ag + Open Space have always stalled or hit a dead end.
“The farm needs to be there. It’s important to preserve because of all of the unique things we have, such as the corn and chiles, as well as the kitchen and processing. There is water there, so it can produce a lot of food. It’s easily accessible in a central location, and I think it’s important for local food security,” Lee told Foodwise [formerly CUESA] in an interview around the time of the farm’s GoFundMe appeal.
In 2017, the last year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture did its farm census, the average age of a farmer was 57.5 years. In Sonoma County, 40% were over 65. They have no one to take their place. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, land access is the top challenge cited by current farmers, aspiring farmers, and those who have stopped farming. Land prices all over have skyrocketed, even more so in the Bay Area, and thus only those with high-value crops like grapes for wine can afford to compete with developers. More than 63,000 Sonoma acres were devoted to grapes in 2017, compared with 1,600 for vegetables.
Even those who have children aren’t guaranteed a successor. A front-row view of farming’s nonstop hard work and low pay turns most people off. Other elders at well-known farms, such as Stephen and Gloria Decater of Live Power Community Farm, are also struggling to retire.
Are there moments that make the endless work feel worth it? “Opening up perfect ears of dry corn is pretty rewarding, especially if I’m able to have my dogs right down there at my feet,” Lee says. “Right along with that would probably be eating any variety of things that we grow, but particularly a perfect pico de gallo salsa with our tortilla chips made by Queta.”
Wayne would love to take a year off, to see the country on his electric bike—the one he’s modified to haul 500 pounds of produce to the farmers market. Lee would like to retire and hang out with her beloved Shelties. They say they can’t just shut down Tierra Vegetables, especially after the GoFundMe. They feel a responsibility to the community, to the soil they’ve enriched, even to the historic barn they saved. But if they can’t buy the land and fix the well, they may have to give up.
They’re not ready to yet. They plan to celebrate the belated 40th anniversary of the farm this year. Lee has hundreds of chile pepper seedlings in her greenhouse ready to be planted. They’ll keep on growing, until they can’t.
Bonnie Powell has been writing about small farms since 2006.
Oakland-based photographer Bart Nagel (bartnagel.com) likes to take portraits of leaders in their field.