Farmer Spotlight: Stehly Farms
October 14th, 2022
We’re thrilled to have added foods from Stehly Farms Organics to our mix this year. This farm, based in nearby Valley Center, is the latest local grower to join our Farm To School push to bring more locally-sourced foods to our students and staff.
Stehly Farms Organics is currently providing WaveCrest Cafe with Valencia oranges, with future plans to feature avocados, blackberries, limes, mandarins, strawberries, and tangerines.
For brothers Noel and Jerome Stehly, farming is in their blood, and they are passionate about their work and raising the profile of farmers, especially here in San Diego County.
The brothers are the third generation of Stehlys to farm. Their father and grandfather began decades ago in the Orange County city of Anaheim. As the area grew more and more developed, their father looked for a place with more open land to move his operations.
In 1962 he purchased about 300 acres in Valley Center near Vista and moved the farming operation there in 1964. Noel, Jerome, and their siblings grew up on the farm, learning the business from their father.
When Noel and Jerome’s father passed away in 2000, the brothers decided they wanted to keep the family business going and purchased the farm from their family.
The Shift To Organic
It was around this time that the brothers were transforming the operation into an organic farm; there were multiple motivations to make this shift.
“We started down that road more philosophically,” says Noel. “[Jerome and I] both had three girls, and we wanted to keep the pesticides, hormones, and all that kind of stuff away from our kids and our family”.
“The economics of things helped,” he continues. “The organic avocado industry was skyrocketing, but no one was doing it – maybe just a handful of us growers. And the difference in price was substantial. It made a really big difference for two young guys trying to buy 300 acres, at market value, from the rest of their family. So going organic was a financial plus at that time, too. Now it’s kind of leveled out; there is a difference between organic and conventional in terms of price, but very little.”
The Need To Adapt
While Stehly Farms Organics was early to the avocado boom, they soon saw the downsides of the crop as a sustainable model. Avocados take a significant amount of water to grow, and California’s now 14-year drought made that process expensive and cumbersome (estimates are between 45-65 gallons of water are needed to grow one pound of avocados).
“We’ve shifted our growing to things that are less water-intensive and that help us make the best use of the land,” says Noel. “We added blackberries pretty quickly and then started adding more vegetables and things that take less water because we just couldn’t water everything else.”
Working With Schools
Vista Unified is the latest school district to forge a partnership with Stehly Farms Organics. The farm’s initial school relationship was in helping supply Harvest Of The Month items for San Diego Unified. WaveCrest Cafe approached the Stehlys, and we’re thrilled to have added their local organic produce to the mix.
As for what it means to Noel and his family to have area schools serve the food they grow? “Just the ability to get kids to eat healthy food makes a difference in their lives. A lot of kids aren’t doing that.
“My girls are good eaters. They’ll go to the cherries, grapes, and carrots in the refrigerator. They’ll peel a carrot or cucumber and slice it up and eat that. But then they also love to have chips or a hamburger. So to deliver something that they like, especially things like tangerines and oranges and things like that, that they’ll eat? It’s pretty cool.”
Farm To School
The Farm To School movement has continued to grow across the country. San Diego County, and Vista Unified’s WaveCrest Cafe, are pioneers in finding new ways to connect local farmers and food producers to schools.
Working with local farms not only brings the freshest, seasonal foods directly to students, but it helps sustain local businesses like Stehly Farms Organics. California is the nation’s largest agriculture-producing state, and many farms are small, family-owned operations that are vital to local economies.
Asked what he would like VUSD parents and family members to know about the farm, Noel didn’t hesitate. “I’d just like them to know that farms do exist in this county, and we supply really good products. We can do it 11 to 12 months a year because of our climate, so let’s take advantage of what we grow.”
Stehly Farms Organics’ rolling hills and open crops can cause people to overlook the food growing in their own community. Says Noel, “sometimes people come out here when we do our events and they can pick their own produce. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know farms existed out here. I always thought if it was a farm, it was a greenhouse, because that’s what I saw somewhere else.’ We have an opportunity to have the best foods grown in our own backyards every day.”
For Stehly Farms Organics, it’s not just the students at school that benefit from the farm. During the summer season, the farm employs a number of students from Vista and other nearby North County communities.
“It’s a cool summer job for a bunch of kids,” says Noel. “You can only pick berries in the morning when it’s cool. So a lot of our students working here in the summer can work in the morning and then jump in the car and go to the beach. It’s fun to see 10 cars parked [in our lot] and only three of them leave because they all jumped in the same car and went to the beach. That’s awesome.”
Stehly Farms Organics does events open to the public throughout the year, including opportunities for visitors to pick their own foods. The next big event is a Pumpkin Patch in October, where families can enjoy the grounds, take pictures, and bring home their own freshly grown gourds for Halloween and the fall season.
The farm posts these events on its website. Be sure to look for opportunities to visit a local farm and see the amazing foods we’re able to serve our students through working with great partners like Stehly Farms Organics.