Saturday, February 26, 2022 was a historic day in Halcyon, California. Since 2001, Jerry Rutiz had been farming a twenty-five-acre plot of land on the corner of Elm Street and the Pike, where Arroyo Grande becomes Oceano, in south San Luis Obispo County. But on this especially lovely day, Jerry parked his tractor for the last time and picked up a cold one. At last, he was retiring from his highly-respected position as Farmer-in-Chief at Rutiz Family Farms.
As I type this article, on March 1, 2022, South County’s esteemed source for wholesome, healthy produce is changing hands, from founder and longtime owner, Jerry Rutiz, to a spunky gardener and dedicated caretaker, Ariela Gottshalk.
Rutiz Farms: A lasting legacy in SLO County
Jerry’s retirement party, which I was lucky enough to attend, actually marked the end of a 41-year career of tilling the soil in the South County. It was back in 1981 that Jerry started spouting his first seeds on another plot across town. That farm has since transformed into a suburban housing tract.
Back in those days, the corner of Elm and the Pike was the site of a modestly-sized commercial strawberry farm. When I say “commercial”, what I mean is “conventional”, as in, they sprayed the land continuously with herbicides and pesticides like methyl bromide. As the spraying went on, neighbors on the surrounding cul-de-sacs gradually came down with a host of debilitating diseases. Babies were born with birth defects, disproportionate numbers came down with cancer, and the habitat suffered.
Rutiz to the Resuce!
After years of protests from residents of Grell Lane and Tierra Nueva Cohousing in Oceano, the strawberry farm finally bit the dust. Yes, the chemically saturated dust. And this came as a great relief to the community, many of whom had witnessed close-hand the deleterious effects of excessive agricultural spraying in the midst of a residential neighborhood.
Around 2001, Jerry took over the land, which is leased from the People’s Temple in Halcyon. He didn’t do away with the strawberries entirely, but he did bring an abrupt end to the toxic spaying that had poisoned the air and water for the last couple decades.
Don’t panic – it’s practically organic
Rutiz Farms is widely considered to be the premier source of organic produce in South San Luis Obispo County. And I’m happy to say that my children were eating Jerry’s produce for the first several years of their lives – before we moved overseas.
Was Rutiz Farms certified organic? No. But was Jerry Rutiz an organic farmer? I would say yes. They don’t spray, they don’t monocrop, and they rotate the fields regularly. Every couple seasons, a patch of land is planted with a cover crop of vetch, which fixes the nitrogen and then gets plowed under.
So why isn’t it certified organic? Well, the certification process is expensive, and the rules are cowritten by major agricultural companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland. The result is a system that recognizes varying degrees of organic and allows for the proliferation of products labeled “organic” in major supermarkets. Down the street, at Ralph’s, for example, you can see rows and rows and shelves and shelves of organic tomato sauce. Nice gesture, but I’m not sure if this is truly a model of sustainable farming. You can bet it was monocultured.
For decades, Jerry was doing everything the right way. No one else’s fruits or vegetables could compare with what Jerry was growing. And he quickly attracted a legion of loyal customers. But rather than ship organic bat guano all the way from Peru, he decided to fertilize with some occasional nitrogen supplements or some manure from a nearby farm that wasn’t certified organic. So for that reason, Jerry could never get certified. Better than organic, if you ask me.
A season for change
As with all good things, Rutiz Farms looked like it might come to an end. Jerry put in 41 good years, and he was ready to retire. Good news for Jerry, perhaps. But what about the thousands of families, all hungry for locally grown, wholesome, pretty-much organic produce?
Life in South County wouldn’t be the same without Jerry. Have you seen the so-called produce department at Trader Joe’s? And where else will anyone find fresh blueberries and strawberries that taste like these?
But just when you thought it was time to throw in the tomatillo, a familiar face stepped forward to say “I got this!”
Ariella has spent the better part of the last 20 years managing the Growing Grounds farm in Santa Maria. She’s got a thumb as green as any you’ll ever see. And she’s no stranger to transitions. She even started supplying Jerry with a quantity of veggie starts for his farm stand many years ago.
Like many things in this tumultuous decade, we see a looming crisis turn out to be a great opportunity. Since the early 1980s, Jerry Rutiz became something of a fixture in this community, and many would have gone so far as to call him irreplaceable.
Jerry’s role as the provider of good nutrition was as important as any. And upon his retirement, the food supply could have easily fallen into the wrong hands. It wasn’t until just a month or two ago that Jerry and Ariela reached an agreement, one that would allow him to retire, allow her to continue pursuing her passion, and meanwhile keep the local produce supply chain intact.
Give thanks for good produce in abundance
As a former resident of South County, I can understand the panic that must have rippled through the community when Jerry announced his plans to retire. But as a longtime friend of Ariela’s and Jeff’s, I can attest to the fact that the organic food supply is in good hands. You are safe now.
No one need fear that the land won’t be properly tended. Indeed, we can all sleep well at night knowing that Ariela is minding the crops and maintaining the fields. You can rest assured that they will plant only non-GMO seeds and grow their food free from pesticides, in accordance with organic farming practices.
So next time you stop by the old Farm stand, you might see a new sign, announcing Halcyon Farms. But little else will change. If you see Ariela out there working the land, be sure to tell her thanks. And if she happens to be wearing one of her Kale t-shirts, you can ask her where she got it!
Here’s to another two or three decades of wholesome bounty, rich and delicious.