GROWING BUSINESS: MORNING SONG FARM, WHICH IS KNOWN FOR ITS RARE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES, IS A LABOR OF ORGANIC LOVE FOR SAN DIEGO COUNTY WOMAN

farmerdonna

By Andrea Siedsma Special to the U-T 12:01 a.m.Sept. 30, 2013

 

Donna Buono

Hobbies: Fixing up her old farmhouse, taking care of her llama and goats, hiking and jet skiing.

Favorite quote: “Is there anything sadder than the foods of the 1950s? Canned, frozen, packaged concoctions, served up by the plateful, three meals per day, in an era in which the supermarket was king, the farmers market was, well, for farmers, and the word ‘locavore’ sounded vaguely like a mythical beast.” — Jeffrey Kluger

Career path: Although she took as many horticultural classes as she could, Buono ended up with a business administration degree from Saddleback College. “I was afraid I might end up working at a neighborhood nursery chain selling ornamentals. If you can’t eat it, I’ve never been interested.”

Subscription farm

Morning Song Farm is one of about a dozen Community Supported Agriculture farms in the county. The consumer buys a subscription from a farmer for a set price to receive fresh produce on a weekly or biweekly basis.

Cost: A small box is $34.50, weekly or biweekly; and a large box runs $44.50, weekly or biweekly.

Sample contents: Kale, royal purple beans, cucumbers, beets, passion fruit, pomegranates, green onions, parsley, basil, tomatoes and purslane.

Donna Buono –who learned many homesteading skills such as cheese making from her grandmother, an astrophysicist with NASA — has always had a desire for rural living. As a child, Buono and her family of five spent the summers camping on her uncle’s Maine farm in a 20-foot trailer, giving her the conviction that she’d rather live in a shack on acreage than a mansion in the suburbs.

Fast forward to now and you will find Buono on her 20-acre organic farm in the small town of Rainbow, in the northern part of San Diego County. What started out as a “hobby” in 2001 is now Morning Song Farm, which grows 70 different fruits, macadamias and heirloom vegetables.

The farm is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and has drop-off points throughout San Diego and Orange counties for its customers to pick up weekly baskets. CSA is sometimes referred to as a “subscription farm” because the consumer buys a subscription from a farmer for a set price to receive fresh produce on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Morning Song Farm is one of about a dozen CSAs in the county.

Morning Song Farm is known for its rare fruits and vegetables, such as mulberries, pineapple guavas, dragon fruit, and purslane, a leafy green high in omega-3. More than half of the farm is covered with 700 macadamia trees.

A recent weekly Morning Song Farm basket was packed with kale, royal purple beans, cucumbers, beets, passion fruit, pomegranates, green onions, parsley, basil, tomatoes and purslane. A small CSA box from Morning Song Farm costs $34.50, weekly or biweekly; and a large box runs $44.50, weekly or biweekly. A box of salad fixings goes for $19.75 a week. Morning Song Farm, which is mostly family-run, has one part-time and one full-time employee.

Buono, known as Farmer Donna, is a staunch food advocate, but will be the first to admit that passion aside, organic farming is a tough business. The Chula Vista native talked to U-T San Diego about the challenges and jubilations of owning and running a small organic farm.

Q: What was your motivation behind buying a farm?

A: My original vision was to grow passion fruit and fioja guavas, two underappreciated fruits that I really love. It was supposed to be a hobby. But I realized you can’t run something like this and make it just a hobby. As I started out at the Santa Monica farmers market, it became clear that two mostly out-of-season items on the table wouldn’t even pay the water bill. I wasn’t really thinking in terms of return on investment. I did follow my passion and have ended up doing something I love. In terms of ROI there are probably more lucrative industries to devote one’s life to, so for the young farmer just starting out, I would say that you need passion to get you through the rough times and the unprofitable years.

Q: Why did you choose to become a CSA?

A: I was doing farmers markets, and I love them, but economically it just didn’t pencil out for us. At the end of the day once you pay your employee and pay for gas, you don’t make anything. The CSA model turned out to be great for a mom like me. I didn’t have to work weekends at all anymore, which was life-changing.

With farmers markets, the farmer never knows how much to harvest; rain or a sporting event can change sales figures substantially. We gave or threw away a lot of food. With a CSA, you only harvest for the exact number of boxes you are preparing for your subscribers. We started the CSA with a single friend of mine who had admired the beautiful produce on my kitchen counter.

She and I shared in the cost to grow a vegetable garden, and we split the produce each week. Several other girlfriends joined in soon after, and we were off. Soon friends of friends asked to join.

Q: What are the challenges of marketing a CSA to consumers?

A: We don’t do a lot of marketing. We use Susco Media’s Zip Code Magazines to get the word out a little bit. We also advertise in the two local newspapers. For small farms like mine, getting the word out can be an issue.

Advertising is expensive. A majority of San Diegans who want non-GMO organic foods in their homes are still not aware of CSAs. Every single local organic farm should have a waiting list and should be maxed out. That’s not happening yet. There is no strategy for strong growth.

We haven’t had much growth in years, and have had about the same number of subscribers.

Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges?

A: As a small farmer I think talented labor is a huge issue. So much of our farming knowledge was coming from Mexico, and then there was a crackdown on labor laws and immigration issues. Immigration laws changed the face of farming in California. It’s been said that it takes at least 20 years to know what you are doing in farming. That knowledge base is precious. Current California law also states that farm internships are noncompliant. That’s a problem industrywide. The average age of a farmer in California is 60, which is scary. Where are the young people just starting out supposed to learn? We have a knowledge base that is not transferring as fast as it needs to. And many small family farmers aren’t expecting their children to continue the family farm, because the kids see firsthand the economic trade-offs that are involved and decide to do something else.

Q: How do you deal with profit pressure?

A: We’re profitable most months, but we would be much stronger by simply increasing our CSA subscriber base. We have a much larger capacity for production than we are utilizing.

We’re considering adding macadamia tours, a farm experience bed-and-breakfast, a sprouting class, and more cheese classes to diversify our income base and increase exposure.

Q: What fuels you to get up before dawn every day to farm?

A: I really believe in myself and I think I can do it. Healthy food should not be considered a luxury. I have an infectious passion for amazing fruits and vegetables. Many of our subscribers say they feel like it’s Christmas when they open their boxes every week.

I’m really excited about the new things that are successfully growing, such as our dragon fruit, olives, and sapote. We’re just starting a trial of carissa plums. It’s a lot of hard work and most of my customers are aware of that. I also have a blog, and love to tell our farm stories. We recently started a cheese-making class here, which is another way to get people interested in the farm and in great food.

 

IS COMMUNITY BANKING DEAD?

Regents Bank’s Sefton forges ahead in difficult times by focusing on needs of local businesses

UT-stevesefton

By Andrea Siedsma Special to the U-T Aug. 5, 2013

In a different time period — let’s say the 1950s to the 1970s — a business owner’s best friends were his banker, his CPA, his insurance provider and his attorney.  They also acted as his independent advisory board.
Steve Sefton is recreating and keeping that community banking legacy alive and forging ahead in one of the most difficult times that community banks have ever experienced.
Sefton is president and CEO of San Diego-based Regents Bank, one of only about 16 community banks left in the county. (San Diego was home to about 22 community banks in 2011, and 50 back in 1985, according to the California  Department of Financial Institutions).
Founded in 2001 and based out of La Jolla, Regents Bank – which has experienced its own consolidations – serves small to mid-size businesses and offers commercial business loans, real estate financing, depository products, corporate cash management, international banking and private banking services. The bank – which has other offices in downtown San Diego, Escondido and Vista, Calif., as well as Vancouver, Wash. –   also provides strategies and solutions to small business owners through its consultative banking service. Since its recent acquisition of California Community Bank and merger with Grandpoint Capital, Regents Bank has more resources to play in this competitive market.
For Sefton, who joined Regents Bank in 2012, this business is not really about selling more banking products; it’s about helping business owners grow their companies and solve problems.  Sefton, a 28-year banking veteran, recently spoke with the U-T about the past, present and future of community banking.

Q. What is the difference between a community bank and a megabank such as Chase Bank?
A. Big banks try to offer everything to everyone and have a worldwide presence — they do loans and deposits for consumers and businesses, mortgage underwriting, provide insurance, wealth management, etc. for individuals, businesses and multi-national corporations. Community banks are specialized and very local; we are defined by a regional footprint. My bank is focused on local businesses and their owners, with less emphasis on retailers and consumers, which can be better handled in the high volume environment the bigger banks offer. Our decisions are made here locally, not in some distant corporate office in another state. Most business owners I work with want to sit down with their banker on a regular basis.  We offer a unique brand of consultative banking by walking clients through crucial financial and company decisions.

Q. What does Regents Bank’s typical customer look like?
A. We’re focused on a local owner-managed company with $5 million to $100 million in sales. Half of our banking relationships are businesses (companies who make or distribute products or services) and the other half is all things real estate. In San Diego we have some very strong specialties in health sciences, old fashioned manufacturers that are bending metal and making tangible products, and a host of business-to-business service companies. Even though a business is local to San Diego, its footprint may be international, so while we are a local community bank, our capability is national and international because that’s where our clients take us.

Q. How are community banks surviving in a market dominated by the big guys?
A. Even though we are a locally focused bank, our services need to be quite sophisticated. We are competing against the national banks like Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America.  We need to have the cutting edge of every product out there to enable our clients to access to their funds in the most sophisticated ways. We offer mobile banking, remote deposit capture and provide foreign currency along with domestic and international wires in all currencies. By the way, remote deposit is the biggest game changer in years for the banking industry that has real impact from a product side. Another way we have remained competitive is through our merger with Grandpoint Capital. We are able to offer more to our clients and spread the cost of increased regulation. Now, a $10 million loan is not a big deal like it was in the past.

Q. What are some current regulations that have put a stronghold on community banks?
A. The Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), the Patriot Act and Dodd-Frank banking reform legislation, which significantly increases our investment in people and technology to comply with many more regulations than we had in the past. Locally, one community bank reported that it recently lost money one quarter due to the costs incurred to comply with these regulations. The government requires banks to invest more and more in software and technology to catch money laundering and other risky business practices. We are now required to place more scrutiny on our clients. Dodd-Frank hasn’t even been completely written yet. We don’t know all the implications (i.e. final costs) of what the act will even be. I believe the increased regulatory burden is a significant factor in the reduction of San Diego based community banks.

Q. What other obstacles do community banks in California face?
A. My biggest competitor is the State of California. Higher costs of doing business in California either directly or indirectly driven by State and local government are factors that are driving business owners out of California. Many companies that used to be based in San Diego, are now gone. Some were sold and some moved.  There have been some high profile names that have left our community because of this issue. It’s unfortunate and unnecessary.

Q. Do federal tax exemptions for credit unions, which many bankers call unfair, further distress community banks?
A. Yes and no. The lines have been blurred. Regulations used to require credit unions to be focused around a constituency. Now they can take just about any individual or business as a customer. It will take time for credit unions to move into our market, but it will no doubt make community baking more competitive over time. There is an on-going argument between the banking and credit union industry over the tax issue. Credit unions don’t pay taxes, which is a competitive disadvantage to banks. I’m for the free market, but only if we all play by the same rules.

Q. What will the future community bank need to look like in order to keep its doors open?
A. Many experts believe that community banks need to be $1 billion in assets or larger going forward to be able to digest the increased regulatory burden. You have to get bigger and stronger to play ball as a community bank. However, Regents Bank is still a very small bank compared to the big banks – we like it that way.

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The novel interactive game, called My Marriott Hotel, was born out of the mega-hospitality corporation’s quest to fill 50,000 jobs worldwide by the end of 2011.

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Marriott International Inc.’s launch of its own Facebook game to attract thousands of potential employees is scoring points quickly. The novel interactive game, called My Marriott Hotel, was born out of the mega-hospitality corporation’s quest to fill 50,000 jobs worldwide by the end of 2011. And it is spreading rapidly across the globe. The game, which was officially launched June 6, had players from 58 countries within the first 48 hours, including Germany, Hungary, Malaysia and South Africa. That number grew to 99 countries in the game’s third week. Continue reading

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