Meet a Farmer: Randy Baldwin of San Marcos Growers
Meet Randy Baldwin, President of San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara, CA. As a plant lover, he enjoys not only working with plants but also learning about them in his spare time. Learn more about Randy, why he’s so passionate about growing plants in our Mediterranean climate and how the company is very conscious of the environment and keeping the land they farm sustainable.
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Randy: Our company started in 1979 and I was hired in 1981. At the time, I was hired as the production and shipping manager. It was a brand new company growing trees primarily and I brought with me my love of Mediterranean plants and particularly California-native plants. So we expanded well beyond the trees and while we still grow a few very unusual trees, we’re primarily noted now for plants appropriate to our Mediterranean climate. I worked as the production manager until 1990 and then took over as the general manager of the nursery and became a part owner. I also work with the family that owns the property and they’re my partners, but they don’t work in the nursery. I’ve been here for 36 years, my wife is a landscape architect and my kids have grown up on this property. I have a lot of love for this nursery and growing plants. My primary interest is in plants and even though I have other things to deal with in the business as the general manager, my main focus has always been on unusual plants that grow well in this climate. We pride ourselves in nomenclature too, so when clients contact us looking for the real names on plants, we can help them. Our website is pretty well visited and people tell us all the time how helpful it is. We are a wholesale nursery, so we’re selling to other nurseries and those in the professional landscape trade like landscape contractors, landscape architects, designers, etc. We’re on about 30 acres in Santa Barbara county and it’s a challenge because we’re in the middle of an urban area, so it’s tough because we face potential development around us or on us. But we’ve held out here for more than 36 years, so we’re doing something right.
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Randy: A typical day is putting out a lot of fires because I’m in charge of all the different departments. I usually start off with answering emails and a lot of that has to do with plant-related things like people asking about plant cultural needs, architect needs, etc. Then I meet with my different department heads in sales, shipping, production and propagation in our weekly meetings. Then I’ll take a walk around the fields and greet people as they come in because we have a lot of visitors that come into the nursery. There really is no typical day here because things happen. All of those things could happen in a given day.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?
Randy: We donate a lot of plants to our local non-profits and schools primarily. We work closely with the school right next to us and we have a few high schools and junior highs around us, so we work with them as well. I’m also involved with the UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Landscape Design Review Board and I’m also on a committee for the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens and the Lotus Land, which is a local non-profit botanic garden. We are very open to donations to non-profits and that’s most of the ways we give back. We’re not open to the public, so we have to make sure we don’t actually advertise in any kind of thing that’s going to imply that we sell to the public so we can’t support certain organizations sometimes, be listed in their books or things like that.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the farming profession?
Randy: I went to school here at UCSB and focused on environmental studies with a concentration in botany and while I was going to school, I was working at a retail nursery and I thought I was going to go into forestry or environmental education at the time. But I graduated and was offered a job at this nursery and I was very fortuitous with the timing and it was a great opportunity for me to start at this company that was taking off. So that’s what drew me in.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you’re not farming?
Randy: Well I’m very much a plant person, so most of my hobbies are related to plants. Whether it’s plant photography or working on my own succulent collection, visiting botanic gardens and other nurseries. I also love riding my bike and enjoying time with my family and my dogs, of course.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a farmer?
Randy: That’s a tough one and it’s getting tougher all the time. And certainly, my kids were not interested in this industry. I don’t think it’s anything I discouraged, but they didn’t see it as a career that they wanted to get into. But I think there’s a lot of opportunities. There’s an organization called Seed Your Future that Anna Ball and Longwood Gardens is working on and I think it’s a great idea. Their purpose is to get the idea of horticulture being a word that is acknowledged at the high school level. So there are opportunities available and there is a need for horticulturalists. As long as there’s nurseries and they’re selling plants, that’s a really good opportunity for anyone.
CA GROWN: What is something that’s unique about your business or makes it stand out?
Randy: Our product mix is unique and has a lot of unusual plants, which is something we’ve always focused on. I do a lot of traveling and I have a lot of friends throughout the world that have provided me with plants or seeds and I think our unique product mix and the diversity of our product mix makes us stand out. Our website makes the business stand out as well and shows our ability to not only promote the plants, but to give valuable information on the plant itself, and how to cultivate it.
CA GROWN: What has contributed to your past success and what are you doing to ensure continued success going forward?
Randy: Certainly, it’s about us continuing to always be on the cutting edge and always looking to have new and fresh products out. Just this year, we put out a catalog and we had 148 new plants offered this year. Also, on the promotions side, we’re enhancing the website and moving to a more mobile-friendly site soon. We also do a few trade shows to stay in front of people and make sure they know we’re still around and help them remember us. It also creates great camaraderie with other people in the nursery industry. I’m on the board of the nursery association (CANGC) and it’s important to me to promote that and promote any activities that they have.
CA GROWN: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Randy: Cool plants and good people. This industry is full of very, very good people.
CA GROWN: As a California farmer, we know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your farm to care for the land and its resources. What are one or two ways that you’re most proud of or you feel are innovative ways you care for your land?
Randy: Our integrated pest management program and of course, not polluting the land. We’re working with the resources boards on growing plants that are really appropriate to our climate. And it’s not so much on our property, but it is a part of what we do. So we plant those plants also along our street sides and it’s a beautiful thing for the neighborhood and we’re very cognizant of environmental pressures and I think that’s probably what I’m proudest of because we’ve been good stewards of this land.