Meet a Farmer: Will Nelson of The Bear and The Bee Farm
Meet Will Nelson, Co-Owner of The Bear and The Bee Farm in Placerville, CA. As a young farmer who wasn’t born into the farming industry, his love for the land and environment began in college and has continued to this day. Learn more about Will, why he encourages young farmers to learn about the business side of farming and how he’s doing his best to be a good steward of the land he farms on.
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Will: We’re a young business. We started in February of last year and we’re located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I started the business along with my partner, Erica Gassmann, this is our second year and we’re very excited. We have about a 10-acre parcel here and we’re currently growing about three to four acres of organic vegetables. We have a farm stand on site, we sell to local restaurants and we sell primarily to a local distribution company out of Truckee and they purchase produce within 100 miles and distribute to the Tahoe area, so that’s a lot of our business. This year, we’re growing from a two-person operation to a three-person operation because we’re able to bring on an employee this year, so we’re pretty excited about that. We’re certified organic, we grow about 50 different varieties of organic vegetables and we’re excited to be growing at the rate we’re growing at because we have a lot of support from the community, which has been really helpful.
CA GROWN: Tell me about the name The Bear and The Bee?
Will: Erica is totally responsible for that. We were managing other farms and over the course of her training, Erica became a beekeeper and she’s always said I look like a bear with my big beard, so she just thought of the name and created an Instagram account with that name. It really caught on and we started getting a lot of followers and people thought it was a really cute name. When we were thinking of farm names, we realized we had a lot of support and a large following with this name, so we kept it and we get compliments on it all the time.
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Will: It’s very diversified, which is one of the reasons I like farming. My day could start out on the tractor and I could spend five or six hours on the tractor, prepping beds, cultivating. We rely a lot on machinery and we do hand work too, but as a small operation it’s still a lot of work. My day usually involves fixing irrigation lines, harvesting for hours especially in the summer because we have perishable crops like heirloom tomatoes. I’ll come in and start taking care of the books and making sure we’re squared away for orders, contacting wholesale accounts and getting that taken care of. There could be a fire I have to put out or a number of other things, but it’s all part of the job and I love it. It’s really nice when you have a small team because it’s easy to coordinate and easy to adapt. Every farmer would agree that you have to be ready for anything, so a small team definitely helps. Erica and I manage the farm and we have split duties and our individual roles, so we’re each in charge of our own things and it works out.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?
Will: Right now, we’re definitely trying to get established in the community. There’s still people who don’t know about us or aren’t familiar with our produce, so we’re really trying to get our name out there. One of the ways we do that is we make sure to donate to the local food bank and other organizations that are looking for produce. We’re slowly but surely getting our name out there and getting involved. We also just joined up with the El Dorado County Farm Guild and we’re meeting a lot of people through that organization and we’re definitely looking for ways to get more involved in the community. We also try to provide produce at a very reasonable rate and we’re able to do that. Certified organic produce can be a little expensive and we don’t want our produce to be price-prohibitive for people, so we try to keep that price at a very competitive rate where people feel like they can come out and spend their money and feel like they’re getting a good amount of high quality produce.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the farming profession?
Will: I grew up in the suburbs, so I had no farming experience growing up. The most I knew about farming was that my grandma grew up on a farm in Minnesota. In college, we learned about the environment and a lot of these issues that involve agriculture and I became really interested in it, so I ended up volunteering on a small-scale urban agriculture farm in San Francisco and so many things clicked for me when I did that. I felt like I was actually having a tangible effect because a lot of these issues just felt so large and esoteric that I felt like I couldn’t really do anything about them or couldn’t have an impact. So I got involved with the farm and started planting produce and selling produce from the farm stand on the side of the road. I interacted with people and I was able to steward a little piece of land and manage it, so I felt like I was actually contributing. From that experience, I went off and farmed on multiple farms for the last five or six years and just fell in love with farming and realized that this is what I wanted to do.
CA GROWN: Why is it important that your business has a positive impact on the world?
Will: I think we have a lot of issues facing the world in general, but especially with the environment. Climate change is one of those issues and here in California, there’s a lot of talk about the drought and water conservation issues and a lot of soil is prone to erosion. So there’s a lot of these issues and through farming, we’re trying to steward this small piece of land and be an example. We never leave soil uncovered and we have cover crops that are continually rotated through all of our fields. We take about half of our acreage and put it into our cover crops every year and that prevents soil erosion by having root structures in tact. We’re in a windy area out here as well, so it’s really important that we don’t leave soil uncovered as well. In addition, instead of releasing carbon we’re actually sequestering carbons in the atmosphere and storing it in our root system through the plants. Since last year, we’ve increased our organic matter by 0.5% which is really good. In addition to that, our neighbor grazes their sheep and chickens on our cover crop. So we get that organic matter, the nitrogen phosphorus from the manure and then I plant another cover crop immediately. So we’re really trying to be an example of how to increase organic matter and sequester carbon. And in terms of water efficiency, we do subsoil drip application for 100% of our vegetables and we use plastic mulch, which cuts our water usage by 50% because it retains moisture. Sometimes we’ll use hay or straw and mulch our crops with that, so that all helps with water conservation and helps us use water efficiently.
CA GROWN: When you’re not farming, what are some of your hobbies or favorite pastimes?
Will: Right now, I’m preparing to be a father so that’s taking up a lot of my free time. I’m very excited to be a father and my partner, Erica, is excited to be a mother. Right now we’re prepping the house and getting everything ready because they baby is due in late June, which is perfect timing. In addition, we live in a really great place for outdoor recreational activities. Whether it’s going down to the river and going rafting or going hiking in the Sierra or enjoying the great fishing and hunting opportunities. On any given weekend, you could probably catch me out and about doing one of those things. We also love cooking, so sometimes we’ll stay in for the weekend and experiment with new recipes. We actually put out recipe cards for our customers, so we experiment with recipes using our own produce and give them to our customers and they definitely enjoy it.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a farmer?
Will: I think for young farmers like me who are interested in farming but have no experience or didn’t grow up on a farm, I would suggest that they get as much experience as possible. Go work on a variety of farms, whether it’s organic, conventional, produce, ranches, etc. It’s all going to help you in the end and the more you can learn about the growing practices and the business, the better. I think a lot of young farmers I meet don’t necessarily have those skills, but they’re definitely some of the most important because at the end of the day you are running a business and you have to make sure the numbers work. So don’t rush into it, take the time to learn your trade and really familiarize yourself with the business aspects of farming and how to run a business. I think with that and a lot of patience and willingness to endure, you’ll do just fine.
CA GROWN: What is something that’s unique about your business or makes it stand out?
Will: Right off the bat, we really pride ourselves on having a very high-quality product. That all starts with the soil, so we really make sure it’s in tip-top shape and is able to provide a full spectrum and array of nutrients that the plant needs so it’s not deficient. It’s awesome when our customers come to pick up our produce and they bite into a tomato and they say they can tell the difference. We really pride ourselves as well on being very selective as far as what produce we pick to sell. In addition, our farm stand is pretty unique because it’s a great place to interact with customers and share our recipes and we love doing that.
CA GROWN: What are you doing to ensure your farm’s success going forward?
Will: We had a pretty good first year and our objective is to continually grow the business and to make it a financially viable and profitable business and we’re definitely on our way. We’re trying to hone in our growing practices and be able to produce more produce on the scale we’re at and we’re trying to get more locked in with some of our local accounts and grow our wholesale business. We were able to move a lot of produce here in Placerville, but I don’t think enough people know about us yet. So this year we’re really focusing on marketing, trying to secure a few more accounts and getting our name out there. Once we do that, people will taste our produce, become familiar with us and will want to buy it. It’s just a balancing act to grow at a rate that works for us and not get burnt out either. We also don’t want to overcommit ourselves either because when you’re a young business, there’s a lot of opportunities to network and collaborate with other people on various projects, but we’ve been very intentional on how we’ve done that and how we’re going to do that moving forward.
CA GROWN: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Will: Definitely hearing the stories from customers about how they use our produce. Some people out here are just so happy to have local produce because there’s not a ton of produce farms out here. Our customers are excited to try our recipes, experiment with them and share them with friends and family. Our customer’s experience and how they relate to our food through our recipes is very rewarding and I love when people come to the farm and we give them a tour to show them what we’re doing, how we’re managing the land and what kind of product they’re getting. That whole interaction is very rewarding and one of the main reasons why we’re doing what we’re doing.
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?
Will: I’ve mentioned the plastic and living mulches and exclusively using drips for our produce. We also use overhead irrigation to irrigate our cover crops and use low flow sprinkler heads to try and reduce water usage. And in terms of our soil, we really try to minimize tillage, tillage at the appropriate time and not over do it because that’s a very fast way to lose carbon that you’re storing in the soil to the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. So we really try to use appropriate tillage and technology when we do that.