Close, but no tomatoes: Molino Creek Farm

Roland Saher of Molino Creek Farm at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For Roland Saher, it’s a year of selling sunflowers, cucumbers, zucchinis, torpedo onions and sweet onions at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market. But climate change means Molino Creek Farm’s dry-farmed early girl tomatoes aren’t available this year.

Farmers Market Fridays

Beyond their vitamins and how they’ll taste in tonight’s dinner, most people don’t give much thought to their vegetables.

But to Roland Saher, who operates the Molino Creek Farm stand at the downtown Santa Cruz farmer’s market, vegetables represent the communion between people and their environment — connecting the natural and cultural worlds.

The affable 73-year-old, who has been working at Molino Creek Farm for the past 12 years, greets passersby with an outstretched box of sliced Persian cucumbers. When I spoke to him last Wednesday afternoon, he stopped our conversation several times to advertise the product.

“They’re remarkably sweet, aren’t they?” he asked, after offering me a disc.

Molino Creek Farm was one of the inaugural vendors at the downtown market, which first opened its doors in 1990. You wouldn’t guess it, comparing Saher’s stand to his neighbors’. Where other downtown vendors stretch their produce across lines of tables serviced by multiple employees, Molino Creek Farm’s stand is just Saher, sitting among stacks of sunflowers, cucumbers, zucchinis, torpedo onions and sweet onions you can allegedly bite into. (I didn’t try them.)

The farm itself sits on approximately 30 acres of arable land in Davenport, and was established in 1983 by a small group of families. The operation remains small: Aside from Saher, only a handful of other workers maintain and harvest the crops.

Saher is a natural salesman, in multiple senses of the word. Not only is he knowledgeable about his product, he’s also, as he describes himself, a humanist.

“In the past, we handed out little tastes of tomatoes. And I just loved it when I gave somebody a piece of tomato, and they would turn around and they would say, ‘Hey honey, this is great! We should get some.’ It’s the facial expressions.”

Molino Creek Farm’s claim to fame are its dry-farmed early girl tomatoes, which Saher says it introduced to the Santa Cruz growing community. Dry farming is a technique in which, after planting their seeds, growers leave the nascent tomato plants almost entirely alone. Instead of wicking moisture from surface irrigation, the roots of dry-farmed tomato plants burrow deep — as far down as 8 feet — reaching water that trickled down from previous rainy seasons.

Dry farming yields tomatoes that are tastier, albeit smaller — and far fewer in quantity. But since this technique relies on natural soil moisture conditions, it’s subject to the boom-and-bust nature of rain in California. With the state in its third year of drought, there were many onions — but no tomatoes — at Molino Creek Farm’s stand this August.

“This year, for whatever reason, the tomato plants look measly,” Saher said.

Saher suspects that drought conditions over the past few years have dried the soil beneath Molino Creek Farm’s Davenport plot, withering this year’s yield. And before this year’s harvest, he said a herd of deer broke into the farm’s tomato enclosure and ate what stock had managed to grow.

The way Saher described them, dry-farmed tomatoes have a depth of flavor that far surpasses that of the ordinary, massive, store-bought kind. Where typical beefsteaks and romas are watery and one-note, Molino’s early girls are fleshy, sweet and rich — so much so that they can stand as a dish on their own.

Their absence this year at Saher’s stand was a bitter reminder that climate change is here, and coming for our artisanal vegetables (and fruits).

“We assume that the now three consecutive years of drought is affecting our farm and our biggest product because there’s not enough moisture,” Saher said. “That’s exactly as the scientists predicted.”

Roland Saher of Molino Creek Farm at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Does Molino Creek Farm set up at other farmers markets?

Roland Saher: If we have enough produce, and it doesn’t look like it this year. Last year we went to the Cabrillo market, and we do go to the market in Palo Alto.

Lookout: What do you like about working at a farmers market?

Saher: The 12 years I’ve worked [at Molino Creek Farm] has probably been the best time of my working life. I love working here. I care about the cause, and the people, and the produce. Before I started selling in the farmer’s market, I always thought that salespeople were slimy — as in car salesmen. And then I found that if you believe that you’re selling something good, selling can be fun.

In the past we handed out little tastes of tomatoes. And I just loved it when I gave somebody a piece of tomato and they would turn around and they would say, “Hey honey, this is great! We should get some.” It’s the facial expressions.

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