Featured Farmer Spotlight: Paul Underhill of Terra Firma Farm

Every week, we’ll spotlight a FarmsReach Featured Farmer. Our Featured Farmers are brimming with great ideas and knowledge to share with the farming community. Feeling a spark of curiosity? There’s no question too simple or tough. Ask a question or add a Conversation and we’ll be sure it’s answered within a day or two.


This week, we’re featuring Paul Underhill, from Terra Firma Farm – “a non-traditional version of a ‘family farm’“.  Paul is a partner on the farm along with Paul Holmes and Hector Melendez-Lopez, who has several family members who all work intrinsic positions on the farm.

FarmsReach: How many years have you been farming?

Paul Underhill: 20 years

FR: How many generations of farmers are in your family?

PU: Zero! [laughs] I’m a first-generation farmer.

FR: How did you get into farming?  What do you love most about it?

PU: I got into farming the way a lot of people do, kind of as a summer job and stayed on the farm for 20 years. It was either fate or karma [laughs], depending on which side of the glass you’re looking at. I like being my own boss. That’s probably one of my favorite things about farming. It was the first time I’d ever been my own boss. I’m not necessarily good at being anyone else’s boss.

FR: What was the most important piece of advice you received when you were getting started? Or, what single piece of advice would you give a new beginning farmer?

PU: Ohhh… The best advice that I got was negative advice, and that’s what I try to give to people that I know who are getting into farms. There’s really a huge tendency to idealize things. It’s really not a romantic way to live. It’s really very economically challenging and it’s a lot of work and there are a lot of sacrifices involved. You can get into it pretty deep, on the romantic aspect and you don’t necessarily realize that the career choice you’re making is going to limit a lot of other things you can do in your life.

The best piece of advice that I got, was from an accountant who told me, ‘Stop trying to buy a farm and instead buy yourself a place to live’. You might never be able to buy land, and that turned out to be a really good piece of advice because I bought a house, I was later able to buy a farm. Because if I hadn’t bought the house exactly when I bought it, I never would have been able to buy a farm. At the time I thought the accountant who told me that was being really negative, but I took his advice anyway and it ended up being really good advice.

FR: What are you most excited about that’s happening on your farm?

PU: Oh boy! [laughs] We’re in kind of a down period. I’m not too excited about the downturn on our farm which is going through several very economically challenging years. And there’s a lot of stuff coming down the pipe that’s going to make it even harder to make a living doing what we’re doing and difficult for us to stay in business. We’ve had milestones. We bought land and then we bought some more land, and now I’m just sort of in a mode of Okay so we did all this and now what do we do?

FR: What do you feel is the next big thing (or most exciting thing) in agriculture?

PU: There’s a lot of people that are farming on a smaller scale and they’ve focused on different niches. Getting back to advice for others, I think the opportunity in agriculture right now is to be really niche and do carefully thought out marketing; come up with a business plan before you grow anything. I see people doing this and I’m glad because there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s sort of niche. For example there are a lot of people selling at farmers’ markets at least in California where it’s really challenging now because there is more supply that there is demand for stuff. So there are people who are coming up with niche stuff and nice marketing plans who are doing the right thing.

There’s exciting stuff happening with seed production and I’m really interested in that component of FarmsReach. There’s specialty livestock production. Everything that people were doing when I was getting into farming is really kind of maxed out at this point in time.

FR: Tell us a little about your CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

PU: We have about 1,200 members and 250 of them are on vacation right now. We deliver in Sacramento, Davis, the East Bay, and San Francisco – the I-80 corridor. We’re pretty well positioned for that, both in terms of the climate we farm in and the distance we’re delivering in that we’re only an hour hour. The area that we’re in, is the best place for food production in the country.

We can grow crops all year-round. We pretty much grow vegetables from A to Z except for artichokes, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, and avocados. One of the great things about our area is that it warms up early in the spring, so we have tomatoes, peaches and cherries.

FR: Where can customers find your products: markets, restaurants, stores, etc?

PU: We sell to natural foods retailers, restaurants, and wholesalers in Sacramento and the Bay Area. We also have our  100% web-based CSA, where people can subscribe and pay online. Click here to find out more.

FR: Which aspect, skill or part of farming do you feel is your “specialty” or favorite?

PU: We are so good at being diversified that we’re not good at doing anything. We maximize our inefficiencies. That’s exactly the opposite of what farmers are supposed to do.

FR: Which piece of equipment can you not live without, or what would your dream new equipment be?

PU: My neighbor says, ‘It wouldn’t be broken if it wasn’t absolutely necessary right now.’ Things only break when you really need them.  At any given time I’d hire a full-time professional mechanic. Because the rest of the time, I hold a second job as an unprofessional mechanic – in addition to working a full time job on a farm. Like right now, I’m working on fixing our potato harvester.

FR: What do you like to do in your free time?

PU: I like to ski in powder and I like to play in the waves. The funny thing is that I don’t get to travel much, but I like Tahoe and Santa Cruz.

Learn more about Terra Firma Farm and become a member of their A to Z assortment of produce by subscribing to their CSA farm box program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation