Thomas Am Rhein
Your Flower Garden
Watsonville, California

The two partners who run A&A; Farms are doing everything they can to protect the environment and be careful stewards of the land they farm. Thomas Am Rhein and Mario Aguas grow strawberries, organic vegetables, and flowers in a very competitive industry that has slim profit margins. They have begun an enterprise called Your Flower Garden in Watsonville that sells their flowers over the Web directly to consumers and wholesalers.

The website (www.yourflowergarden.com) helps sell their product and tell the story of what the business is doing to protect the environment and the community. “The question all along was, how will we differentiate ourselves?” His answer came with the recent pilot marketing program called Fields to Ocean (www.pvpilot.org), which helps consumers find produce that has been grown with watershed protection in mind. “Our practices have not changed as a result of the Fields to Ocean Program,” added Thomas, “because they were already in place.”

Thomas began growing flowers and strawberries after graduating from Cal Poly in 1981. By 1997 the operation was too big to manage on his own so he formed a partnership with Mario Aguas. Today they farm in several locations; “The Elkhorn farm provides mid and late summer production because it is cooler. We have land and greenhouses at the northern corner of the Pajaro Valley. We also farm in Salinas Valley where we get our spring crop. All the land we farm is leased, and about 25% is in strawberries, and the rest in flowers. We also have ten acres of organic vegetables that is turned four times a year. It is a very small operation.”

The Your Flower Garden web site contains a lot of information about the partner’s environmental and community work, as well as the flower products they sell. There is an entire press section that lists the specific practices they use and the work they have done to educate the community. Much of this focuses on the work they have done on the ranch, located within the Elkhorn Slough National Estuary Research Reserve, that is owned by the Monterey County Agricultural & Historical Land Conservancy. They have cooperated in the planting of native bunch grasses to prevent erosion and runoff into the sensitive slough, installed check dams that slow water down, and they sow plants that attract and shelter beneficial insects.

It might have been easier for the Land Conservancy to simply make the ranch property into a park, but they are under the same pressures as the farmers. The land has to pay for itself with production. According to Am Rhein, “That ground is in a real environmentally sensitive area. One of the problems is that they had to pay off the mortgage so they had to keep it in farming, but it is very sensitive. It had been farmed right down to the tide line before. It shows how things can go out of whack in the grower and the shipper relationship. The shipper had contracted with a farmer and closed his eyes to what happened on the farm and to the people on it. The grower didn’t care what happened to the land because he didn’t own it and they could only make money if they maxed out production. Things are better now, but some of the shippers didn’t care what happened on the farms. They weren’t even that concerned about price because they were collecting fees on a flat rate per unit. The farmers absorb the risk of shifting market prices. It is all volume oriented. “Thomas and Mario do care. They both have a clear set of values that comes through consistently in everything related to A&A; Farms.”

Thomas had this to say to consumers, “Most of the land in California is managed by farmers. Urban people should keep in mind that in order to have a healthy environment, clean water, wildlife, and the nice scenery you see out in farm country, they need to be concerned that farmers have the means to be able to preserve that environment.”