Javier Zamora is the founder and owner of JSM Organics, a diverse, organic-certified farm in Royal Oaks. Born and raised in Michoacán, Mexico, Javier has known the power and beauty of growing food from a very young age. He first helped his father with the land as a child, where he began to pick strawberries when he was just 11 years old. In his twenties, he moved to the United States, and held various jobs, before returning back to farming in 2009. He went first to San Joaquin Delta College for a degree in landscape design, then received his Bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz in organic production. In 2012, he began his own farm, JSM Organics, and since then has grown to employ 26 people, expanded to over 40 acres, and specializes in growing strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, peppers, and over 300 varieties of flowers.
Javier shared his story as the second of three in Real Food Real Stories’ ‘self-made changemakers’ winter series hosted at Thumbtack in San Francisco- an app that allows you to find skilled professionals in your community.
One of the big food memories that I have is when my father would come back from the fields with fruits like cantaloupes and pineapples. He would slice them for us kids, which was really really good. You can smell the aroma of the cantaloupes from all around the house. The other memory is when my older brother and father were farming flowers close to my hometown in Michoacán. I know they weren’t edible, but they planted all of these different flowers like carnations, and when we walked the fields, and the wind would blow, the smell of old spice and cinnamon - the smell of flowers - was just incredible. So those are really good memories that have stayed with me.
Pei-Ru Ko: So I realized I never had a chance to ask you this - where did the name “JSM Organics” come from?
Javier Zamora: When I started my farm, I didn’t know how to name it. Most people would name it Javier or Zamora farms, but in this case, I came up with JSM Organics. J is Javier, S is Sanchez, and then Medina would be M, which is my mother’s first, and second last names - Sanchez Medina. So J, Javier, S, Sanchez, and M, Medina. That’s how I came up with that.
PK: Is there a particular reason why you decided to pay homage to your mother’s side?
JZ: Both my parents come from farming families. My father grew up in parts of Michoacán where there a lot of orchards, with things like avocados, and apricots. And my mom grew up in another part of Michoacán where they had a lot of blackberries, and chayotes, and other things that require a little more chilling hours. My grandpa on my mother’s side, would do like a farmers market - and we’re talking, like about 70 years ago. And he would bring things like sugar, salt, and other stuff back to the farm or to the community. I never met my grandpa, my mother’s father, but I did meet my mother’s mother, my grandma. And every time she would come to our hometown to visit us, she would bring things like blackberries and apricots, really tasty stuff. Really good. So I think those memories of my mom, and her mom - maybe that’s what made me think of honoring her. I did it without too much thought.
PK: The memories that you seem to recall are all really generous at its core as well.
JZ: I think that’s kind of like a family thing. in my family, there's always been, from my grandmas and grandpas and my parents, sharing is a way of participating and really being a part of our community. I really think that’s maybe why I am the way I am. Because of what I saw when I was little.
PK: Yeah, at our gathering you talked about your mom as an added source of your courage. You also talked about how you’re not afraid to lease your land to farmers, and how you’re not afraid to pay your employees a good wage, even when other people might be hesitant. Could you talk a little bit about her specifically, and how she influenced you in your source of courage?
JZ: I think that’s a family thing. From my grandmas to my grandpas to my parents, sharing is a way of participating, and really being a part of our community. I really think that’s why I am the way I am. Because of what I saw when I was little.
PK: Yeah, at our gathering you talked about your mom as an added source of your courage. You also mentioned that you’re not afraid to lease your land to farmers, and how you’re not afraid to pay your employees a good wage, even when other people might be hesitant. Could you talk a little bit about her specifically, and how she influenced you and your source of courage?
JZ: My mother wouldn't think twice about doing something for someone else. I remember when people would come from even smaller communities and stay at the house. She would always go above and beyond to make sure that those people felt comfortable, because they were not used to seeing other people. Since they were from very remote communities, they were often scared of humans. My mom would always do things, not to push them, but to encourage them to stand for themselves, and not be afraid. And I think these people felt really comfortable to stay at the house because my mom was always a really good source of moral support for them. My dad was also very active in the community - I remember when I was little, they were dividing some pieces of land for community members. But whoever owned it at the time, whatever rich guy, wanted to take it back and keep everybody off the land. And my father was one of the organizers, and would stand and speak on behalf of all of these other people, an activist in many ways. He had a really big voice, and was really tall, so he was very respected in the community. I think his nickname was “El Grande” - The Tall Man. He was probably a little over 6 feet, so really tall for the Mexicans. So that’s probably where I get my genes, for really doing something, and taking charge, and making a little bit of a difference for others.
PK: I can see that- having a father with the nickname El Grande. Let’s talk a little bit about your farm - in your story, your immense love of strawberries really came through. Can you talk a little about why you love them so much? What are some of your favorite strawberry memories and uses?
JZ: Well, when I was 11 years old in Michoacán, I used to go out really early in the morning to pick strawberries for a farm. They were really good, but they also gave me a sense of a way to make some money, and contribute to the economics of my house. Remember, I come from a really big family, I’m the tenth out of twelve, so there was always a big need for almost everyone to contribute, so we can eat! So I would go out and pick the strawberries. The strawberries weren’t picked like the way we do now, where you push a little cart, with a little clamshell, and pack them directly. Back then, we had a wooden box that you would carry with a handle, where you would pick the berries. Then you hill the little box, and go out to the field, and bring it to the guy that would take that to be packed. Then at the end, they would give you a number or ticket for you to collect the money.
Once I was in America, my daughter, Cynthia, loved the strawberries. She would eat the entire box. But we would just buy them. So seeing my little kid enjoying strawberries so much brought back some memories. So when I saw the opportunity to grow them in Watsonville, I decided to dedicate a lot of time to them, and explore different ways of growing them, different varieties, and different textures.
PK: What are the main varieties that you’re working with right now?
JZ: Well, the main variety is the normal variety, like Avalon, and Monterey, but then I go back to some of the old varieties like Chandler or Camarosa. And then I play with other stuff from other states like the Mara De Bois, the French one, and then some of the little ones like Hood, Mayflower, and Sonatas. You know, just different sizes, different textures, and they come at different times of the year.
PK: Javier, what else is growing on the farm right now? It’s mid-February.
JZ: Oh my god, we have broccoli, we have cauliflower, and we just finished the brussel sprouts. We have lots of beautiful flowers right now, and we actually already have strawberries, as you know. There’s lots of beets, and kale. Last week, we sent in the tomato starters, so those will be ready in about 45 days, maybe early April. We also have the peppers going, so just preparing for summertime planting.
PK: And I love the emphasis of passing your knowledge of farming onto your community. What advice do you have for someone just starting out in organic farming? Or for someone that is interested in starting, but doesn’t know much about it?
The advice is to just do it. Go out there, and go visit a farmer, or get involved with an organic station that is teaching farming, or take some classes at a community college. Start doing something. If you want to give it a try and already have the vision of maybe owning a farm, then it’s entirely up to you. The opportunities are out there, and the resources are available. It’s just a matter of you wanting to do it, and looking for the connections. And once you decide to give it a try, you’ll see that it’s a way to feel good about yourself, and be a good member of your community. It’s not difficult, it’s like anything else - it’s making that initial decision of getting involved. So don’t think twice about that if you’re having thoughts of growing food. You will not regret it, once you see the outcome of something you started from scratch. It’s just really beautiful. It’s a beautiful thing.
PK: My last question is - what's one thing you wish everyone thought about when purchasing their produce, let's say, at a larger supermarket? Is there anything you wish people would have on their mind or in their heart when they’re purveying their veggies?
JZ: Something they should have in mind is trying to trace it. Trying to think - where did that come from? What’s in my strawberries, or what’s in my tomatoes? Where did that come from? What did it take? What’s the origin of this thing? Who’s making this possible? Instead of assuming that all they need is money to get that. Sure you have the money to buy it, but what’s really the origin there? What did it take for you to be able to buy that at the store? And what did it take for somebody to bring it to the store? It’s just trying to trace something, and thinking more about what it is that it takes for us to eat, beyond a trip to the grocery store. I think that if you go to the store, and you look at the big companies, and you’re like “oh, they come from this company... Who’s behind this label? And what’s behind this label?” Just thinking about it and doing a little bit of traceability and investigating would probably change the way we eat.
PK: I will definitely take away the question of “who’s making this possible” with me. And thank you for being one of those who are feeding and nourishing all of us, Javier.
JZ: Well, thank you for being one of those who are eating what I enjoy doing!
PK: Muchas gracias.
JZ: Hablamos pronto!