For the March San Diego Food System Spotlights: Local Grower, the San Diego Food System Alliance partnered with the San Diego County Farm Bureau to interview Noel Stehly of Stehly Farms Organics. We asked Noel about why the history of his business, vision, and the biggest challenges.
Please share the history of your farming business. How did the business get started? Why are you committed to it?
Years before the Stehly (pronounced Stay-lee) Family began farming in Valley Center, the roots of Stehly Farms stretch back to the agriculture days of Orange County, CA. Nicholas J Stehly founded the original farm in the 1920′s, which was later acquired by Jerome Stehly Sr. where he continued farming. As the population in Orange County grew, farm land got thinner and the Stehly Family felt the pressure and knew it was time to get back to open land. In 1964, Jerome Sr. moved the farm to Valley Center, CA and in the late 1970’s, Jerome Sr. decided to shift his focus from inside the chicken barn to the groves that line the approximately 300 acre property. “My dad also had a store in Anaheim up until the early 80’s when he sold it to the man who managed it,” tells Noel. “We sold honey from our bees, eggs from our chickens, our avocados, and then nuts from the Bates brothers farm, now known as Bates Nut Farm.”
Jerome and Noel Stehly acquired the operation in 2002 and Stehly Farms Organics was born. SFO has rapidly evolved into one of the largest organically producing avocado and citrus farms in Southern California. This well-known family-owned company grows, packs, and distributes their certified organic avocados, citrus, vegetables, and berries from their farm. To this day, Stehly Farms continues to grow and develop. They offer farm tours and strive to bring you the freshest most delicious produce both on their farm and at their markets!
“My father always told me that the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footprints. In our case, we have two sets of footprints.”
What is your vision for your business?
“I had the idea to do a fancy farm stand in the city, open seven days a week, for a long time but I always thought Jerome would kill the idea so I never told him,” says Noel. “I actually looked at a spot when I was dating Stella, who’s now my wife. It was a flower stand in Hillcrest that had gone vacant. That was 15 years ago at least. Then, one day, Jerome called me and asked what I thought about doing a fancy farm stand in the Morena area of the city. The rest is history.” They named the store Stehly Farms Market and opened May 2013 at 1231 Morena Blvd in San Diego with 1,200 square feet of floor space. Fast forward a couple years to October 2015, Stehly Farms opened a 5,000 square foot full-service grocery store in the Kensington Market at 4142 Adams Ave in San Diego. Noel and Jerome have visions of expanding more and spreading the word about local organic farming. “It went from being a glorified farm stand to an actual store as we started down the road. Our idea, the concept, got better. We want to take really good organic products and produce, high quality product, and take it into a food desert situation where residents previously had to leave the area to get to a grocery store. That’s how it evolved. Our stores have a lot more items; you can complete a whole meal shopping there.” He also explains “To fill the shelves we start with Stehly produce, then expand to local farms; Suzies, BeWise. Then we go statewide to source the variety of produce we need to have in the store. We certainly do have some real unique items in there that are harder to find in bigger stores. In our store you find it right away. Turmeric root, really unique things; it’s bringing in chefs to find really cool items that they want to have in their restaurants.”
What are the biggest challenges for your business?
With any farmer, there are always the typical pest, water, and sustainability issues. The first two are simply up to Mother Nature. On the sustainability side, Noel explains “biodiesel and wells are just the beginning of how we try to remain green. From seed to table, we utilize many technologies in our commitment to the environment.” Solar Panels power the ranch office and their entire packing operation. Biodiesel is used in their tractors, road trucks and personal vehicles wherever possible. “Any fruit or veggies that do not get sold fuels our organic compost and mulch program, and we always aim for overall sustainability.” As Noel puts it, “Our commitment to the environment is just as strong as our commitment to bringing you the best tasting produce possible!”
What would you like San Diegans to know?
“Get as close to the source as possible”
“Look for relationships, not labels”
“Support your local farmers”
“Support the bounty from the county”