The power of fresh tomatoes
Making a living by selling homegrown produce to local restaurants
Jim Miller worked in the construction business for 20 years before a light bulb switched on.
In the mid-’90s, while living in Chico and working on a job out of town, he went for a meal at a Mendocino restaurant and was shocked when he was served tomatoes that had the texture and flavor of Styrofoam—in the middle of August.
It seemed a crime to Miller, who had brought his usual bunch of Chico-grown produce with him to Mendocino, including juicy, ripe heirloom tomatoes.
“That’s when it clicked,” he said.
He brought samples to the chef and asked if the restaurant would like to purchase them, and it was a deal. The direction of Miller’s life began to change.
He sold his one-acre property in Chico and relocated to an abandoned walnut orchard on Speedway Avenue off the Midway, and up against the riparian habitat of Comanche Creek. The land had been abandoned for eight years and was absent of all plant and animal life. Miller couldn’t even find an earthworm in the soil, he said.
However, the sandy loam was perfect for growing tomatoes, and Miller’s farm was certified as organic in 1998.
Miller, a champion of sustainability and self-described “foodie,” is the owner of Comanche Creek Farms, a 14-acre farm that has been sustainably growing, harvesting and selling produce to restaurants in Chico since its inception.
Today, Comanche Creek sells produce to nine businesses in Chico, including S&S Produce and Natural Foods, Chico Natural Foods, and fine restaurants such as Red Tavern and Sierra Nevada Restaurant and Taproom, which have been faithful partners since the beginning of Miller’s business.
The remainder of Miller’s revenue comes from selling his products to Veritable Vegetable, a San Francisco-based company that promotes sustainable agriculture.
“What got me started was dealing with chefs directly and building our farm around what they wanted and needed,” he explained. “Unlike in the Salinas area, where the temperatures are more consistent, we deal with a lot of temperature fluctuations here in Butte County, so we have to grow what works for us—tomatoes, summer squashes, eggplants, and herbs, to name a few.”
Comanche Creek, located just south of Chico, is a charming getaway, where an intricate system of planting, growing and harvesting ensures a simpler life for the Miller family. Miller, his wife, two adult sons and daughter-in-law, along with eight year-round employees, get their hands dirty on a daily basis, especially in the booming summer months, when they work long hours, seven days a week, and employ up to 35 people.
“The earth takes care of itself,” Miller said while standing in the shade of an oak tree. “You just have to augment it a little bit, tweak it a little bit, sustain it a little bit.”
Miller’s respect for the environment and sustainable tendencies stem back to his childhood, when he began working in the fields at age 8, and his father grew his family’s produce in a large garden. Miller was also a member of 4-H and the Future Farmers of America throughout his time at Chico High School, he said.
He journeyed the couple hundred yards to Chico State, where he majored in biology and minored in agriculture. During his senior year, he married and realized “life costs a little more for two than one,” he said, and got his contractor’s license at age 22.
In April, Miller expanded his business by joining the Community Supported Agriculture movement, which allows organic farmers to sell directly to consumers, who pay $25 to $35 in advance for fresh, organic produce that can be picked up weekly at California Harvest on Entler Avenue.
Members of the Miller family pack more than 75 large boxes each week with a variety of vegetables and fruits, intended to feed a family or two vegetarians.
“Basically, you need to eat the rainbow,” Miller said.
But quaint Comanche Creek can’t always provide that rainbow for consumers and restaurants, for reasons ranging from Chico’s weather conditions to soil composition, so Miller shares produce with smaller farmers along the North Coast. That way, he doesn’t flood the Chico market with the same products other farmers are offering, and he is able to sell a well-rounded variety of produce.
“Part of sustainability is sustaining your family,” he said. “If everyone goes to the same market to sell the same things, you’ll flood the market, and no one will make any money.”
Even the waxed boxes that Miller packs and sells are earth-friendly. After the boxes are emptied by customers, he takes them to CleanFlame in Oroville, a facility that recycles waxed boxes into fireplace logs. He takes the logs and sells them back to businesses, which benefits Miller, the buyer and the landfills where the boxes would have rotted had they been thrown away.
Comanche Creek does not sell produce at the Thursday or Saturday farmers’ markets, where vendors often sell products that are grown on conventional farms, and are sometimes treated with toxic fertilizers and pesticides. The term “certified,” as it refers to the farmers’ market, simply promises that those farmers grew their own produce, he said.
Instead, Miller is a stickler for safe growing practices, and multiple entities keep tabs on certified-organic farms such as Comanche Creek to ensure their practices align with strict guidelines, which are set forth by the National Organic Program and enforced by the California Organic Farmers Association.
To the layperson, the most important practice is the use of fertilizers and pesticides, most of which are toxic and used by conventional farmers to kill weeds and pests, as well as spur the growth of their crops and encourage faster turnover.
Miller uses a pyrethrum-based pesticide, which is made from the chrysanthemum plant, as well as organic fungicides that “kill fungus with fungus,” he said. While some bacteria are used on the plants to kill pests, it’s important to understand that some bacteria that are bad for insects can be beneficial to humans.
And as for weed control, instead of using toxic substances, such as Round-Up, Miller employs some “very diligent Hmong ladies,” he said gratefully.
Comanche Creek has made use of all the space it has in its current location, and Miller is uncertain what direction the farm will take if it expands in the future, he said.
For now, as the summer months wind down, Chicoans can continue to expect some local restaurants to stock their shelves and dish up plates made with produce grown by locals, for locals.
“It just tastes better,” Miller said.