Variety is the spice of life
Comanche Creek founders say choices—including more than 30 types of tomatoes—are the key to success
Just past the end of the pavement on Entler Avenue in south Chico, tucked between a pocket of riparian wilderness and a long-abandoned railroad spur, is Comanche Creek Farms, a nearly 20-acre family farm that grows an amazing array of vegetables—more than 100 varieties—year-round.
Comanche Creek was founded as an organic operation by father-and-son team Jim and Brandon Miller in 1997, long before most mainstream shoppers knew the difference between organic and traditionally grown produce. Prior to that, Jim Miller, a third-generation Chicoan, was mostly a hobby gardener growing fresh vegetables for his family, friends and neighbors while working as a building contractor.
Then one fateful day, he was having dinner at a restaurant north of the Bay Area when he was moved to confront the chef over the quality of the eatery’s tomatoes, offering some of his own instead. The restaurant became one of Comanche Creek’s first regular customers, and Miller said the business has been expanding ever since, growing apace with the now-booming organic-food industry.
Today, the farm grows more than three dozen types of heirloom tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and colors, which are sold at stores and served in restaurants as far away as Portland, Ore., and Nantucket, Mass. The Millers take special pride in the fact that Comanche Creek is the primary supplier of heirloom tomatoes to the Bay Area wholesale market, with their produce served in world-famous restaurants and exclusive markets, such as Chez Panisse and Berkeley Bowl.
The senior Miller credits much of the farm’s continued success to dealing directly with chefs, which he said helps to anticipate market trends.
“Chefs get bored easily,” he said. “So you have to always have something new to offer, which keeps us always looking for and experimenting with new things. When you have something interesting to catch their attention, they’ll buy all the regular stuff from you as well.”
San Francisco and the surrounding areas are still the farm’s primary market, with an estimated 70 percent of their produce bound for the region. But Miller said the local market has also come around, quadrupling in the last few years as people’s eating habits are evolving everywhere.
“The younger generations are being raised knowing organic is the way to go, and the older generation has realized it, too,” Miller said. “People are thinking, ‘Hey, we’re living a lot longer nowadays, we should try to stay as healthy as possible.’”
Through all-organic distributor Veritable Vegetable, Comanche Creek is the main supplier of produce to the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative and S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods. The farm also directly supplies many of Chico’s fine-dining establishments, including Johnnie’s, Red Tavern and Leon Bistro.
Miller said Comanche Creek also wanted a way to meet local customers face to face. Since it’s too large to participate at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, the Millers started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program four years ago. The CSA currently has about 120 members who retrieve their vegetables directly from the farm every Thursday afternoon.
“It simplifies my shopping a great deal,” said Lisa Christensen, who has fetched a family-sized box for her four-person household weekly for the past three years. “Since they grow year-round, and because of their connections to local organic distributors, I think they have a little more variety then other local CSAs might.”
Miller confirmed this, explaining the farm trades with other organic operations for nutritional and practical purposes (some things just don’t grow well locally, he said). He also said the business is still growing, but never too fast.
“We could grow more, but we don’t want to affect the quality of what we do,” he said. “We are proud of what we do, and like that we have the reputation of providing the best tomatoes around. It’s worth it to take the extra steps to do things right.”