Sunrise Organic Farms
Every farmer strives to find a
good value to their crops.
Back in 2015, three longtime Santa Barbara-area organic farmers banded together to form Sunrise Organic Farm, a diversified veg and fruit operation specializing in heirloom and other unique varieties.
President and Head Farmer Jesus Salas has been growing organically in Santa Barbara County since the eighties, a time when the organic movement was just starting to gain traction in the region.
“What’s so cool about Santa Barbara is that that entire community, the reason why so many organic farms are in that hub as opposed to let’s say closer to the border down in San Diego, is because you had that like-minded group of guys back in the eighties who were like, ‘Hey, let’s farm and let’s do it the right way,’” said Samantha Watson, who heads up Sunrise’s brand development and sales.
The founding trio started with a 12-acre plot in Carpinteria, a small town in southern Santa Barbara County, and decided to focus on farming artisanal produce varieties as a means of differentiation.
“We very quickly realized, okay, we’re gonna have to grow some other things people don’t have to get people’s attention,” said Watson. “And that was the greatest blessing because we ended up finding all of these commodities that nobody else had ever heard of or was growing. And they were way better than anything we’d had before—way more unique, way more flavorful. And now we’re actively always trying to find new things because it’s what sets us apart.”
Today, Sunrise farms 240 acres throughout Santa Barbara County and offers more than 270 varieties of produce. Popular items include Nantes carrots, rainbow carrots, strawberries, an array of tomatoes and peppers, many kinds of melons, cucumbers, and a multitude of squashes. Sunrise also offers a full range of greens and head lettuce.
Watson said that Sunrise frequently gets feedback from consumers who share that tasting its heirloom produce is like trying a commodity for the first time. “It’s that reaction of, ‘Oh wow, I’ve never had a carrot before now or I’ve never had a strawberry before!”
She said that in addition to great flavor, Sunrise’s produce also has exceptional nutritional content. “We had some of our carrots tested not that long ago, and we were off the charts in terms of vitamin content per milligram as opposed to what’s conventional in the grocery stores.”
“Our goal is to provide small-farm, organic, quality produce on a large scale,” Watson said. “It’s very, very, very difficult to achieve—and many would say insane.”
In order to rapidly grow their business, the Sunrise founders have continued to invest all their profits back into the operation, enabling them to lease more land, purchase valuable equipment, and expand their team.
“We could have stayed at 50 acres and done four farmers markets a week and called it a day,” said Watson. “But the intention was to feed as many people as possible high-quality produce—and you’re gonna have to be a lot bigger than 50 acres to do that.”
To maximize margins, Sunrise sells directly to consumers and restaurants at 16 farmers markets in Los Angeles. It also has strong relationships with wholesalers like Earl’s Organic Produce, Veritable Vegetable, and Organically Grown Company who recognize the value of its specialty offerings.
What Makes Us Unique
“We’re not a tiny farm, but we’re not massive, and I think that’s what makes our brand so unique—that we’re able to offer a high volume of certain commodities that still have that small-farm quality, that small-farm taste,” said Watson. “You can get pallets of stuff from us, but it tastes like it’s coming off of a 10-acre farm somewhere.” Sunrise takes a unique approach to farming a relatively large amount of acreage. “We’re reactive as opposed to proactive,” said Watson, explaining that they only treat crops for pests and diseases when they see there’s a specific need.
Jesus’s extremely hands-on farming style focuses on building healthy soil and closely monitoring every crop rather than indiscriminately spraying things ahead of time to prevent hypothetical issues.
“He’s the first guy in and the last guy out,” said Watson of Jesus. “He’s had his hands in the dirt probably 18 hours a day, 16 hours a day for decades. He really is a veteran in the industry. A lot of younger farmers will call him and be like, ‘Hey, what do I do?’ And Andrew and I are like, ‘Jesus, stop giving away the secrets!’”
When asked how Sunrise has been able to experience such rapid growth and success, Watson said, “The answer really is sacrifice. Instead of the founders making it about them buying houses for themselves or cars or this or that—it’s easy to get a taste of that money and want to blow it—they were smart and reinvested it. They kept pouring into the business.”