Abu Zubair’s path to becoming a farmer is an interesting one. He started out as an electrical engineer and became an organic farmer.
Born in Bangladesh, he was raised in Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, he received his Master’s in Electrical Engineering from Boston University. He also studied at MIT, Occidental College, and Caltech.
“I got into farming in an indirect way,” Zubair said. “About 15 years ago, I invested in 440 acres of land in the Imperial Valley and wondered what I was going to do with it. I have always grown all kinds of plants and I love to see things grow.”
Today, he owns and operates Z Ranch with his wife Zebunnesa, an Imperial Valley, California based farm with over 450 acres. However, due to current water cutbacks they are restricted to 200 acres of growing space in the Imperial Valley. He also farms on another five acres in Santa Barbara.
Farming seems to be in his genes. He recalls being a young kid and working alongside his grandfather, one of the biggest rice and jute producers in Bangladesh. He traveled with him to the local village farmers’ markets using cattle drawn carts to sell mangoes and jackfruit.
After he planted his first crops of melons and corn, he started selling them at local farmers’ markets and gradually his farming operation grew.
Throughout the years, he has slowly expanded his crops and he now raises over twenty varieties of melons and vegetables including corn, okra, daikon, tomatoes, chilies, asparagus, spring lettuce mix, baby spinach, and Indian eggplant.
As his crops have increased, so has the percentage of them that are grown organically. “We are growing primarily organic products now. For the farmers’ markets increasingly we are bringing organic products because that’s what a lot of our customers want. We are trying to get the whole spectrum organic.”
“For the last six years with the help of my wife, I have become much more deeply involved in growing and we have diversified our crops,” he said. “Our organic percentage in Imperial Valley is 75 percent during the spring, summer, and winter. During the fall due to the White Fly infestation it goes down to about 50 percent.”
Zubair says that when he reflects back he has always had a keen interest in organics, he just didn’t realize it. “When I was a teenager, I grew organic without ever knowing it. The market demand is of course the most important issue, but I personally like to eat organic, whenever possible.”
The market for his produce has also grown steadily since he first began farming. Now, in addition to selling at southern California farmers’ markets, he also sells to restaurants, and on the wholesale market including to school districts.
But, he says he still relies heavily on the income that the markets bring. “The beauty of the farmers’ market is that it brings in cash to pay for the day to day operations of the farm. It becomes hard, if not impossible to wait for brokers to pay in time to take care of immediate needs.”
“Restaurants buy in bulk from us at the farmer’s market and we also now supply several school districts through the Farm to School Bill.”
This increased customer base has meant that he is constantly working to give all of his customers the produce they want, but often it turns out to be the same for all buyers. “Melons are the most popular item, both sold at the farmer’s market and wholesale.”
And, once he realized that his farmers’ market shoppers flocked to his booth for its delicious honeydew melons he decided to expand to include a wide spectrum of melons such as cantaloupes, watermelon, and mixed melons, from Casabas, Crenshaws, and Orange Flesh honeydew to French Charentais, and Galia.
This is also the reason he started growing Red Indian eggplant. “We are going to be growing more Indian vegetables,” Zubair said. “I have a lot of clients besides farmers’ markets, primarily Indian restaurants. The Indian population is increasing in America and it’s really an in-demand product; we could sell more if we grew more of it.”
Luckily for him, the Imperial Valley seems to be an ideal location to grow it. “The Imperial Valley is very warm and is similar to the part of India where it’s warm and desert-like. We are planning to be harvesting and planting all through the summer,” said Zubair.
He has also incorporated several different types of corn varieties for his market shoppers. “We are trying out all different kinds of things, like some bi-color, white, and some red corn this year, and some Oxacan green corn and several other very exotic multi-colored varieties,” he said.
Zubair acknowledges that farming is often a difficult way to make a living. “On the growing side of things, the best part of growing is the peace that I find in seeing things grow. The toughest part is the loss of crops and multiplied pest problems we face, particularly in organic growing. It entails a lot more work, particularly dealing with weeds, bugs and the reduction in production per acre.”
His advice for others thinking of going organic is to start small. “Do it stepwise, maybe setting aside a small plot to experiment. Don’t bet the whole farm on organic at first because you want survivability of the farm first. Once you are successful on a small plot; say five to ten acres, then expand.”
He also recommends starting into organics by growing herbs such as cilantro and “trees such as Neem that work as a natural organic pesticide. And, make sure to keep tabs on literature about new organic sprays and fertilizers.”
Judi Gerber is an agriculture and garden writer from Torrance California, and the author of the upcoming book Southern California Farm Adventures.