Tierra Vegetales has a reason to celebrate

When Tierra Vegetables founders Lee and Wayne James saw a piece of land, a former prune orchard in Healdsburg, one summer afternoon in 1979, they planted vegetable seeds on the 3 acres and never looked back.

Now, after more than four decades of farming, Tierra Vegetales is celebrating with a party, open to the public, on August 7 to commemorate the laborious but rewarding years of harvesting, growing and feeding the community. (See sidebar for details.)

“I am in awe of how many people love our food and how it is grown,” Lee, 70, said of his decades of farming that began with that Healdsburg parcel. “It’s a nice feeling. … We did all of this.”

Since that summer in the late 1970s, the sister and brother have grown their produce on a succession of properties around Sonoma County. Currently, they farm on land they lease from the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, on Airport Boulevard near Highway 101.

His list of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, organized by season on his website, is long. They grow traditional corn, chiles that are used for mole and sauce, onions, strawberries, pumpkins and much more. They grow beans and other produce for North Bay and Marin County farmers’ markets and sell them to Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurants.

In 1979, Lee, who studied biology and horticulture in California and Sweden, and Wayne, who grew up in agriculture and studied viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College, were hanging out near the Russian River one afternoon when they spotted a field with a few disheveled Tree Trimming. They were intrigued by its potential and discovered that it belonged to a doctor. The doctor agreed to lease it.

Wayne borrowed $500 from Lee to buy a

“We thought, ‘What a beautiful field. It’s got good soil and water,’” Lee recalled.

Your landlord enjoyed your products so much that he didn’t charge you rent. His only request was to be able to pick vegetables for his family.

In 1980, Tierra Vegetales flourished. That year, Lee and Wayne planted everything from carrots, cucumbers, corn, broccoli, and squash to Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes.

“We had free housing and free land. That’s the only way this whole thing worked,” said Wayne, 66.

At first, the brothers did not have an impressive vision of how their 3-acre project would evolve. They just wanted to grow great vegetables and enjoyed the process, Lee said.

“We just wanted to grow our own food,” Wayne said. “All we’ve ever wanted to do is grow staple foods, staple foods to eat and survive.”


Wayne and Lee grew up in Orinda, Contra Costa County, with two brothers. His father, Walt, was a manager at an industrial manufacturing company. His mother, Esther, was a florist.

After school, Lee and Wayne spent their afternoons working with their mom in a garden nursery, arranging flowers or folding boxes. Lee was known for creating intricate terrariums. Wayne was intrigued by the plants.

“I loved plants and houseplants in the early ’70s,” Wayne said. “We all worked in the nursery. It was the thing to do after school.”

In 1974, after high school, Wayne went to work on a 40-acre farm in Potter Valley with one of his father’s colleagues, Clarence Gericke, a retired chemist who grew up in a farming family in the Midwest.

On the farm, Wayne learned how to grow food without using chemicals. He and Gericke began selling their vegetables at farmers’ markets in Ukiah and Santa Rosa. Wayne admired the idea of ​​selling directly to customers. Gericke also shared with Wayne the value of great locally grown vegetables.

“He told me, ‘We have tons of good wine. What we need are great vegetables,’” Wayne said.

The James’s interests in agriculture and nature continued through the years.

During his summer break from college, Lee worked for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to sample and test the Russian River for bacterial levels and temperature. And Wayne, in his 30s, volunteered with the Peace Corps as an agricultural consultant in Lesotho, where he introduced new vegetables to agriculture and worked on water systems in the African nation.

“We had our garden in our backyard in Orinda in the ’60s,” Wayne said. “We grew growing. We have always enjoyed it.”

start with the ground

Last week in the farm’s commercial kitchen in Windsor, several women were busy turning a harvest into tasty products, including Tierra Vegetables chili jam, roasted tomatoes, mole, enchilada sauce, kimchi, salsa and masa tortillas.

Queta, Norma and Mari, long-time friends and workers for Lee and Wayne, prepare simple meals made from fresh ingredients. Wayne credited the land of the Tierra Vegetables farm and the care he receives for the quality of the ingredients. They apply ground green waste to the soil to retain moisture, producing tasty vegetables.

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