Robinsong Farms: Boosting food equity through Farm to School
About Robinsong Farms
Robinsong Farms is situated just outside of town in Templeton, CA. As you make your way there from Hwy 101, you’ll notice ranch land, grape vines, and Paso Robles Creek, once you get past the suburban neighborhoods. It feels like something akin to hidden treasure, especially given the local organic bounty it produces, only a stone’s throw from Trader Joe’s.
Brandon Sanders, a Templeton native, is head farmer at Robinsong Farms, with his wife, Roxanne, assisting regularly. Sanders grew up in an agricultural family, which made him resistant to continuing the family business. However, during his college years, he found himself growing food in garden plots around Sonoma State University. He fell in love with this type of farming, which was starkly different than the conventional variety he grew up learning. Emerging from university with a degree in conservation biology and restoration ecology in hand, he was ready to pursue his passion for organic, sustainable farming.
“I come from a large scale agricultural background..but that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go...I wanted to farm differently than what I had known.” - Brandon Sanders
In 2014 Brandon and Roxanne moved to San Luis Obispo County and got started working the land right away. It took some time to find their niche. Many other SLO County farmers grow a diversity of fruits and vegetables and had already established market entry. The Sanders’ came to understand that orienting their production around the restaurant industry required constant marketing and harvesting. Not being able to sell all their product meant that much of it went to waste. Like many new farmers, they found that they needed a new plan.
Robinsong decided to pivot to storage crops. Brandon realized that products like winter squash, melon, potatoes, and kohlrabi could be stored at lower cost without the need for refrigeration. Furthermore, staple crops like onions and sweet potatoes can be marketed more in bulk, offering higher volume sales, as well as easing the farmer’s storage needs.
“We had a lot of difficulty trying to break in (to the market)...this county doesn’t really have much of a market for local produce. It feels like there is but actually there isn’t a lot in terms of actual volume.” - Brandon Sanders
The Slow Money SLO/Farm to School Solution
New crops meant that Robinsong needed to find new customers. There have been ebbs and flows in the market, especially in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Brandon has found some success selling to hotels, a few restaurants, and to the school districts.
Schools were of specific interest because Robinsong crops were a good fit for kitchen capabilities, and food service directors seemed more accessible (their names and phone numbers are on district websites). It wasn’t until Brandon attended a Slow Money SLO farmer-buyer mixer however, that he was able to connect with the director at San Luis Coastal Unified School District, Erin Primer. With a particular crop in mind, heirloom watermelon, Sanders reached out to Primer who was enthusiastic to learn more about the product. From that launching point, the two founded a new buying relationship steeped in communication, collaboration, and trust. The farm has been selling watermelons and a few other crops to Erin since 2018.
“I called her (Erin)... because I have an heirloom variety of melon...I thought it would be a good fit because kids love watermelon, I can grow them to pique ripeness and they’ll be like nothing the kids have ever tasted. The schools were the only buyer that could take 1,000 pounds of melon.” - Brandon Sanders
Throughout each subsequent growing season, communication between the district and the farmer has been paramount. When COVID-19 shifted schools to weekly meal boxes rather than in person cafeteria service, Brandon called Erin before planting watermelon and the pair were able to agree on a couple varieties that would work better for the schools’ new needs. Kids and families were thrilled with the delicious fruit, and the farmer was satisfied with another successful growing season and sale.
Robinsong Farms was and is excited about the school district relationship. Brandon knows that feeding kids means that his produce is a part of an equitable food system, where everyone has access to healthy, fresh food. Erin is equally passionate about feeding students the good food that they deserve, which is perhaps at the core of this lasting Farm to School success story.
“I thought, if I can find an institutional buyer that can pay my prices because I’m competitive enough, then everybody gets some. I figured, if I’m feeding kids, all these kids come from different households and different backgrounds. If I feed a school, I’m feeding all those kids equally regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status. So I really liked the equity - feeding all the kids, no matter what.” - Brandon Sanders
What’s next for Robinsong Farms
Brandon is committed to reaching more kids in other school districts, and is looking forward to building more relationships, with support from Slow Money SLO and Farm to School Central Coast. He has also set up an online shopping platform on the farm website so that consumers can get all their pantry produce needs! Find Robinsong produce at their online store and in local grocery stores like Gather Natural Market (Atascadero) and SLO Natural Foods Co-op (SLO)!