Story by NATALIE CAUDLE | PHOTOS BY KELSEY BURNETT

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s providence would have it, valley farmer John France found himself at a fork in the road in the late 1980s. Having lost half of his crop, he pushed out beyond the familiar path and took a leap. With nothing to lose, he threw his hat into the ring of the budding and less-popular agricultural industry of organic farming. With the support of his wife, Cindy, the two found themselves on the road less traveled. But the risk paid off and Homegrown Organic (HGO) Farms became official in 1998. Today, the company partners with more than 120 growers from San Diego to Portland in the selling, marketing and production of organic crops ranging from citrus to stone fruits to blueberries.
While John France continued to farm and expand the company, his connections within the industry broadened. In the late 1990s, his friendship with Tom Avinelis deepened as their farming philosophies aligned. Avinelis, founder of Agricare, a full-service farm management company, moved from friend to business partner in 2005 when he became the CEO of HGO Farms. Today, HGO Farms and Agricare are linked with an employee stock ownership plan.

Thirty years after the first harvest, the next generation of the France and Avinelis families have found seats at the table. Cherie France, marketing manager of HGO Farms, Gunnar Avinelis, CEO of Agricare, and Brenna Benevidez, Agricare COO, work to ensure that the model of stewardship and care continues. “With the way that we farm and care for our crops, we want the land that we grow our fruit on to be alive for decades and generations to come,” Gunnar Avinelis says. “We have a long view in mind. We want it to be sustainable. What we’re doing has to be profitable for our farms and needs to promote life and health. We ask, ‘What are we doing today to build for tomorrow?’”

The culture of sustainability is a vital root of HGO Farms alongside a fine-quality organic product.

A stone’s throw from the Kings River, not far from the Swedish village of Kingsburg, sits HGO Farms’ packinghouse. The land and surrounding orchards are owned and managed by Vernon Peterson of Peterson Family Farms. Hidden along a country road within acres of plums and nectarines, the packinghouse is constantly bustling with activity. In a carefully timed dance, fruit is picked and packed with a quick turnaround. Pickers are highly skilled; a crew of 20 can harvest five acres of produce in a day. Once at the packinghouse, the main stop for all of HGO Farms’ valley produce, the fruit quickly moves from station to station as it is cleaned, weighed, inspected and packed. The whirl of machines and the beeps of forklifts give a cadence to the energy within the warehouse.

In step with the values of HGO Farms, Peterson believes in the intrinsic value of each person he employs, offering all employees and their families full benefits and matching 401(k) options.

Peterson’s love of people and organic farming can’t be missed. “I like people and processes,” Peterson says, his eyes smiling. “I just really love to help people achieve their maximum efficiency. Getting to work with wonderful people, farmers and farmworkers, and helping each of those achieve their fullest possible potential — that’s my job.”

Peterson’s encouraging nature is felt throughout the packinghouse, orchards and organic chicken farm. The homemade peach ice cream social at the end of harvest is proof in the pudding that Peterson’s management style is based on love.
Any good farmer knows their fields and plants with an intimacy only a gardener can explain. Through the feel of the fruit, the color of the skin, whether waxy or dull, the farmer knows exactly when a crop has ripened and is ready for harvest.

With organic farming, there are no quick fixes. Many organic farmers originally transitioned from traditional practices to that of organic cultivating. The process of becoming certified as an organic farm by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is rigorous, with strict adherence to certification standards. Farmers must refrain from using pesticides, synthetic herbicides and fungicides. Traditionally, in non-organic farming, fruit is sprayed with a fungicide when leaving the packinghouse to guarantee a longer shelf life in the market. But organic farmers don’t have that luxury. The production timeline for organic fruit has to be coordinated with precision and a consistent rhythm.
The success of an organic orchard comes down to the secret ingredient, the soil; this is where the fruit finds its sweetness. By replenishing the land and encouraging the growth of native grasses and microbes, organic orchards teem with life.

“There is something healing … an inherent freedom in nature,” Cherie France says. “Just being with trees, especially on an organic farm, you can hear the bugs, you can hear the birds — you can hear the fertility of it all.”
Just as Cherie France is passionate about putting quality organic produce into the hands of consumers, she beams about the farms’ conservation efforts and the Bee Better Certification. “We protect the wildlife that is on our farms, no matter how small, and we work with the ground and the biology of what’s happening in the soil. That’s what organic does; it works with the natural elements.”

The efforts have proved fruitful as conservation techniques on the blueberry farms have increased the wild bee presence by 900 percent. To earn the Bee Better Certified seal, farmers must implement practices that support the bee population and other pollinators. HGO Farms views implementation of organic farming as an opportunity to holistically care for all facets of the farming community, especially the people.

HGO Farms believes in caring for its employees with integrity. Peterson led HGO Farms through the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) certification process, bringing a greater transparency and communication to all links on the farming chain. The most rigorous of all certifications, EFI investigates more than 300 standards, ranging from labor condition standards to pest management. HGO Farms earned the EFI certification in the summer of 2020.

Cherie France is appreciative of the insight that the certification process brought to the company. “It’s all about communication and how to bring empowerment to everyone when they have a specific need,” she says. Encouraging strong voices from all employees strengthens and aids an authentic community within the company family.

Organic farming requires a deep appreciation for each and every detail within the process, no matter how small. From the microbes in the soil to the warehouse foreman, each component and person is valued.

Created on a foundation of Christian principles, HGO Farms strives to serve employees, partners, customers and the community in a way that is life-giving. Known as its Cultivating Care Program, the HGO Farms family tackles a variety of local needs through food banks, blood drives, and offering community health clinics and language classes. Through solar farming in Kingsburg and a partnership with Imperfect Foods, HGO Farms reduces environmental and crop waste, lending itself to greater sustainability. But the reach of HGO Farms extends far beyond the valley.

In 2012, Peterson initiated the Peaches to Papayas Project, linking local farmers in partnership with a nonprofit nursery and agricultural research institute in Gamboual, Central African Republic. Peterson’s friend, Roy Danforth, serves as technical adviser for the Centre d’Expérimentation et de Formation Agricole (CEFA), and assisted in implementation of the project. Sixty-six valley families adopted a peach tree and followed the tree through the seasons in weekly videos produced by Peterson. Once the trees were harvested, HGO Farms, tree adopters and Peterson donated profits from the four acres of trees to CEFA, and $40,000 was given to CEFA in support of tropical fruit farmers in Gamboual, helping herdsmen become farmers.

The roots of agrarian society reach back to the Garden of Eden. As farmers have continued to cultivate the land and passed down the secrets of the soil, society has become indebted to those who ensure mankind’s survival. The quiet teams of planters, pickers, packers and marketers has made the tradition of whole foods possible. As time marches on, Homegrown Organic Farms will continue the legacy of health from root to fruit and bring quality organic produce to the table for generations to come.

Organic Nectarine Fruit Crisp (Gluten Free)

Filling

  • 6 Homegrown Organic Nectarines, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Vietnamese cinnamon (or whatever cinnamon you have handy)
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice

Topping

  • 1 cup 1:1 gluten free flour
  • 1/3 cup gluten free steel cut oats
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Vietnamese cinnamon (or whatever cinnamon you have handy)

Directions
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl, combine all filling ingredients and toss well until nectarines are well-coated.
Place ingredients into a 9×9 baking dish.
In a separate bowl (or food processor), combine all topping ingredients until texture is crumbly.
Sprinkle topping in a thick layer over the entire mixture of filling.
Bake for 45-50 minutes until crust is lightly browned and filling is bubbly. Allow to cool before serving.

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