Solution-Minded Farmer Grows More Than Fruit
(Pictured above, from left: Vernon Peterson, his daughter, Heather, and granddaughter Skylee.)
The tiny, impoverished communities in Tulare County of Traver and London — that sit just 10 miles south and east — are very important places to Vernon Peterson, a Kingsburg-based grower. Vernon sees hope and optimism in the town of London that now has a park and library — both weren’t around five years ago. He visits both towns often and one such day in early July, Vernon drove along Traver’s narrow streets to point out a plot of land that had recently been purchased. Vernon shared the next step: to build a home that will house a family who will serve as ambassadors for the nonprofit organization that Vernon is part of.
Vernon has served on the Board of this Kingsburg-based organization for the last 30 years. KCAPS has been serving the poor in Kingsburg since its inception in the late 1980s. Services were extended to Traver a dozen years ago and to London half dozen years ago.
KCAPS stands for Kingsburg Community Assistance Program. The organization’s purpose is helping people elevate themselves, Vernon said.
It started as a thrift store to accomplish two goals: create a presence in the community where people can come for help, and provide a place where residents can buy gently-used clothes or goods inexpensively. The thrift store gives locals the opportunity to donate goods that generate revenue for services to those in need. Vernon said the model was created with a great deal of thought and prayer.
Today, the organization has three locations in Kingsburg, Traver and London.
Each location has staff and volunteers who double as liaisons to tell residents about services. Kingsburg administers specific services such as counseling, English classes, a food pantry or energy bill assistance.
IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
London’s Community Assistance Program expanded by purchasing a home and hiring an ambassador to move in. The ambassador is a non-denominational minister who lives with his family and is a part of the community.
The family helps community members in need, Vernon said, and is funded by the program which includes English lessons and bible study classes.
Offered at no cost, it is a safe place where people can learn, and most importantly, make friends who can be called on in a time of need, Vernon said.
Traver will also have a new neighbor with the recent purchase of land made by the community assistance program. About $150,000 was raised in a very short time to purchase the land and build the home.
“Everyone relates to this need, and support has been overwhelming; we have a family ready who will live there and minister to the community,” Vernon said.
HOW IT STARTED
More than 30 years ago, Vernon attended a men’s ministry conference along with fellow church members. Vernon organized eight buses to facilitate a large group from the area to attend the conference. After attending the conference the group was motivated to make a difference.
Vernon said, they came back with the idea “let’s fix Kingsburg.”
Vernon explained that poverty was the main issue in Kingsburg, so the group agreed they should address it. They reached out to local churches — all denominations — to join in the endeavor.
By creating a non-denominational program it provided KCAPS with greater resources. For example, a recent campaign brought out more than 400 people to canvas the town for KCAPS donations.
The initial goal was to do something in their own hometown but in time realized needs existed beyond the city boundaries.
“We started in Kingsburg and as we found favor we’ve expanded,” Vernon said.
Recognizing the needs, the group expanded into Traver and London using the same model. Traver’s program started 12 years ago and London opened about 6 years ago.
There has been a lot of trial and error in sculpting the program.
Vernon explained that at its inception, KCAPS tried giving away clothes for free. The method proved ineffective because “no one values free” Vernon explained. The thrift store turned into a vehicle that would both provide support by selling clean clothes for very little cost and give residents an inexpensive way to buy items.
Kingsburg is like Beverly Hills of the rural communities with plenty of outgrown shirts that have only been worn once and can be used by others locally, Vernon said.
Vernon shared a recent story that validates the role of KCAPS. Program staff was contacted by a woman, who had used KCAPS before. She came to the center and asked for help, not for herself, but a 16-year-old pregnant girl who was being trafficked. The woman wanted to help the girl. KCAPS stepped in and arranged for getting the young girl the help she needed to find a safe place to live and begin rebuilding her life.
Vernon is hopeful that the KCAPS model of using a rural community thrift store could help other communities.
“What we have is sustainable; self funding,” Vernon said. “It isn’t easy or tidy, but once the framework is in place, fund raising for day to day operations isn’t necessary; the thrift stores support that and in the process of helping with basic needs, we also get the opportunity to address deeper matters.”
Vernon was born into a farming family. In his early 20s, Vernon was attending Fresno State, when his father became unexpectedly ill and in less than a year lost his father. Vernon became the patriarch of the family farm. Vernon is a fourth generation farmer who learned quickly what it meant to run a farm on his own.
In the mid-1980s, the California tree fruit industry hit an economic downturn. All tree fruit growers, including Vernon, were teetering on the brink of extinction and many sold their farms. In 1985, the number of US financial institutions shrunk to restrict loan funding.
Due to the financial situation, Vernon got a job with an outside company to help keep the farm afloat. After four years, he started a new venture to supplement the family farm’s income by packing fruit. He set up a make-shift packinghouse using four power poles and a $50 used-tarp for the first summer he packed fruit in 1989.
“We came back as a service-provider, instead of a commodity producer,” he said.
After that first summer packing fruit, three growers approached Vernon to pack their fruit. Since then, The Peterson Family has been a grower, packer and shipper. Packing and shipping fruit for others has provided the operation with the financial support to endure the natural ups and downs of the fruit market.
Vernon started his packing operation close to the same time that he began collaborating with the creation of the Kingsburg Community Assistance Program. Both of which have grown and evolved in a thoughtful and meaningful manner.
COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE
A little more than 10 years ago, Vernon and his family started another venture called Abundant Harvest Organics, which is a produce program that connects growers with consumers. Vernon’s family includes his wife, Carol, and their son, Erik and daughter, Heather. Heather’s husband, Sean, is also part of the operation. The family business runs in conjunction with the packinghouse.
It’s part of a program called “community supported agriculture” (CSA) which is a produce box subscription that goes direct from the grower to the consumer. Abundant Harvest partners with other certified organic growers to fill orders year-round. Their operation has more 4,000 consumers subscribed to the weekly service throughout the state.
Fruits and vegetables are picked the day prior to packing which takes place at Vernon’s packinghouse. Small or large plastic totes are filled by packers and then shipped out to various locations where the customer picks up their box.
Abundant Harvest Organics also gives subscribers the choice to “add-on” to their order with variety of organic spices, meats, jams, eggs and most recently, home cooked meals. Abundant Harvest has a certified organic kitchen where meals are prepared.
Vernon writes a weekly newsletter that accompanies each box. He shares insight about a variety of topics that range from observations of the crops to personal adventures.
The newsletter includes a list of each item in the box along with the name, location and email of the grower. Subscribers also receive recipes featuring the produce items.
Another aspect of Vernon’s business is a chicken ranch. He raises about 200,000 fryer birds at a time. The birds arrive as chicks and then are cared for until they reach six weeks old. Then the birds are shipped to a local organic processor. Most of the organic chickens are sold under the label, Mary’s Free Range Organic Chicken (Step 4).
On the farming side, Vernon has commercial production of a variety of crops that include: peaches, plums, nectarines, table grapes and raisin grapes.
Problem-solving is at the core of Vernon’s drive. In fact, it is the “nitty-gritty” of making things better that he truly enjoys.
Vernon loves the process: from breaking down a problem then craftily reassembling it until a solution is reached. He says its the detailed work of understanding the situation and then finding how to create a pathway to empower others that motivates him. “I love the details! Along with people and processes,” he said.
He has a vivacious sense of hope because in Vernon’s perspective there is a always a solution for every individua, who might be in a tough spot in his or her life.
His actions affect a lot of people everyday. In fact, its obvious he acts and thinks everyday with them in mind.
Vernon follows a purposeful loop in his life that intersects the three most important aspects of his life: family, community and solutions. There isn’t a disconnect — it is all one continuous flow.
THE RIGHT SIZE
Vernon emphasizes the key to crafting solutions is that there is no one special formula, each solution in one-of-a-kind.
“I think that each person is a unique individual and the challenges they have will produce a solution with time,” he said. “Just as I am not just a Tulare County grower, but an individual.”
He said the same applies to those who are in poverty . . . “they shouldn’t all be lumped together.”
One example of such tailor-made solutions is visible at the packinghouse. Each packer wears a green apron that is lined in a yellow-gold material along the edges. Each employee’s name is sewn at the top of the apron.
The aprons were made by women in Nicaragua.
About five years ago, Vernon was on a mission trip in Nicaragua and met a group of women who asked for help from the group that Vernon was part of. They were single mothers who needed a way to earn money.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Vernon responded. He took their request a step further and placed an order for 100 aprons with an upfront payment of $2,000. Since then, Vernon has made an annual purchase of 100 aprons from the seamstresses in Nicaragua.
The solution turned a “handout” into a “hand up,” he explained.
As a result, all of the fruit packers wear green aprons.
Vernon doesn’t seek any praise for his work. But sometimes, he gets a small token of recognition.
Last July, Vernon was awarded a national recognition by Golden State Farm Credit as one of the top 100 farmers for his entrepreneurship and innovation.
Talking with Vernon it was obvious, he has a keen ability to quickly and masterfully craft solutions — none of which are done to gain public favor or gain. It’s just who Vernon is: a creator of harmonious solutions.
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