These Farmers Are Taking Their Rural Crops to the Urban Streets

Instead of selling all of their harvest to retailers, Jerome and Noel Stehly started their own grocery store.

(Photo: Padma Nagappan)

Jan 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Tucked into a small shopping center in the urban neighborhood of Bay Park in San Diego, a short distance from Sea World and two major freeways, is a grocery store that harks back to a different time. The thoroughly urban market, with its artisan pasta and colorful, reusable shopping bags, is more deeply rooted in the farm than your average Trader Joe's or Whole Foods.

When you walk into Stehly Farms Market, eye-catching displays of organic apples, citrus, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and kale greet you in the produce department. At the back of the store is a juice bar, where beets, carrots, greens, and other "superfoods" are blended into juices and smoothies. The staff is happy to hang out with you as you shop, and explain how you could use frisée or young green garlic in a salad or dish. As you walk around the neatly organized store, you might run into one of the brothers who own the store and chat with them.

Noel and Jerome Stehly. (Photo: Padma Nagappan)

But the Stehly brothers, Jerome and Noel, aren't your typical retailers. They not only own the store, but also grow organic oranges, avocados, berries, and other fruits and vegetables on their 280-acre farm an hour north of the city.

Wait. Don’t farmers usually have farm stands? Yes, but the Stehly family farm in Valley Center doesn’t have any main road frontage, so they’ve never sold produce on-site. Nor do they live on the farm—they both married "city girls" who preferred to live and raise their families in San Diego, so the brothers commute to the farm each morning and return to the city by afternoon.

So opening a grocery store is not that unusual for the unconventional Stehlys, even if their families initially thought they were nuts—a notion that dissipated when the market did brisk business, and one store turned into two. The Stehlys plan to open two more locations this spring and summer.

When they decided to take the leap into retail in 2013, they scouted for locations in underserved neighborhoods like Bay Park, which used to be a food desert for many years.

“The area has great potential and others are starting to see that—there’s a coffee roaster opening down the street, a brewery coming soon, and restaurants opening,” Jerome said.

By making the push into retail in areas some of their major clients—food distributors and grocery chains—have overlooked, they said they are not actually competing with them.

“We’re going into areas they’re not,” Noel said. “If we put in 30,000 square feet they might say something, but 5,000 square feet, miles away, nah, they’re not worried.”

Despite the rapid growth at Stehly Farms Market, wholesale still represents the bulk of the business for the produce grown on the farm. And only 25 percent of the produce in the stores comes from the farm—the brothers buy the vegetables and fruits that they don’t grow from like-minded farmers.

Still, since the stores opened, the number of people who come to their farm tours has also doubled, reaching 1,000 people for the last tour. Jerome said the tours are about showing off the farm and giving people a glimpse of farm life, not about revenue. The whole family gets involved in the farm tours, with the brothers driving people around on tractor trailers, while other relatives run the farm stand set up for the day.

It's fitting that urban customers end up back where a portion of the produce was grown. The stores and the farm have a symbiotic relationship—the Stehlys truck produce to the stores and take food waste from the juice bar and produce aisles back to the farm, where it’s recycled as feed for the chickens or composted, for example. And the loop makes the customers happy too.

“I know where it comes from and that makes a difference,” Helen Mellos said, as she stocked up on kale, oranges, and avocados, inspired by a recipe in the store’s newsletter.

Helen and her husband, Jim, are regular customers who live close by and come every week to shop for fresh vegetables and fruits.

Jim used to run his own grocery store for 50 years, so he likes coming in and seeing the different products the Stehlys carry and getting his favorite smoothie.

“A specialty store could focus just on real high-end things, but that’s not our clientele,” Noel said. “They want to feed their family and once in a way they want the specialty items that other stores don’t carry.”

Such an understanding of the customer base they have developed will inform the new locations. The markets will be bigger too—5,000 square feet each instead of 1,800—as the brothers realized that the areas they were going into needed full-service groceries, with a deli as well as sections for prepared foods and everyday needs of a family.

Living in the area, the Stehlys were familiar with the surrounding neighborhoods, and as they came across additional locations with potential, it was hard to pass up the opportunity. The fourth store will in the suburban city of Carlsbad, 30 miles north, at the insistence of another Stehly brother who took it upon himself to scout for a location they couldn’t say no to.

“This is a lot of work and a big leap of faith,” Jerome said. “I believe in what we’re doing, but I don’t think everyone can jump in and do a grocery store.”