Pao Saephan crouches down in his sun-drenched field. He cups a red jewel in his hand.
In a few more days, his strawberries will be fully ripe. He’ll pick them once they are garnet-colored from stem to tip.
“We want all the strawberries, to be full ripe, full flavor, with 100 percent sugar in them,” says Saephan.
In the past, he would sell the fresh berries at his roadside stand - called Sam’s Strawberry Patch. It’s located at the intersection of Manning Avenue and I Street in Reedley.
But this year, he will sell the bulk of his berries to the Fresno Unified School District. He says he is thrilled to share the fruits of his labor with Central Valley students.
“We have farmed a long time, but this is my passion, to be farming something that feeds local,” says Saephan.
Saephan is the first small farmer to sell his produce directly to Fresno Unified. He could pave the way for other small farmers to begin selling their produce directly with the school district.
“We’re in the produce and vegetable capital of the world, and we want to take advantage of that,” said Jose Alvarado, the food services director for Fresno Unified. “We have been taking advantage of that, but now it’s taking it to another level, from the farmer, when the occasion is right, and it meets our needs, and strawberries were just a natural for us."
He’s excited to include Saephan’s berries on school menus. But he acknowledged that there are several barriers to linking farms and large school districts. For logistical reasons, he said, it’s often easier for school districts to buy produce from large distributors.
“Some school districts like to work with one company – you go to the grocery store, not the cucumber stand, the broccoli stand, the strawberry stand,” Alvarado said.
He said another challenge is that some small farmers are not trained in food safety.
“Pao is our first step to truly go to the farm – we have worked with other farmers, this is one where the farmer was lack all the food safety certification," Alvarado said. "We’re breaking new ground with Pao, and learning what it takes to make him food certified."
Despite those barriers, Alvarado said there are many benefits to buying produce, and especially strawberries, from local farmers. Among those is the cost.
The district serves about 85,000 meals a day. Alvarado’s goal is for each of those meals to include three or four of Saephan’s beauties.
“A locally grown strawberry that we buy from the farmer more than likely will be more cost effective for the district," Alvarado said. "But that’s not the driver."
Beyond dollars, strawberries are one of those fruits that just taste better when they’re picked fully ripe. As they say: The cost of a vine-ripened strawberry? Priceless.
“The driver is, fresh products that taste good are more likely to be eaten than products that don’t meet that qualification," Alvarado said. "If they don’t eat it, we’re wasting money."
This farm-to-cafeteria arrangement is a great opportunity for Saephan, too. If he secures regular contracts with Fresno Unified, and other larger institutions, he could soon achieve his goal of owning, rather than leasing, his farm land.
“I wish I could own some land in the future," Saephan said. "Maybe in another couple years. But right now, no money, the budget is tight. We are still leasing all the land that we are planning. Hopefully in a couple years we have a good buyer and are able to buy some land."
Saephan will also continue selling berries at his stand. When I visited last Friday, a sign covered the stand's window. It read, “sorry we’re closed.” But he picked a berry directly off the vine, and offered it to me. It was sun-warmed and sweet, especially at the bottom.
Fresno Unified students should start seeing Saephan’s berries on the menu in May. But area residents can taste them even sooner. Saephan expects his roadside stand to open this weekend.
“We’re going to open in one week," Saephan said. "These same strawberries, same fruit, if everybody needs some, come and try it out!"