Organic Farmer

Craig Ruggless, 47, knows that what goes into his soil ends up on your plate


»  “Many people are so disconnected from the sources of their food that they think it comes from a drive-thru window. That needs to change.”

»  Ruggless grows fruits and vegetables and raises chickens (Barnevelders from Holland) naturally, without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. He sells his harvest to L.A. restaurants and at farmers’ markets.“I personally have an issue with people who say their produce grown 400 miles away is local.”

»  Since 2008, he and his partner have operated Winnetka Farms in the San Fernando Valley between Woodland Hills and Chatsworth. “In the ’20s, Winnetka was a poultry colony—small-scale field crops and chicken houses. In the ’50s and ’60s, people put in lawns and swimming pools and made it more of a typical suburb. I’m interested in taking it back to what it was.”

»  The farm is one of 36 in Los Angeles County that grow organic food, according to a recent count by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA says the farms total 130 acres. California leads all other states, with more than 2,700 organic farms, or about one-fifth of those nationwide. The California farms sell $1.1 billion worth of food products a year, the agency says.

»  Ruggless was born in Lynwood. He is half Italian and half German-Danish. “I always wanted to be a farmer. When I was five, they called me ‘Farmer John.’ ” He has worked in retail management, at nurseries, and in ornamental garden design. “But I have always grown things. There has never been a time that I wasn’t growing something, no matter what else I did or where I lived.”

»  At Winnetka his days start early. “I’m out of bed at 5:30 or 6 a.m. Roosters are crowing. I check on the chickens. I see something from a distance and say, ‘That needs water.’ If something needs harvesting, you have to pick it or it grows past its prime.”

»  His farm is not profitable. “Our main business right now is importing heirloom seeds from Italy and selling them on our Web site. We grow some seeds organically and sell the seedlings. As we expand, improve distribution, and get more clients, then I can see farm produce more than covering its costs.”

»  Ruggless and his partner own a half acre. They also use part of a neighbor’s lot. “Our front yard grows citrus, avocado, and pomegranates. The backyard is vegetables. I have an heirloom variety of pod pea. It looks like a Chinese snow pea, but it is originally from Switzerland.”

»  Although Ruggless grows everything organically, Winnetka is not certified yet as a farm that meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards. Ruggless has begun the process, which will cost hundreds of dollars and require him to log everything. “We’re beyond certified organic already. It allows you to use organic sprays, but we don’t spray anything on anything.”

»  “We’ve been selling to two restaurants: Forage in Silver Lake and the Press in Claremont. One time at Forage this young couple sat next to us. I said, ‘How’s that salad?’ The woman said, ‘Very good.’ I said, ‘I grew the greens.’ She said, ‘Really? I never met anybody who grew my food before.’ ”

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

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