Capay Fruits & Vegetables: The next generation of farming

By Michelle Immel

In 1976, UC Davis graduate students Kathleen Barsotti and Martin Barnes purchased a small piece of fertile land in the rolling foothills of the Capay Valley. Thirty-three years later, the home that was once theirs still stands, surrounded by a large packing warehouse, a modest office building, and 350 acres of organic farmland known as Capay Fruits & Vegetables. Today this innovative farm is changing the way California purchases produce.

As early innovators in the organic farm movement, Kathleen and Martin helped to found the Davis Farmers Market in 1976, and developed Capay Valley’s very first organic farm. Offering a wide variety of pesticide-free produce, Capay Fruits and Vegetables began as a small family farm, and evolving into a successful local business. With the help of her four sons, Kathleen Barsotti became the sole proprietor and manager of the farm in 1992, and began developing plans to expand the farm’s production.

“My brothers and I grew up on the farm,” says Thaddeus Barsotti, now 29 years old. “My older brothers did a lot of the labor. They would hoe, move irrigation pipes, and all of that. By the time my younger brother and I were old enough to work, we would drive tractors, do deliveries, sell at farmers markets, and manage small work crews. We’ve all been really involved in the farm since we were little.”

With a strong customer base and a growing market for organic food, Kathleen decided to try something new in the early 1990s. On the advice of a friend, she began a farm delivery business, bringing fresh produce to the doorsteps of local families who bought from their farm. This business later became Farm Fresh to You, now a well established company in northern California, soon to be expanded to the greater Los Angeles area.

“We started off with five deliveries in 1992. My grandparents would fill up boxes with fruits and vegetables, and fit them into the trunk of their Buick,” says Thaddeus. “After we’d been doing that for a while, The San Francisco Chronicle published a story about us in their food section, and included our home phone number. Our phone started ringing off the hook. My younger brother Freeman stayed home from school for two days just to return all the phone calls.”

Following that early publicity from The Chronicle, the Barsottis’ delivery business began to grow from five produce deliveries, to hundreds in a matter of a few months. The four sons and their mother worked hard to maintain this progress, until the year 2000 when Kathleen Barsotti passed away from breast cancer at the age of 51. Her sons Freeman, Thaddeus, Noah and Che—all of them under the age of 24—were left with a business, a 20-acre farm, and a daunting road ahead.

“One of the biggest obstacles we had was actually learning how to farm,” explains Thaddeus. “We had been around it, but were never directly responsible for everything. And learning to work with each other was also hard. There were a lot of fights between us, because we’d get into each other’s business. Eventually, we figured out what we each do best, and we’ve stuck to that.”

Through hard knocks and learned cooperation, Freeman, Thaddeus and Noah each took on a major role with Capay Organic and Farm Fresh to You and they’ve used their skills in sales, management and production to revitalize their mother’s vision for the farm. Meanwhile, Che has stayed the course with his Coast Guard career. 

Almost a decade later, the Barsottis have learned the value of hard work, and remained determined to succeed. Together, three brothers and two wives currently run a successful multi-faceted company which includes a wholesale trade, a strong presence at local farmers markets, a retail store in the San Francisco Ferry Building, and an expanding farm delivery service which currently provides fresh produce to over 6,000 customers across California.

“Our motto is ‘connect the people to the land that grows their food,’” Thaddeus adds. “So we invite customers to take farm tours, and we host a lot of events. For marketing, we use the internet and word of mouth, and we also go to a lot of trade shows, trying to get conversations going with potential customers.”

Despite their struggles, the future is bright for these young and innovative farmers, who have held strong to their vision, and are determined to make change in the way our society looks at food consumption.

“In the future, we hope to continue to develop alternative methods of getting local food to local consumers, not using the conventional retail model,” Thaddeus explains. “People want to know where their food comes from, and who grew it. The current food distribution system doesn’t provide that information, and doesn’t give people a choice. We want to change that. Our goal is to connect communities to local growers using this style of distributing produce on a national level.”