Farmer/Rockstar: Mike Costa, Costa Family Farms
by Loree Dowse | August 2016
Spanning three generations, Mike Costa’s family has been farming in the Salinas Valley for 60 years. His father, Anthony Costa, moved from Massachusetts to California in 1939 and began farming in 1956 with 150 acres in Soledad, CA. The family still grows on those original acres today.
In the mid-1970’s, Costa Family Farms started growing broccoli for Mann Packing. In 1982, Anthony asked Don Nucci and Bill Ramsey (then co-owners of Mann’s) if they could market his leaf lettuce, as he was one of the first people to grow romaine in the Salinas Valley. That agreement was the beginning of not only deep friendships between the men, but also the start of where the business is today. Starting with butter and red/green romaine lettuce, their main crop is now leaf lettuce, and they have 20 different varieties packed 150-160 ways, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. Costa Family Farms grows about 85% of Mann Packing’s products and is our main grower-partner.
In 2005, Costa Farms revolutionized lettuce harvesting with the invention and manufacturing of a whole leaf lettuce machine. An integral step in eliminating waste, the machine mechanically de-leafs an entire head of leaf lettuce into individual leaves. Ever the innovators, in 2009 Costa Farms invented and manufactured a broccoli floret machine that mechanically takes the harvested broccoli crowns and cuts them into individual florets.
Costa Family Farms has a very hands-on philosophy. Even as a corporate family farm, they have established important relationships with their workers and consider them part of the family. Mike and his brother, David, are involved with all personnel issues and like to address things first hand. Today, they employ over 70 people and share the same values of quality, innovation and safety as Mann Packing.
I sat down with Mike this morning after tagging along on one of his famous field tours with a group from central California. With the mud still drying on our boots, I lobbed a few questions at him.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Well, I’ve gotten a lot lazier in the last few years. I leave the house around 6:00 am and get home between 5 and 6 at night. Most days I spend out in the fields, checking on the crews, looking at equipment, making sure everything is going well. If I’m lucky I’ll get into the office 2 days a week. I’m not big on computers, but I’ve gotten better with email.
So if you’re not huge into technology, how do you keep track of everything that you have planted? Is it all in your head?
My dad was really good at math, and I’m pretty good at it too. I do keep a lot of stuff in my head but a couple of years ago my daughter plugged some things into Excel. Wow, that was fast! I’ll master it eventually – my wife and kids keep me up to speed.
Can you give some examples of how farming practices have changed since your father started farming? What crops are grown now vs. then?
My dad started out growing mainly sugar beets, small white beans and potatoes, then moved into leaf lettuce and green onions. Over time it evolved from the dry land crops to more green vegetables. Even if you look at something like green leaf lettuce, when I was a kid we would have to grow it in an open trench because it needed daylight to sprout. There would be times when you would get only 300 cartons an acre. Now, if you don’t get 1,000-1,200 cartons per acre you’re doing something wrong. The technology in seeds has changed, the enhancement in seeds has changed, the germination of seeds has changed.
With that, productivity has changed over the years. Where you would pack romaine or green leaf only one way in the 1960’s or 70’s, we pack romaine 20-25 different ways, whether it’s for hearts or different commodity packs for suppliers. My dad used to say – and he said this 10 years ago – “If you had told me 20 years ago we’d be doing what we’re doing now I would’ve said you were crazy.”
There have been not only varietal changes, but cultural changes. Drip irrigation changed the Valley: there are a lot of areas where, if it wasn’t for drip irrigation, we wouldn’t be growing vegetables.
The word I hear used about you a lot is “passion.” What do you have to say about that?
My dad came across the country with his aunt when he was 11 years old, and never lived with his brothers and sisters again. His passion and his will to succeed really drove him – and I think there were a lot of people of his generation in the Salinas Valley who were the same way. He wasn’t scared to try things and I think my brother and I got that from him. My brother, sisters and I were moving sprinkler pipe in the fields when we were 9 or 10 years old – one on each end of the pipe because we weren’t big enough to carry it ourselves. Just the way we were raised, we knew no different.
The years my brother and I were at Cal Poly we stayed down there maybe 4 or 5 weekends. The rest of the time we’d come home to work. I love the challenges of new things, of innovating how to grow something new, selecting varieties, creating equipment to harvest it. We could have taken the slow route and been conservative, but my Portuguese half took over and we went aggressive. It all worked out.
What keeps you up at night?
Some things are good things: thinking about innovation and how to do things better, what’s the next thing we’re going to accomplish. Whenever we move to the desert [transition the growing season to Yuma, AZ for the winter months] it’s always fun because even though I’ve been doing it forever it’s a good change of pace. Otherwise, labor is challenging. Water and nitrates in the water too. That’s something my brother deals with every day.
What’s your favorite vegetable to grow?
Right now it’s Arcadian Harvest. It’s relatively new, so it’s still evolving. I like looking at trials, analyzing them, making a decision with the team to get certain flavors out of the leaves. The relationships we have with seed companies are pretty special, too. I love all that stuff.
So what’s your favorite vegetable to eat, then?
Oh, I like a romaine heart that’s really bleached. I have a pretty good Caesar salad recipe that was on the back of Mann’s romaine heart package for a while. I still like broccoli. I like using the RomaCrunch lettuce cups to make fish tacos. I love cooking – it’s really therapeutic and my kids love when I cook.
What types of things have farmers done over the years to improve water usage efficiency?
Well, sprinkler irrigation is more efficient than furrow irrigation, and drip irrigation is more efficient than sprinklers, so those are all improvements. Keeping track of moisture levels, there’s equipment we use to check that.
My last question for you is: what’s your favorite kind of beer?
[laughs] I’ll grab a Coors Light. Otherwise, I actually prefer wine, believe it or not. [laughs some more]
Thanks for your time, Mike Costa!