Thriving During the Pandemic Demand for fruit-and-vegetable deliveries soared

 Juan Pablo and Pablo Perez | David Royal


“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”

George Washington

By Aparna Sreenivasan

Like small business operators everywhere, Juan Pablo Perez worried the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown orders would destroy his business.

Over 14 years and working out of his family’s small organic farm near Salinas, Perez cultivated fresh fruits and vegetables and has driven thousands of miles to personally deliver boxes to families from Santa Cruz to Big Sur under J&P Organics.

The Salinas organic farmer and Community Supported Agriculture provider developed a hard-core clientele, with about 300 customers weekly. As he established himself, he said, J&P Organics “changed the model of the CSA. With our box there is no contract, you can pay as you go, order when you like. We let you know what is in the box beforehand and it’s delivered to the  home.”

But when the coronavirus forced the closure of so many activities and businesses, “I thought we were going to have to shut our business down,” said Perez, 36.

“But that first week, after agriculture was named essential, my phone did not stop ringing.”

Suddenly the family’s average of 300 boxes per week turned into 300 boxes per day.

Perez said he worked along with his father — who he calls his inspiration — on one acre of land his father leased in Aromas. They cultivated fresh flowers on their small farm on weekends and late in the afternoons, while his father worked in local nurseries. Agriculture is his father’s passion, and he worked more than 30 years in nurseries.

“His interest became my interest,” Perez said. “But my Dad said it was hard work, so I’d better do well in school.”

With the help of his high school counselor, Perez was accepted at four California state universities. His mother wanted him to stay close, so he chose CSU Monterey Bay. He eventually graduated from CSUMB’s Earth Systems Science and Policy program, now called Environmental Science.

CSUMB was a turning point, he said. With the support of Dr. William Head, an environmental science professor, Perez was awarded three paid internships, one with Serendipity Farms and two with the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, also known as ALBA.

“This turned my science major into science, because everything (I saw) was science, right?” he said.

It was during these internships that he learned about how to really do what he wanted to do, from crop rotation, to organic farming and marketing. That was when he approached his father. “I told him, why don’t we transition to organics?” So, soon Perez graduated from CSUMB, father and son took a six-month class together at ALBA farms, leased a half-acre plot each, and the rest is history. ALBA was created to train people with limited resources to become organic farmers.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Agricultural workers have the highest COVID-19 infection rates in Monterey County, and are on the front line, making sure that food is available for all of those that are sheltering in place.

The demand for fresh produce and the shelter-in-place orders that discouraged people from leaving their homes boosted Perez’s business.

Not all farms are so lucky, Perez said. Many of the ALBA farmers who rely on farmer’s markets are in particular trouble, so his business buys organic produce from them to top off their boxes and to help J&P Organics meet the growing demand.

“(We) all help each other out, because everyone is going through a hard time,” Perez said. He and his brother Jose added two new trucks and additional delivery days to meet the demand. And they had to move to an every other week service to allow the farm to recharge.

“It’s long days,” Perez said. But the hard work drives him.

“There is one thing I tell my son and daughter, don’t give up. Hold on … buckle up, and we will see the fruits of our labor.”

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About Aparna Sreenivasan

Aparna Sreenivasan is an Associate Professor of Genetics and Molecular Biology at California State University Monterey Bay, and a science writer. She lives in Pacific Grove with her husband and two children.