The Heart & Hustle of a Generational Farm Meant to be Shared

By / Photography By Yvonne Cornell | May 30, 2018
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Nick, Mike and Sam Thorp display crates of freshly harvested Salanova lettuces.

You can barely make out the thin outline of a seated figure on a red tractor and two curved backs bending over furrowed soil as you approach a corner plot adjacent to Highway 101. The early morning light casts long shadows across three farmers tending to business at Spade & Plow Organics of San Martin. Spade & Plow is the Thorp family–owned farm and only registered organic CSA program in the Santa Clara County. In a valley better known for its garage tech start-ups, the Thorps are a trio of agribusiness phenoms who are redefining what it means to farm in The Valley of Heart’s Delight.

Brothers Nick and Sam Thorp can trace their farming roots back seven generations to Missouri before their great-great-grandfather came to California. Growing up on the Thorp family farm in Greenfield, Monterey County, Nick and Sam learned to farm from their father, Mike. When asked why the brothers didn’t start Spade & Plow in their hometown, Nick exclaims with a broad smile, “Have you ever been to Greenfield?” Located in the heart of Steinbeck Country, one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, and steeped in farming traditions, Greenfield is not exactly the place for a couple of young entrepreneurs seeking to innovate fresh approaches to agribusiness.

Spade & Plow began as a Thorp family dream shared around the kitchen table with their father when the brothers were still in high school. The goal was to grow organic produce at affordable prices with personal delivery for local consumers: fresh, local and organic for all, not just the select few. Nick wrote an agricultural management business plan while attending Cal Poly, and Sam developed a start-up proposal as a San Jose State business management major to prove it could be done. After graduating, both brothers worked in traditional agribusiness jobs to gain further experience, and then in 2015, the Thorps established Spade & Plow.

The following year, they secured their first farm plot. Farmland in Santa Clara County comes at a premium, if it can be found at all. Much of it is scooped up for residential and commercial developments. The Thorps found the 10-acre plot next to a small airport in San Martin that had last been farmed nearly a decade ago. Spade & Plow planted their first seeds, harvested their first crop and personally delivered their first community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes to customers in the spring of 2016—successfully launching Spade & Plow with a unique variety of artichokes.

Artichokes, you ask? The majority of the U.S. supply of artichokes is famously grown in Monterey County, where the temperate weather is ideal for this crop. Santa Clara Valley’s temperatures, on the other hand, can drop to freezing in the winter months. What were the Thorps thinking? As a new farm, the Thorps knew they had to offer something extraordinary to break into the established local farmers markets, restaurants and wholesale outlets. They took a bold and innovative approach by experimenting with a unique variety of artichoke that is especially mild and sweet, and the risk paid off. Farmers market customers began asking specifically for Spade & Plow’s notable artichokes. This variety, however, does not grow yearround. Nevertheless, the Thorps take pride in growing exceptional produce only at its most optimal growing season and that’s what they deliver. This was just the beginning of Spade & Plow’s out-of-thebox thinking.

The Thorps like to say that “the best things in life are meant to be shared.” This includes sharing local finds such as pasture-raised organic eggs from Hollister’s Pasture Chick Ranch and San Jose’s sustainably harvested fair trade Chromatic Coffee. Would you like organic bread with your CSA box? You got it. The Thorps partnered with San Jose’s 2nd Story Bakeshop as well as Frantoio Grove’s certified extra-virgin organic olive oil from San Martin. Spade & Plow is a virtual farmstead in your own backyard. Soon they will be launching a new program with Camino Brewery and Chromatic Coffee to recycle their spent grains and coffee grinds into compost.

Nick and Sam farm side by side with their dad every day, just as they did in their youth. They credit their success to working closely as a family and the fusion of three unique experiences into one shared mission. Mike Thorp’s prowess on the farm production side; Sam’s sales, purchasing and retail savvy; plus Nick’s post-harvest knowledge for storing and processing the produce is a winning trifecta. Nick is also the family’s mechanical savant, building some of their most vital farming equipment from scratch.

Nick and Sam still take deep satisfaction in personally driving their produce to over 200 customers in the afternoons. Sam says they want local residents “to be proud to call Spade & Plow their own farm.” The next time you want to meet your farmer up close and personal, you need only open your front door. The Thorps expanded in April 2017 with the addition of a 27- acre farm and are passionate about enlivening farming in the Santa Clara Valley with a fresh, hip approach. They firmly believe this valley is on the cusp of a signature food scene that will rival the rest of the Bay Area.

“It starts with the community,” says Sam, “and part of trying to change the food scene locally is to focus on our immediate area. The more people we can feed right here, the better.”

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