Dale Coke grew up on an apricot orchard in California’s Santa Clara Valley. In 1976 he bought ten acres of farmland near Watsonville in Santa Cruz County but continued to work repairing fuel injection systems rather than farming at his new home. In 1981, a struggle with cancer inspired him to rethink his life and become an organic farmer. His neighbor, who had grown strawberries using pesticides and chemical fertilizers, asserted that strawberries could not be grown organically. Coke set out to prove him wrong. He sold his first organic strawberries at Community Foods, a local natural foods store, and began marketing berries, baby zucchini and “exotic” lettuces to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, and later other high-end restaurants across the country. Coke can be credited with the invention of the spring salad mix, an assortment of baby lettuce greens, now one of the most lucrative products sold by the organic industry. He originally rinsed his greens in an old washing machine cleverly set up to run only on the spin cycle. Coke Farms grew as salad mix caught on and began to be distributed beyond upscale restaurants and into supermarkets across the country. Today the company grows over fifty crops, including braising mix, Meyer lemons, shallots, and watermelon radishes. They also run a cold storage/shipping facility and contract with several other certified organic growers to sell and ship their produce across the country. The Organic Farming Research Foundation sent Coke to Washington, D.C. to testify at a hearing on the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement on July 29, 2009.
Dale Coke was a pioneering member of California Certified Organic Farmers and received a Stewards of Sustainable Agriculture (Sustie) Award in 2009, along with his wife, Christine Coke. Coke shares his recollections of that organization’s early history, as well as the development of his farm. Ellen Farmer interviewed Dale Coke on March 21, 2007, at Coke Farm in Watsonville, California.