NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – Bill Brammer had no idea how his life was about to change when he began to putter in a garden outside his guesthouse in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Three credits shy of graduating from United States International University in San Diego, Brammer discovered a passion that would turn from a hobby into a blossoming business.
Brammer never graduated from USIU. Instead, he purchased a hilly 20-acre plot of land in 1977 with money he had saved from renting rooms in his guesthouse. The rocky property wasn’t particularly conducive to growing anything, but it was all he could afford.
Brammer recalls how a professor at the University of California chuckled when Brammer consulted him about his hopes of becoming an organic farmer. The professor predicted that the business would flop.
Nearly 40 years later, Brammer, 61, has turned that undesirable plot of land into a business that serves 3,000 customers in a Community Supported Agriculture program, and has sold millions of organic heirloom tomatoes and strawberries to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, both of which specialize in natural and organic foods.
Brammer’s Be Wise Ranch expanded to as many as 900 acres, but is now down to a comfortable 250 acres.
I can now play golf once or twice a week, said Brammer, who is competing in his first USGA championship at this week’s U.S. Senior Amateur at Big Canyon Country Club. He opened stroke-play qualifying on Saturday with a 7-over 79. In the old days I worked six days a week, 12 hours a day. Now I’m down to where I work five days and not as many hours. I can leave the office at 6 [p.m.] and spend 30 minutes practicing [at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club] before I go home.
Since turning 55 and joining Rancho Santa Fe, which hosted the 2006 U.S. Junior Amateur, Brammer has focused on his golf game. He played briefly at Santa Monica (Calif.) Junior College and for one year at USIU, but it wasn’t until this year that his USGA breakthrough came in Senior Amateur qualifying. Because of a conflict, he had to pass up the La Jolla (Calif.) Country Club sectional and travel to Kuna, Idaho, to compete for the one spot at Falcon Crest Golf Club.
The 6-foot-9 Brammer, who pitched for one year as a walk-on for national power University of Miami (Fla.), wound up in a playoff with Gary Vanier, one of California’s top senior amateurs, after each carded 71. On the fifth playoff hole, Brammer holed a 50-foot putt to get the spot. Earlier in the year, Brammer had finished third at the Trans-Mississippi Senior, and he recently lost a playoff to former Rancho Santa Fe G.C. member Patrick Duncan at the San Diego City Senior at Torrey Pines.
It gave me a little more confidence, said Brammer. I’m starting to understand how to play. Every shot doesn’t have to be perfect.
Just as every tomato or strawberry won’t be ideal.
Brammer, knew nothing about operating a farm when he began. He was born in Wisconsin, spent most of his childhood in Woodland Hills, Calif., and graduated from high school in Stamford, Conn. Nobody in his family had a farming background.
I rented a bulldozer and had no idea how to operate it, he recalled. The guy had to show me how to start it and stop it, and I learned.
Three years after starting his farm, Brammer was selling organic tomatoes to Whole Foods. When Whole Foods passed up his smaller heirloom tomatoes, Brammer offered them to Trader Joe’s, which loved the product.
Lettuce, beets, broccoli and other produce are sold to local supermarkets, customers of CSA and area restaurants.
Being in a climate conducive to year-round growing, Brammer’s farm constantly is growing and harvesting.
When he became president of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), laws were passed both in state and nationally to strictly define organic foods. Brammer said a lot of fraudulent produce was hitting the market as growers sought to cash in on premiums for organic fruits and vegetables.
We protected it and defined it, said Brammer.
In conventional agriculture, they are pumping a lot of nitrogen so things grow faster, he said. It also brings more insects, so now you have to spray more and more pesticides. And then there are environmental issues.
It’s fascinating. You figure out what varieties grow well in your climate.
His biggest issues are labor and water. This past year, he had 50 acres of strawberries ready to be harvested, but with labor scarce, he had to cut his losses and pick only the best crop from 20 acres. He also is in the process of drilling two more wells to produce additional irrigation.
While most farms use a broker, Brammer sells directly to stores through his own label. He grew his business slowly and poured profits back into the ranch; he now owns 15 tractors and employs 85 people. His wife, Marsanne, helped at the outset, but she is now a literature professor.
Outside of drought, which California has experienced for the past three years, Brammer’s biggest worry going forward is labor. His current force is getting older and there isn’t a heavy influx of available younger employees.
For the big guys, they grow tomatoes in the ground and can machine-harvest them, said Brammer. We’re growing everything on stakes. You can pick them a lot longer, but you are also increasing your labor.
Despite the challenges, Brammer has turned a sudden whim into a lifelong labor of love.
David Shefter is a senior writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.