By Elliott Bochstein, RCAC Staff Writer
When COVID-19 struck, Rock Front Ranch in California’s Cuyama Valley faced an uncertain future. With a $25,000 loan from RCAC’s RELieF program and dedicated training from RCAC’s BRE team, this regenerative organic farm not only weathered the storm but emerged with an even stronger foundation for future success.
The serene Cuyama Valley, just a short drive away from Los Angeles, offers a world apart from the frenzied life of the big city. Nestled deep within the rugged terrain of the Los Padres National Forest along California’s Central Coast, the valley boasts clean air, fresh rainfall and a diverse array of native flowering plants. Within the valley lies Rock Front Ranch, a diversified organic small farm dedicated to regenerative agricultural practices.
If you’ve ever tasted a piece of fruit so mouthwateringly sweet that it made you marvel at nature’s wonders, then you’ll understand the passion that Rock Front Ranch (RFR) founder Alisha Taff pours into her farm. With deep love and respect for the land, Alisha’s pure honey and delectable jujubes reflect her commitment to producing top-quality food without the use of harmful chemicals or pesticides.
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RFR’s apiary is a thriving ecosystem where bees collect nectar and pollen from native chapparal and produce the purest honey imaginable. Alisha is so confident in the quality of her RFR honey that she entered it into competition at the prestigious Apimondia 2023 International Apicultural Congress in Chile, where it will undergo evaluations for botanical origin, typicality, adulteration, and chemical residues.
“The quality of our products speaks for itself; our honey is single source, so we don’t mix it with honey from other places and call it our own,” Alisha said. “The honey we produce is an excellent example of what honey should be.”
The ranch is also the proud producer of some of the country’s most delicious jujubes. Jujubes are nutrient-rich superfoods packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Alisha grew up in an Asian American home and has fond memories of enjoying what she calls “nature’s candy” at her family friends’ homes. Today, operating under the trade name Just Jujubes, she cultivates these fruits through regenerative and certified organic methods, nurturing the trees in the valley’s fertile soil and allowing the fruits to naturally ripen, Alisha ensures optimal flavor and nutrient content. Alisha’s commitment to sustainable practices aligns with nature’s processes, promoting the long-term health of her business and the surrounding land.
“Mother Nature knows best,” Alisha explained. “I truly love this land, so it’s important for me to treat it in a way that ensures its long-term health and diversity. This means we avoid exploiting one resource over another so that we can promote a balanced and sustainable ecosystem.”
Alisha established her ranch as a cattle operation in 2014, but prolonged drought meant that she had to think outside the box and diversify her revenue sources, leading to the creation of Rock Front Ranch Products, LLC in 2016. RFR offers its products through various channels, including wholesale and direct-to-customer sales, and has built a supportive network of local businesses. She even collaborates with local social enterprises like Blue Sky Center to create tantalizing carbonated meads with her farm’s honey and jujubes.
However, Alisha faced an unexpected challenge when COVID-19 threw supply chains and the labor market into a state of chaos. Alisha was unable to hire a dedicated driver, leaving her with no choice but to personally transport her products to Los Angeles four or five nights per week, restricting her ability to handle her daily duties at the farm. The challenges continued to mount as packaging costs rose and prolonged drought entailed new water restrictions.
Meanwhile, temperatures soared to as high as 114 degrees, sometimes for consecutive days, forcing farmers to irrigate their crops at higher levels or risk losing their entire yield to the relentless heatwave. To make matters worse, electricity prices skyrocketed by 50 percent within just two years, disproportionately impacting small farmers like Alisha who already faced stiff penalties for their increased water consumption.
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Despite surging demand for honey products in 2021, Alisha knew that a fleeting uptick in sales wasn’t enough to overcome the compounding challenges she faced. Recognizing that her business’s survival hinged on finding effective long-term solutions, Alisha turned to Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) for the expertise and resources needed to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable “new normal.” Alisha was positively surprised by RCAC’s responsiveness and understanding.
“RCAC staff immediately understood our needs, jumped right in and provided us with exceptional support,” she said. “I’ve never worked with such a friendly, relatable program before.”
With a $25,000 loan from RCAC’s Re-Emerging Loan Fund (RELieF), Alisha was able to pay for increased transportation and packaging costs, secure her workforce and develop a digital marketing strategy to support direct-to-consumer sales through e-commerce. RCAC’s RELieF program offers a critical lifeline for rural businesses struggling to maintain or re-establish their market presence in the pandemic’s aftermath. Eligible businesses can request loans of up to $25,000 that are paired with business coaching, specialized technical support and a strategic business evaluation tailored to their specific needs. Under certain conditions, loans received under RELieF may be fully or partially forgiven.
The loan also came with dedicated business mentorship from RCAC’s Building Rural Economies (BRE) team to tighten RFR’s financial management, an area of prior struggle. Working closely with Alisha’s office manager, BRE staff provided a range of practical lessons and confidence-boosting exercises tailored to their unique strengths and learning speed. Alisha had long struggled with recruiting qualified office employees – a challenge inherent in a region where local workers have limited opportunities to develop their skills – and found the training to be immensely beneficial.
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“When a program empowers you and your employees, providing opportunities to learn and improve in weaker areas, it’s hard to see any downside,” Alisha said. “I can’t emphasize enough the value of what RCAC is doing for my employees.”
Thanks to the RELieF program, Rock Front Ranch was not only able to withstand the pandemic’s impact but emerge stronger than ever. In light of ongoing post-pandemic challenges, RCAC has fully forgiven the $25,000 RELieF loan. Alisha enthusiastically recommends RELieF to her fellow small business owners.
“Growing a business can be challenging and there’s no handbook on how to do it, so sometimes we’re just flying by the seat of our pants,” she said. “RCAC quickly understood my business, identified its strengths and weaknesses, and provided us with the tools and support to improve our weaker areas.”
“RCAC stepped up to the plate and gave us the boost we needed in the right way through genuine, helpful guidance.”
Learn more about RCAC’s RELieF Loan Fund:
- Indigenous voices, immersive experiences: RCAC helps Navajo Nation tourism venture overcome pandemic challenges
- Flattening the impact – How RCAC’s RELieF program helped sustain a freelance journalist during the pandemic
- Case Study: Rough and Ready Fire Protection District
For information, contact:
Juanita Hallstrom – Director, Loan Fund
(916) 447-9832 ext. 1065
Also in this issue of Network News
Case study: La Jolla Potable Water Pipe Replacement Project
The La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians is a designated Colonia located in the Pauma Valley, California. It has a population of 265. Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) partnered with the La Jolla Tribe through the San Diego Integrated Water Management Plan to address inadequate water supply and quality issues.