Perspire, Pickle, and Persevere

Sixty-five years have passed since the Moss family moved to the property that has become TJ Farms in Chico. They’ve farmed crops of alfalfa, walnuts, almonds, kiwi, and a variety of vegetables, including pumpkins. The farm’s pumpkin patch has lured Chico families to TJ Farms each October for decades and created memories for many. Julie Newby, a fan of TJ Farms from the early days, says, “TJ Farms is authentic Chico. It’s like going back in time where people were less hurried, and you can just appreciate nature.” While visitors, like Julie, find the farm idyllic, the family has had little time to idle. Their sixty-five years farming are a testament to their resilience and persistence and show how nimble they’ve been in response to decades of market fluctuations.

The Land

The Moss family moved onto the property, thirty-five acres at the time, in 1952. Sue and Marvin Moss ran the farm as a side business, while Marvin worked as a dentist and they raised their two sons Dave and Jerry.  The family started by growing alfalfa. Harvest time was laborious, cutting, baling, loading the bales.  “One of the best of days of our life was when we got the machine to load the alfalfa bales,” Jerry called. In 1960, when he and Dave were in high school, the family planted walnut trees with the help of the boys’ track team at Chico High. Dave was naturally drawn to life as a farmer, which showed in his 4H and FFA activities throughout school, and so he took over the care of the walnut orchards while he attended Chico State’s ag program. Jerry followed in his father’s career path as a dentist and left the farming to his brother. In 1963, Dave married his high school sweetheart Mary, and a move to the main house on the farm planted them firmly there. They had two boys, Tim and John, and named the farm after their sons, TJ Farms.

In the early days of TJ Farms, the family continued with the walnut orchards and, in 1977, bought 100 acres of almond orchards near the Sacramento River. However, before a decade passed, two major floods in 1983 and 1986 killed the trees. This loss had a heavy cost to the family: it led to the sale of these lands as well as twenty acres of the TJ Farms property. The Moss family shifted gears to raise a variety of crops on the remaining fifteen acres, asparagus, tomatoes, squash, and pumpkins. The pumpkins eventually became central to their livelihood. In the early days, they grew acres of fall pumpkins that they sold at a stand on River Road. They also supplied pumpkins to Book Farm, on Shasta Avenue at that time. “We had to literally throw the pumpkins up into the truck to transport them. We did that for a long time with the help of family,” remembered Dave. In 1992, he removed the original walnut orchard and created one of the most well-known Chico pumpkin patches.

The Kiwi

In addition to the TJ Farms property, Dave farmed some land owned by former Chico State University President Glenn Kendall on the north side of Chico. In this location they grew vegetables and several acres of kiwi. The kiwi would be a challenging crop for the family, but eventually become a symbol of TJ Farms’ originality and spirit of persistence.

The kiwi crop began on a whim. Dave had three acres of kiwi, a fruit considered exotic at the time. It turned out that the purveyors had strict grading standards for the size and shape of the fruit, which allowed them to keep the price high. This practice made it difficult for growers to turn a profit since literally tons of fruit were rejected. Eventually, the Mosses found a way to profit from kiwi that were not perfectly round or large. They began to dry the kiwi, cutting and peeling each fruit by hand and then laying the slices in ten driers that stacked fifteen trays each. In this fashion, they dried twenty-two pounds of fruit a day. Dave connected with a distributor in San Jose who supplied dried kiwi to a candy maker in Switzerland. They sold 500 pounds of kiwi per year for Swiss candy. Dave said, “It was so much work, all done by hand, so we kept raising the price because we didn’t want to do it anymore, but they kept paying it.” Eventually this work became too much, but as they had before, they found another use for the kiwi, one that led to new markets for TJ Farms.

In the early ‘80s, Dave and Mary had built a commercial kitchen on their farm, the first in Butte County that was not in a restaurant. In this kitchen they dried their kiwi and Mary became inspired to try her hand at making jam. “We weren’t making any money on the kiwi so that is how the jam was born,” she said. To this day, TJ Farms produces several kinds of jam including Kiwi-Lemon, Kiwi-Orange, Kiwi-Strawberry, and Kiwi-Hot Pepper. Mary also makes a Kiwi Mustard and Kiwi Poppyseed salad dressing. Their boutique food line grew over time. Mary said that when they were at a gourmet food show and saw vinegars being sold, Dave commented, “Look at the all the weeds in that vinegar. We can do that!” Mary gave it a try, adding garlic and pepper and, of course, kiwi. They now sell Kiwi-Herb and Garlic Vinegar and Sweet-Tart Strawberry Vinegar.

The Dazzling Dills

The most popular of their products is Dave’s Dazzlin’ Dills. For many years, Dave had raised cucumbers to sell at the farmers’ market. There were people who would wait around until the end of the market hoping farmers would discount what they had left. Dave said, “I wasn’t about to do that when I was the one growing and picking them every day.” He got the idea to try making pickles and began with an old Ball Mason Jar canning recipe book and some Sunset magazine recipes. He refined the mix, taking a recipe for six quarts and converting it into 150 quarts, and began production more than thirty years ago. The pickles are handmade, sliced and packed with peppers, dill, garlic, and other ingredients in thirty-gallon drums. They are covered in brine and cured in cold storage. “When people ask why our pickles are more expensive,” said Dave, “I tell them it’s a lot of work to make them by hand in this way. Cadillacs cost more than Chevys, and these are Cadillac pickles.”

Pickle production led to a longstanding friendship with Nancy and Gary Coelho, who didn’t know the Mosses but loved the pickles. They learned at one point that Dave was considering not making them anymore due to the intensive labor. The Coehlos offered to help. Fourteen years later they are still part of the pickle making crew along with some other friends. “The Mosses are wonderful people with so many stories. You have to admire people who take on farming, and when it doesn’t go right, they find a new plan. It’s a success story,” said Nancy.

The Legacy

Tim Moss, Mary and Dave’s son, inherited his father’s passion for farm life. Having been raised on TJ Farms gave him a strong work ethic; he said he just never knew anything else. “I started driving a tractor at age nine. Many of my friends were envious because I worked hard and made money. I could buy things for myself at a young age.” By the time he was fifteen, he was farming his own pumpkin patch on the corner of River Road and Rose Avenue. He earned $11,000 per year farming this patch. “In the summer,” remembered Tim, “a lot of kids were probably at pool parties and such, but I was always on a tractor eating dirt. There was no time to waste.”

For a fifteen-year-old, $11,000 a year is pretty good money, not so much for a family man. “By the time you pencil it out,” Tim calculated, “you have to have another job. Farming is sixty hours per week year-round and you end up with poverty level wages.” Nevertheless, Tim and his wife are raising three boys and a pumpkin patch of their own in Durham. The family also helps at TJ Farms. “The boys love farming, and our family values are raising good kids with a strong work ethic and a desire to strive and be leaders in the community, which is how my parents raised us. We are trying to pass on the value of growing our own food,” Tim said.

Tim has been the creative one in helping his parents pencil it out over the years. In 2007, he developed a camp program for elementary kids. Farm camp ran for eight years with fifty percent of the campers returning each year. “Most young people are five to six generations removed from agriculture,” Tim said. One former camper, Olivia Duran, said, “It was actually more entertaining to work outside than wander around the Internet. It gave me a sense of accomplishment.” In addition, the Mosses built a party barn in 2000, and TJ Farms hosts twelve to fifteen weddings and events each year as another side business. Mary said, “It’s been an interesting journey for us. We’ve tried a lot of different things and we’ve been able to hang on this way.”

As much as the Moss family would like to keep the farm going, Mary and Dave think about retiring and are considering the sale of the farm. This is clearly not an easy decision. They have invested a lifetime there, continually adjusting to markets and nature. Now, though, new city event ordinances will create unanticipated expenses for them. It’s hard to say what the outcome will be, but for now the Mosses have feelers out. At the same time, grandson Michael, age seven, would like to be the fourth generation to run TJ Farms. He recently asked Mary, “Do you think that if you sell the farm, the guy who buys this place will sell it back to me when I’m ready?” We sure hope so, Michael!

  • Over the years, TJ Farms products have been sold in Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s and Bloomingdales. These department stores ordered product for Christmas, but it was limited to once a year. Eventually the cost of shipping became prohibitive, so the products are sold only in the Northstate at this point. Lots of people are introduced to the TJ Farms products during pumpkin patch season and then can buy them locally and year-round at places like Safeway, S and S Produce, and Made in Chico. All their products make excellent gifts for the upcoming holiday season.
  • Pumpkin patch season runs the month of October and always includes an array of activities including hay rides, petting and feeding farm animals, cut your own pumpkin and more. During October, the Moss family also hosts numerous area school groups on farm visits.
  • The property and party barn are available for events and weddings throughout the year.