Growing Local: Sonrisa Farm - Robin Fazio And Maria Vives

Friday, January 27, 2012 - by Jen Jeffrey
Robin and Maria Fazio with their children
Robin and Maria Fazio with their children
- photo by Alicia Osborne

Robin Fazio and wife, Maria Vives, own Sonrisa Farm in Colquitt, Ga., but reside in Chattanooga where they sell their wheat.

Acquiring his family farm for himself in the year 2000, he and Maria initially lived there farming full time. Robin had some cattle and sold locally in South Georgia along with wheat and peanuts, but as he and his wife moved back to Chattanooga in 2007 he found it was difficult to do anything more than the wheat crop and peanuts/pecans and rye.

Sonrisa Farm is recorded to have been in his family since 1888, but Robin feels it goes back even further. “The farm has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember; going to my grandparents was the best thing in the whole world.”

Robin grew up in Chattanooga after his parents met here. His mother is from Colquitt. “I never wanted to be a farmer, I just liked it. I went to Berry College, developed an interest in agriculture and took an agricultural program. I thought I would be a farm manager for someone else and studied animal science but I felt like I was becoming more of a scientist than a farmer. I got my masters there, but I didn’t go further into agriculture. I was interested in “our” farm and me having a role in it.”

After acquiring the Sonrisa, Robin started learning about his new acquisition and how to take care of it. Along with farming, Robin teaches at Baylor. “My dad is Bob Fazio, who is a sculptor; he taught at Baylor and mom taught at St. Jude. I grew up with a family of teachers. Mom had a huge garden and taught me the love for the soil.”

After moving back to Chattanooga with Maria, Robin changed his direction with his wheat business. “I thought, ‘There are a lot of bakeries around here… I just didn’t feel comfortable selling my wheat to the elevator anymore.” Robin used to sell his wheat to other companies and they did all the leg work until he decided to start selling local. “I used to sell my wheat commercially and the semi-truck would come and then it would disappear and I would never see where it went from there. I’d get a check in the mail, but then when I looked at the deductions...the test weight, the moisture, the ‘this and that’…my check was smaller than I expected. You have no control over the price they charge.”

Robin explains, “When you become the retailer where you take your product and sell it yourself, then you take out the middle man and you have control. But you have a lot more steps.

"I approached Niedlov’s bakery first. Andy and I went and talked to the owner and started from there.”

Andy Fazio is Robin’s brother and is a big help to the farm. Andy owns a landscaping business, Earth’s Harmony Landscaping, and he uses his truck to do a lot of the heavy pulling. He says, “I help wherever I can. There is a lot of physical work involved, picking up thousands of pounds of wheat and stacking it by hand.” Andy also keeps some of the wheat flour on his property and he assists in harvesting.

Robin explains, “Wheat is a winter crop. There is not a lot of work in growing, which is nice. The work is in land preparation, planting and then the harvest as well as what comes later.”

The grain is shipped by the Fazio brothers from the South Georgia farm to Chattanooga. “I thought we could sell it in ‘grain form’ but we were told that we had to get it milled into flour before it could be marketable. We looked around for a mill and found Falls Mill in Belvidere, Tn.” Falls Mill is an operating water-powered mill built in 1873. “Building a mill was out of the question, as far as price, so we were glad to find Falls Mill,” Robin says.

In 2007 Robin and Maria moved to Chattanooga to live close to where they both teach at Baylor. Robin teaches Spanish as well as a program of organic gardening, “I really miss the farm and being there, so I am glad to sell local,” he says.

Robin has had three seasons of harvesting his wheat and selling locally. “Our biggest customer is Lupi’s Pizza. I enjoy having a bigger part in the process. I want to know who eats it; I want that relationship. It makes me feel good, gives me a satisfaction - you cannot put a value on someone coming to you and saying 'that was really good.’”

Robin recalls when Public House Restaurant had a week where they featured items that were locally made. “We ate dinner there and the chef came out, the servers came out and they wanted us to know how much they liked it and how they appreciated us.”

Nutritionally speaking, Sonrisa wheat is far superior to anything else you will get, Robin maintains. “One, because we know what we put in it and, two, because it’s fresh. There are no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides sprayed around our wheat. We freeze the grain to eliminate weavles and grain moths - no chemicals. You have to freeze it at least two weeks at 10 degrees. We do it for a month. When it comes into contact with air some of those minerals begin to oxidize and, over a period of time, a true whole wheat flour will spoil - so buying fresh is better. You can freeze it all you want to keep it longer. Our customers appreciate fresh.”

Robin adds, “In the Southeast you are limited on what type of wheat you can grow. We are limited to a soft red winter wheat; it is the most common. What that means to a baker is the content of gluten. A variety like that has less gluten. If you are going to bake with whole wheat bread, you work with the recipe or you may cut it with a harder flour. It’s suitable for cookies, pancakes, pies - you name it… you can make just about anything you can think of. We have high quality wheat and the fact that it is fresh makes a big difference. It’s milled from the grain fresh and it could make it to Lupi’s in a day or two - sometimes the same day. Some of the flour you see in the markets may have been on the shelf for three or four months and no telling how long their grain had been in the silos.”

Robin uses Tennessee Hotel Supply's freezer, another big step that requires a lot of work. With many man hours dealing with such a large amount of grain “we have to stack some of the pallets by hand, climbing up and down with 60-pound bags.”

Wheat is a very heavy product and for the volume, it goes for a very low price. “We had to hire a semi to get it up here to Chattanooga… to bring 45,000 pounds here. That cost money - the fuel it takes makes this expensive to do. We don’t have local competitors… our competitors are peoples' mindset. People have an idea of what they want to pay for a product. When prices around us go up on foods, it is “sticker shock”. It's peoples’ perception on what food is worth. It costs us more and we put more into it. We care for it with our hands. We don’t have a huge mill, we don’t have a fleet of semi-trucks… we have to do it all ourselves and that’s why it is so Important for people to support local growers.

”In this economy, we all want to save money and cut corners, but people are cutting out the local growers to save a few pennies, which hurt us all in the long run. We are putting our money into the wrong investments for our country."

Wheat makes a sticky protein that is gluten. The more gluten you have the more the bread will rise.

The grain is a seed. Every seed has three parts. It is the plant's way of reproducing itself. Robin says, “The bran, the wheat germ, the embryo… and the starch. When you freeze it, it does not kill the plant. It doesn’t change the properties for baking at all. The germ has 19 vitamins and minerals, the bran has fiber, the starch has energy. The germ is full of nutrition. White flour has no germ, no nutrition. Whole wheat is the healthiest. White flour is pretty much cosmetic, and some people like the taste, but whole wheat is far superior nutritionally speaking.”

After three seasons of growing, Robin insists, “We want to grow the business. What’s holding us back is the mill’s capacity. We sell a lot of pounds of flour. The mill can only produce so fast for us.”

Maria plays a big part when they go to the market. She also takes care of PR, photos and answers emails and she uses the flour for baking. Maria makes samples for people and their customers ask for recipes. She likes to give them ideas on what they can do with the flour. She says, “I am not a farmer, but I would love to learn to drive a tractor. For now I love to help people at the markets, and answer questions.”

Maria never thought she would be involved in a farm operation. “People are interested in what we do - they want to know how we take care of the land and are sustainable.”

To contact the folks at Sonrisa Farm, visit their Facebook fan page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sonrisa-Farm/130760846980671
or email them at sonrisafarm@gmail.com

Jen Jeffrey
jen@jenjeffrey.com



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