Fallbrook area still a perfect spot for farming

Kenny Fietz, farmer and owner of Kenny's Strawberry Farm in Rainbow, with a vine ripened strawberry from his fields. Shane Gibson photos
Kenny Fietz, farmer and owner of Kenny’s Strawberry Farm in Rainbow, with a vine ripened strawberry from his fields. Shane Gibson photos

Strawberry farm finds a home in Rainbow

Lucette Moramarco
Staff Writer

Ever since Vital Reche came to this area in 1869, looking for good farming land and mild weather, many people have followed him here for the same reasons, including Kenny Fietz, who found the perfect spot for a farm in Rainbow.

Kenny’s Strawberry Farm features one of the crops that Mr. Reche himself planted along Live Oak Creek. While customers can pick the fruit themselves at his U-pick site (just like in the past), Fietz uses modern farming methods to produce strawberries.

Growing up in Temecula, Fietz did not have access to a high school agriculture program as Fallbrook High School students do, but his father, Ken, was a strawberry farmer for many years and Fietz started working for him when he was 16. Eventually, he talked his father into experimenting with hydroponics to grow strawberries on a farm in Rainbow starting in 2010. Ultimately, the method was not successful with strawberry plants, he said.

However, Fietz had his eye on some open land just east of Old Highway 395 and Interstate 15, north of Mission Rd., with growing conditions just perfect for strawberry plants. Kenny’s Farms is in its second year of production at 953 Rainbow Valley Blvd. as Fietz put in his first planting in October 2014.

“Farmer Kenny” gives tours to educate anyone interested in what it takes to produce strawberries. Now managing his own farm, Fietz said he and his crew planted 100,000 bare root strawberry plants the first week of last October; those plants started producing fruit in January, and will keep supplying berries until July.

The strawberry plants grow in raised beds covered with plastic sheeting to prevent weeds from growing. They are watered by drip irrigation and Fietz has the neighbor across the freeway, Moon Valley Nursery, bring bees over to pollinate his berry plants.

At the end of the season, they will pull out the plants and start with new ones in October. He said that the plants would produce for a second year but the quality of the strawberries would not be as great and the quantity would be less.

He is growing just four of the thousands of varieties of strawberries that exist, he explained. The Fronteras strawberry is “big, beautiful, tastes great, and produces a lot.” The Monterey variety produces its fruit in May, June and July. The other two varieties are the San Andreas and Petaluma, which is a new one.

His modern farming strategies also include integrated pest management which employs organic methods first in combating pests. He said that spider mites are the worst thing. “We brought out predator spider mites to eat the bad spider mites,” he explained, adding that the predator spider mites die when they have finished their job.

Fietz also said that while many farmers spray sulphur on their crops to combat powdery mildew, he does not as “there’s been a rise in sulphur allergies in children.” So, instead, if the problem is significant, he sprays traditional fungicide to knock the problem out for most of the season. “We most commonly spray organic seaweed, fish emulsion, calcium and, if necessary, we use various insecticides and fungicides. No fumigants are ever used on our field,” Fietz said.

He consults with a pest expert when needed to keep his plants in good health, “adhering to high standards of safety with the latest methods,” he said. The strawberries are then picked when ripe for the best taste as well as the best appearance. He explained that “strawberries will continue to color, but will not ripen after picking.”

“I love farming,” said Fietz. “I went to school for it and wanted to do something with kids. It is a happy business.” With an agricultural business degree from Chico State, Fietz has a lot of knowledge to share. “I am the ultimate strawberry nerd,” he said.

“Dad loved getting out of the big commercialized farm, focusing on kids, community, and schools to educate kids on how strawberries grow,” said Fietz of their experience at their first plot of land in Rainbow.

Last April and May, several school groups from Fallbrook, Temecula, and Murrieta traveled to Kenny’s Farm on field trips to learn where their food comes from. A troop of Girl Scouts were able to earn a merit badge on a trip to the farm, too, while groups from senior living facilities have also toured the site. They learn about the importance of bees, Fietz said, and the progression of flower to strawberry as it grows, adding that he is looking forward to more groups coming this year.

Fietz sells strawberries at stands in Temecula and Murrieta as well as local markets, but the focus is on the U-pick business. In March, he had five workers who picked berries early in the morning to take to the stands. By June, at the peak of the season, he will have 10 to 12 workers doing the picking.

The leader of the crew is Rodolfo, who has been working with the Fietz family for 10 years. “He is the man,” Fietz said, “I wouldn’t be able to do it without him.” The busiest time of year on the farm is April, May, and June, when the strawberry plants are in peak production.

Fietz’s earlier experiment with hydroponics has not gone to waste. Hydroponically grown vegetables and herbs are also being produced and are now available at the farm stand. They include butter lettuce, cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers as well as the herbs basil, thyme, and rosemary.

Fietz explained the process of growing produce hydroponically. With this method, he uses coco fiber (the husk of the coconut), which absorbs water to keep plant roots moist and intact, instead of soil, in stacked pods. A liquid mix of nitrogen, potassium, macro and micro nutrients is dripped down the stack of pods to feed the growing plants.

According to Fietz, this method saves 85 to 90 percent of the water needed to grow earthbound plants. Because the pods are vertically stacked, they also take up less room and make it easier to pick the produce.

The farm stand also sells oranges and avocados that come from local growers. Jams, made from the farm’s strawberries (a little bit of each kind, including any bruised or beat up ones), along with butters (including apple pie and pumpkin versions), all made by a local resident, are also available.

Besides strawberries, the farm produces onions (grown in the ground), watermelons in the summertime, and pumpkins in the fall. To go with the pumpkins, the farm brings in a petting zoo consisting of pigs, sheep, goats and a Shetland pony supplied by friends. While they offered Christmas trees last year, Fietz has decided not to carry them again as they were imported from Oregon and he wants to stick to selling local products.

His latest plan is to plant blackberries on an adjacent spot, starting in June or July. He also hopes to partner with an area school to teach gardening with hydroponics, another way of giving back to the community. The farm is open to visitors Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., while the strawberry stand is open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (unless they are sold out or their supply is low due to weather)

Fietz’s wife, Amanda, handles tour reservations as well as field trip scheduling and fundraising opportunities for schools and sports teams. Tour and contact information can be found at www.temeculavalleystrawberryfarms.com/.

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