Eat, Drink, Savor: Going beyond the Swank Farms corn maze and pumpkin patch

With the attention that Hollister’s Swank Farms gets every October for the Swank Farms Experienceits yearly corn maze and pumpkin patch event, it is easy to forget that Halloween is only a small part of Dick Swank’s contribution to the economics—and healthy food choices—of San Benito and Monterey Counties.

Selling his produce at 16 farmer’s markets from San Francisco to Monterey and supplying three dozen high-end restaurants in San Benito, Monterey, and Santa Cruz counties, Swank gets two crops a year off his 105 acres of farmland.

“I like everything about farming,” Swank said. “Growing good food, eating good food. And I like the challenge of the work—it is humbling to be a farmer.”

Swank began as a cattleman, bringing his cows from Calistoga to Hollister in 1974, to a 200-acre rented property near the Hollister Airport. The next year, he accepted a government buy-out and changed careers.

“I could not stay awake past 9 pm,” he said. “I was working 365, no vacations, no days off, no nothing. Just milk the cows, feed the cows, grow the feed—it is a tough life. And we were so small, with only 135 cows when the state average was 800 cows. We were working ourselves to death and not making any money.”

After selling the cows, Swank grew hay, which he describes as “kinda boring.” He switched to vegetable farming at a 60-acre property he now refers to as the “home ranch,” located just behind the 21-acre corn maze property which he bought in 2017.

“We started with ornamentals, like pumpkins, Indian corn, and gourds,” Swank said. “Then we started with tomatoes, which became my favorite. The first time I planted tomatoes, I fell in love with them. We were one of the first in this area to grow heirloom tomatoes, right out of the gate, with a few hybrids mixed in.”

Swank saves the seeds from the best of the over-ripe tomatoes to use for the next year’s crop.

“It has been paying off,” he said. “Over the last few years, our tomatoes have been just exceptional, nice and uniform, and very easy to sell.”

As the farm became more successful, Swank switched to year-round growing and expanded into farmer’s markets. He had the luck in 2000 to meet his future wife Bonnie, who brought the farm to a whole new level in terms of marketing, direction, and visibility before passing away in 2021.

“Bonnie brought everything we needed,” he said. “I met her after I made my first corn maze, and she said, ‘You need me to design those.’ She told me, ‘I want to put Swank Farms on the tip of everyone’s tongues,’ and she did it. She was so dynamic, and she had a passion for the farm.”

Though the corn in the maze is the most recognizable symbol of the farm, it is only seven acres of the 15 devoted to the crop and not the kind of corn that goes to the market. The ears are larger and thicker than sweet corn and much starchier—perfect for swank to use in his tortilla chips, but not for the dinner table.

“The corn maze corn is good if you are hungry,” Swank said. “But we are not that hungry here. If you put enough butter and salt on it, you might like it, but it is bred for silage, to be fed to cows and pigs.”

Eight acres of sweet corn are planted in the back part of the farm, and there is a lot of demand—new crops are planted every week and a half.

Swank credits a large measure of his success to the loyalty of his employees, who work six-day weeks and get overtime pay at time-and-a-half.

“Corporate farms have five-day weeks, and all the profits got to the owners and the stockholders,” he said. “If you pay people well, they stay. I have people working for me who have been here for 20 years or more, and I pay them as much as I can because I do not want them to leave. It makes for a better business if you treat your employees with respect.”

Walking through the fields at the end of the season, swank points out the last of the tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, lettuce and other vegetables that will be cleared out next month for the winter crops. Seven acres are still devoted to pumpkins, which are being harvested to fill the bins at his pumpkin patch.

Fifty of Swank’s 105 acres are dedicated to organic farming, and he is working on converting another 20 acres. He is also increasing the number of plastic sheets he puts down with his plantings to cut down on weeds and conserve water. Water, he says, is the most critical issue for farmers at the moment.

“We are lucky because we have our own wells,” he said. “But the problem is huge. Federal water is better than our water, Shasta water from the snow runoff, but it just is not available. I think we are OK for a couple of years because our water table is so high. But sooner or later, we gotta have rain. A lot of rain.”

Maintaining the farm is only part of the business. The corn maze and pumpkin patch are profitable, as is the Swank product line, which includes fudge, salsa, and tortilla chips. Swank is also expanding his brewery and will reopen with collaborations from some of the best local brewers, including Brewery Twenty-Five, Mad Pursuit, and Suncoast Brewery.

Through it all, Swank remains humble. “I think of us as an oversized garden,” he said. “Our secret is diversity, with the crops we grow and with our events and other products. We could not survive without all these things, and we are very lucky that the community supports us in so many different ways.”

The Foods of Swank Farms

Swank Farms Corn – How do you review a staple as common as corn? The trick is to get the corn as fresh as possible before the sugars become starch. And there is no better way to eat it than raw, warmed by the sun and straight off the stalk. “We sample it to the kids that way when they come here on tour,” Swank said. “Some kids won’t eat it that way, but about 90% do, and they get a big kick out of it.”

Swank Farms Salsa – “We have been making salsa for around 20 years, Swank said. “Everything is fresh and sourced from the farm, which is the key. We have mild salsa, hot salsa, and corn salsa, and just started selling a cooked salsa, where we blend everything together. Next year, we hope to be selling tomatillo salsa as well.” The mild salsa is fresh and bright, with just enough habanero peppers to add a little heat without distracting you from the taste of Swank’s beautiful, richly flavored, heirloom tomatoes. Though not on the market yet, I also tried the green salsa, which uses uncooked tomatillos, cilantro, and peppers, blended into a thick soup consistency. It is several notches higher in heat, but the freshness of the ingredients still shines through. This will be worth watching for when it is released to the markets.

Swank Farms Fudge – At peak production, Swank Farms produces about 700 pieces of fudge a week in half a dozen flavors. The traditional chocolate fudge is there as well as a version with walnuts, but I tried the Apricot and Dulce de Leche versions. Both use a decadent vanilla fudge as the base, with chopped Blenheim Apricots in one and a swirl of deep caramel in the other. It is irresistible; I suggest buying this one when your doctor is not looking and eating it in small slices. Both of the ones I tried were very good, but I give the edge to the apricot version because of how well the vanilla harmonizes with the Blenheims.

BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.

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