Cherie Rutherford helps low-income food entrepreneurs market their products even when the produce isn't in season, and teaches them how to track inventory and sales in the digital age. Lolita Lopez reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on Jan. 8, 2013.
Fernando Lopez of Rios Farms doesn't mind toiling away on his farm of 5,000 fruit trees in Banning, where he sometimes works seven days a week.
"I love the work. I love what I'm doing," he said. "I feel like I'm rich because I am doing what I like to do, more feel rich when I see people eating my stuff."
Wife Margarita shares his love but not the work that happens off the fields – like tracking inventory and sales.
"It used to be by hand," she recalled. "It would take me weeks sometimes to keep everything straight for the end of the year."
Now these farmers have Cherie Rutherford, founder of Kitchen Food Ventures. Rutherford has been able to significantly cut down the work that once took Margarita hours.
"I want them to do everything they do a whole lot easier. I'll give them all the tools they need to be successful," Rutherford said.
The former paralegal took her decades of writing briefs and transferred those skills to developing grants to help local farmers.
She connected with the Lopez family and others by canvassing markets across the region, inspired by her own past. Both her grandparents were farmers.
"It always has a tender spot in my heart because my mother would always talk about what hard work it was," Rutherford said.
To help maximize their businesses, Rutherford provides computer classes for farmers. The 10-week course costs $40 and gives participants laptops to take home.
"This is the first year that the USDA said no more written paperwork. It all needs to be submitted online," said Darlene Dehoff, a sheep farmer from Yucaipa.
That's one of the reasons the 50-year-old sheep farmer said she took the course. It helps her keep tabs on the 55 sheep on her land currently; 27 of them are pregnant.
"I can put this all on a spreadsheet and figure out who's what and where. When anybody is going lamb, what I'm spending on my feed, my grain," Dehoff said.
Margarita said the computer course helps her manage “how much we cut, how much we lose” every month on her farm.
Part of Rutherford's mission is to maximize the farmers’ products even when their crops are not in harvest season.
Rutherford plans to show farmers, like a strawberry grower, there is more value for their produce.
"Strawberry tea, strawberry punch. I have them taking that strawberry and given him a whole 12 months of making money on that one product," Rutherford said.
The transformation from fruit to other products will be done at a commercial kitchen she plans to open next year in Gardena for low-income food entrepreneurs.
"One of the things that we are going to do out of the kitchen is we are going to contract local farmers to buy our produce from," she said, effectively making even more connections from the fields to our tables.