A Clean Crop
Story by Natalie Caudle
Photos by Monica Fatica
BY A FLUKE, Nathan and Sherri Pauls struck gold in the sponge harvesting industry. Nestled near the Wahtoke Creek in Reedley, the Pauls have built a successful business growing and selling organic luffa sponges. Four years ago when the Pauls moved onto their homestead, Flying Cows Ranch, they had planned to raise grass-fed Angus cows and hay. While unpacking, Nathan came across an “ugly gourd” Sherri had been given. A farmer by nature, Nathan couldn’t help but plant the gourd seeds; “I will grow anything I can get my hands on,” he says. To Nathan and Sherri’s surprise, not only did a flourishing vine sprout, but a new business had been sewn.
Nathan recalls the first gourd harvest. “Once I got them growing, I did some research and discovered they were probably luffa gourds. I went on YouTube to see how to clean them and started using them in the bath and sink. After virtually a year, we were using the same sponge in the sink.” The Pauls were shocked by the resiliency of this backyard-grown sponge and Nathan’s entrepreneurial spirit took the stage. After more research, Nathan discovered that luffa sponges were the most popular sponge prior to World War II and an excellent alternative to the synthetic chemical-filled sponges popular today. The Pauls grew 100 more luffas and began giving sponges away to friends and family, curious if the luffa craze would catch on. Indeed it did.
In early spring 2018, the Pauls increased their crop, built a website and Luffa Gardens was born. With two seasons of harvest, one in July and one in November, the Pauls have found themselves in a labor-intensive industry. The gourds are planted, picked, peeled and cleaned by hand. Rising before the sun, Nathan spends his days tending to the flowering yellow crops, answering customer service questions and filling orders to be shipped across the states. Sherri, too, cares for the crops in the evenings after a day of teaching first grade. “I really enjoy working out in the vines, trimming, weeding and even harvesting the luffa. It’s a real treat and break after a hard day teaching rambunctious little kids. It’s a great, relaxing therapy for me,” she says. The time outdoors and the connection to the earth feeds the Pauls’ souls.
On a Thursday evening in the heat of summer, you can find the Pauls at the Clovis Farmers Market, sharing stories and selling organic luffas and homemade soaps with tantalizing scents of lemongrass and lavender. But the Pauls are most at home on their land. “If we could, we would live outside,” Nathan says. As true lovers of nature, the Pauls have developed a symbiotic relationship with a local bee farmer. Flying Cows Ranch now houses beehives, helping both gourd production and the local bee population, a true win-win on Mother Nature’s scorecard.
The Pauls couldn’t have imagined an old dried-up gourd would hold such promise. “I never thought I would do something like this. I love this business and how it has taken off,” Nathan says. As Valley natives, the Pauls are ecstatic to have brought a new crop to the flourishing local agriculture industry. Sherri is delighted that so many people are interested in the unusual product, and she’s amazed by the “incredible positive reaction from so many people.” Much like that of a fairytale, the Pauls have found a flourishing future in the hope of a few old seeds. •