She grows... sponges?
September/October 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Megan Silcott and Kevin Burke
Central Coast farmer shares her love for luffas
Farmer Deanne Coon grows an unusual crop—luffa sponges—in two climate-controlled greenhouses in Nipomo. She harvests about 6,000 a year.
Think farming is a dirty job? Not for Deanne Coon. In fact, you might say she's got one of the cleanest jobs around. The Central Coast farmer grows luffas—those soft, sponge-like gourds favored for cleaning projects from bathing a baby to washing a car.
For Coon, the idea to raise the unusual plant happened purely by accident: She and a friend were given a handful of seeds to grow and describe for a botany project in college.
"I remember thinking, 'Gosh, I hope I can get these things to grow. Otherwise, I'm going to fail the assignment,'" Coon recalled with a chuckle.
She got them to grow all right—they grew into a full-time career. Coon now owns and operates The Luffa Farm in Nipomo, where she grows and sells luffas, makes soaps and lotions, and offers tours to curious visitors.
"They are always amazed and they say, 'Wow, I never even knew you could grow luffas,'" Coon said. "And they're confused that the farm isn't at the ocean. When you say the word 'sponge,' most people automatically think they grow in the ocean."
The fact is, Coon grows the luffas in two large, climate-controlled greenhouses. But even the most favorable conditions don't guarantee a good harvest. As Coon points out, luffas are plants with an attitude.
The big, yellow flowers of the luffa plant grow cylindrical green fruits that develop into fibrous seed pods.
"The plants are very picky. They don't like to touch the ground or each other. They will grow in every direction and their growing cycle is totally unpredictable," she said. "They either like you or they don't. And if the luffa plant doesn't like you, it won't grow at all."
The plants obviously like Coon, because she grows nearly 6,000 luffas each year.
As Coon explains to visitors to the farm, the luffa is a member of the cucurbitaceous family, which includes gourds, pumpkins and cucumbers. Like those plants, the luffa plant is made up of robust vines with big, bold, yellow flowers. Once pollinated, the flowers grow cylindrical green fruits that will eventually develop into fibrous seed pods.
At maturity, when the pods turn brown, Coon peels off the dead outer layer to reveal the sponge inside.
And it all occurs on the plants' own schedule. Some days the plants don't grow at all; other days they'll grow more than an inch. But the result is always the same: Whenever the gourd reaches its maximum weight for the vine, the vine cuts off nutrients and the gourd begins to dry out.
"It eventually turns from green into a solid brown color and at this point, you can simply peel it and discover the luffa hidden inside," Coon said.
Coon said visitors often remark how different her luffas feel than the ones they are accustomed to.
"The ones you buy in stores are usually grown in other countries and chemically treated and vacuum-packed," she said. "That's why they are usually pretty hard and scratchy compared to ours."
California Country TV host Tracy Sellers discovers an unusual crop in San Luis Obispo County.
By contrast, Coon gently washes and air dries the luffas she grows for a soft, non-abrasive product.
"I never, ever thought I'd be a luffa farmer," she said. "But now, every time you mention our luffas, people are just so happy and amazed."
And the result of that college project?
"I didn't get an A, which kind of irritated me at the time," Coon said with a smile. "But that's OK. I guess I've had some good hands-on lessons over the last 25 years, so maybe I've learned a thing or two about them after all."
For more information about The Luffa Farm, visit www.theluffafarm.com.
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Luffa definition and details
- The luffa is a member of the cucurbitaceous family, which includes plants such as gourds, pumpkins and cucumbers.
- Contrary to popular belief, luffas grow on a vine in the ground—not in the ocean.
- A luffa is a bathing sponge used primarily to exfoliate skin.
- Deanne Coon uses heirloom seed that yields a soft, non-abrasive sponge. This makes them handy for washing more than just skin, including cars, toys, golf clubs, dishes, sinks, floors, walls and windows.
- In Asia, luffas are widely grown for culinary uses. These varieties are edible only when immature and are cooked like zucchini.
- The word for this plant has many spellings. Luffa and loofah are among the most popular—and both are correct.