Monday, June 30, 2008

BFM summer farm tour (2008)

A few weeks ago I had the fortune of going on a summer farm tour with the Berkeley Ecology Center as part of their Farmers' Market Community Advisory Committee. We headed south to Hollister to see a few places, then over to Aromas and finally Corralitos. It was a full day, packed with home made mezcal, bovine escapee stories, a kiwi forest, free flowers and to top it all off, a scoop of delicious ice cream.

Our first stop was Catalán Farm in Hollister. María greeted us with agua fresca, mezcal, and about the warmest smile you can imagine. Her farm is a testament to the knowledge gained through a life of work in the fields. Like here, where after walking out to her corn, she goes on to explain why the chard is occupying the same space. You see, she planted her corn three times this year due to poor weather beating down the tender starts each time they tried to make a go of it. Making the best of two bad storms and a lack of water (this necessitating the renewed use of an old well) she figured, hey, if I plant my chard there too, then at least I'll be able to harvest something. María has the entire plan for the farm in her head and making adjustments like this are just part of how it goes if you are trying to squeeze in a crop despite mother nature's plans for it's demise.

Being there, I got the impression that I was walking with an encyclopedia of hard earned wisdom. Every few rows there was a different crop, often with several varieties growing together. Or as with the corn and chard combo, sometimes different crops all together. A patchwork of color, we strolled along and I imagined myself picking up the ingredients for a nice salad. Drop by her stall sometime at any of the Berkeley markets. Or read a bit more here about María Catalán, and then go buy something from her farm. You won't be disappointed in the produce or the service.

Moving lengths of metal irrigation piping over several acres is tough with a team of 4. Imagine yourself doing it alone. Like Efren. He must not know the word for sleep. He literally does nearly all of the work at the farm by himself. If there is a superhero of hard work, then he is the one man wonder of Avalos Farm. Fruits, veggies, rooty things........he is the man. I've always wondered why his stuff is so good and amongst the cheapest at the market, but I guess when you never sleep, you learn a lot about growing stuff because you never miss a thing.

Looking out at his land, at first it was hard to tell what was what. I'd see some crazy tall weeds and think it was a fallow area, only to realize that I was also looking at artichokes, tomatillos, carrots, beets and a few potatoes. The strawberries were clearly defined, or about as clear as anything was and this was what enchanted me the most about his farm. Efren grows a lot of weeds at his farm. I'm sure they are impossible to get to as a one person operation. But, they act as cover crop and as long as the rest ain't suffering, why bother. I'm sure he stays on top of invasive stuff, but I got to thinking and when you add them to the biomass of produce he brings to market, it helped me give a new definition to productivity of a single farmer.

A very practical man, anything growing will at least feed the few cows he has. He keeps them in certain areas to avoid eating his valuable produce. This is not how they started out though. Efren didn't intend to own a few cows and start ranching. You see, his neighbors cows got out through the fence and when Efren started work one morning, the entire herd was on his farm. Chowing down on some tasty stuff we were told. When it happened again, a deal was worked out and few never went back.

After Efren's place, we ventured over to San Juan Bautista and had some artichoke enchiladas in historic downtown. I wandered over to the Mission to look at the chapel where my great, great, great grandfather was baptized back in the 1830's when this was Mexico. It was easy to imagine the main street in town not having changed a whole lot since. Cars now, sure. But there are also still places you could tie up your horse and the building across from where we ate was dated 1799. This was one of the hearts of farming and cattle back in the beginning of professional agriculture in California, so it seemed very fitting for a rest stop while out touring modern day farms.

Have you ever seen a kiwi forest? I never had either and in full summer leaf with tiny little fruits on it was a veritable thicket of trees. Sure the trees are laid out in neat rows on a steep hillside, but with how kiwi climb and wind around stuff and get all contorted in the process, the thought "this is what they call a riot of growth" is what came to mind. Robin explained to us that kiwi need pollination, so there are 1 male for every ten females on the property. The flower and growth patterns set them apart visually until the fruit is bearing, but with the tangle of green and the beauty of the farm, I never quite got it straight.

One thing I did learn about kiwi however was that here watercress grows at the bases of their mature 30 year old stock. Planting crops that work well together is one reason Four Sisters Farm has been around for 30+ years. Based on their following at the markets, I'd say they've learned a thing or two. Stuff is packed into their hillside. What will be cut flowers were in rows between everything. This farm is a happy, hyper-productive place. It's easy to imagine four little girls growing up here. All grown up and gone from the nest these days, the nurturing is now full time in the garden.

Blue Heron Farm used to be on another property years back where their namesake would nest in the trees. Apparently some still occasionally do even though the property is different. Avian nesting continuity aside, the passion in the place is readily apparent. Order is the first thing that came to mind when we arrived and saw crops. It wasn't just weed abatement that gave the sense, it was the close planting and uniformity of individual species that impressed. Dennis talked of bio-intensive land use, cover crops, and his fortune of being so proximal to the coast. This means that much of what is harvested can be done early in the morning when it is nice and cool and doesn't need to go in the fridge to be shipped off the farm. That means sometimes much of what comes to market hasn't even seen anything much below 50.

Their small hoop houses used for starting seeds were just packed with little gems. Being cooler than most other farms, the start the plants get is a boon to production and allows the farm to keep rotating crops frequently, leaving very little down time except for the winter. Dennis had a tractor mounted planting frame, designed by experience and many splinters that allows them to efficiently get the starts into the earth. Well planned, orderly and efficient, it's no wonder places like Chez Panisse count on getting some of their produce here.

At the end of a long day, we were sent home with a fresh bouquet of flowers. It was nice to literally smell the farm all the way home. We pulled out back onto pavement and drove on through Santa Cruz, making sure to stop at Marianne's to sample one or two or five of the 70+ flavors made in right in town.

Damn, I sure love field trips!


K & S said...

what a great field trip :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Bro. I ♡ these farms and farmers (and all the rest at my local farmers market).
Marianne's ice cream! It's been too long...

Monkey Wrangler said...

Kat: Indeed! Thanks for coming along!

Sis: Awwww, sheesh, let's drive to Santa Cruz for a triple scoop sugar cone. Maybe avocado, then macapuno, all atop Kahlua crunch!