Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter is for visiting California farms!

With all the stories of snowstorms and below zero temps happening in the northeast, I thought I'd take the time to boast about our California vacation, and share some photos from farms Luke and I have been visiting on the west coast. Farming is a very different game out here, but we're learning a few new things we can take back with us.
We visited Full Belly Farm, the CSA I used to be an intern at, where I first got to experience the full-time farming life. They just keep expanding. Over 1200 CSA members, they sell to every local gourmet restaurant in the Bay Area, grow fruits, nuts, sheep, chickens, dry beans, mill their own corn and wheat flour, and the second generation is starting a catering business.We liked hanging out with their animals. We want to do hens like this-- happy hens that run around eating bugs and green grass. This makes the yolks so orange! And the jersey cows, we want one of those too. (Eventually)
We visited friends in Los Angeles for a few days, and got a glimpse at the glamorous farmers markets in Santa Monica and Hollywood. Things cost a bit more, and there are avocado, citrus fruit, and olive oil vendors, but things are about the same. Except they have this really cool cafe right next to the Hollywood Farmers Market, called the Farmers Kitchen. They use surplus produce from farmers, host classes for the community, and make jams and sauces. Part of the same non-profit that runs the markets. Nice!
And of course, we did some barn dancin'... this at Pie Ranch, near Santa Cruz. I can't wait until we get a barn someday and we can have a string band play for a bunch of smiling people twirling around.
Now on to the urban farms of San Francisco. We had heard much good press about a few projects in particular. Hayes Valley Farm is one amazing place, set on an empty lot (a whole block actually) owned by the city, that used to be a freeway ramp before the '89 earthquake. It had lain vacant since then, becoming a forest of ivy and trash. Some inspired folks turned it into a center for educating urban dwellers about growing food.
Because they only intend on occupying the space temporarily (the lot will no doubt get developed soon-- it is San Francisco after all), they decided to leave the asphalt and concrete in place, and simply build soil on top of it, that they can then move to other gardens when the bulldozers come. What a creative concept! They throw down layers of cardboard 5 feet thick, then a bunch of horse manure, then wood chips-- all of which they can get delivered for almost nothing, and which biodegrade into a rich soil.
They plant lots of leguminous plants to enrich the soil with more nitrogen, and when we visited, they were harvesting swiss chard, collards, broccoli, lettuce, arugula, and more.
Their big mission seems to be community education and empowerment-- we participated in a thorough tour of the place, guided by a volunteer, with 30 other folks. It's a hot spot. People from the neighborhood were weeding, pruning, and harvesting, and learning about beneficial insects and companion plants.
They even had this solar-charging station, where you could sit at a table and plug in your laptop, phone, moped, etc.
Another cool garden project in the city was the "Free Farm" located on a vacant lot where a church had burned down, right downtown. They had beehives, fruit trees, and beautiful crops of fava beans and kale.

We took some time to see a beach or two.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is one of the biggest and fanciest around. The historic Ferry Building was renovated to be a permanent indoor market, with local vendors set up to sell things like wild mushrooms, organic beef jerky, and fresh oysters.
One of the largest "stores" in this foodie shopping mall was Capay Farms - the largest CSA in the country. They deliver CSA boxes all over the west coast.
A bit less flashy, but just as noble, is Alemany Farm, located on a piece of unwanted ground in San Francisco-- right next to the freeway, housing projects, and on a steep slope.

But it was inspiring to see how many volunteers came out for the work day. We helped them weed, mulch, and fertilize their apple trees. We had fava greens and kale for dinner.
Another inspiring story is Little City Gardens, a one-acre lot crammed in between rows and rows of houses, hosting two young entrepreneurs who want to see if they can make money farming in the city. An ambitious goal indeed.
They just got started, and plan on selling their crops to restaurants, mostly focusing on salad mixes. Land tenure was the main issue-- with the land valued at two million dollars it would be impossible to buy. Another issue that came up unexpectedly was the fact that it is illegal to sell crops grown in San Francisco! They are working on changing this outdated law, so they can continue on with their business plan.
Me and Brooke in her cabbage and kale rows...
Luke and I attended the Eco-Farm Conference, the biggest organic farming conference on the west coast. We learned LOTS and met a bunch of great people. Here are some photos from a bus tour of farms in the Salinas Valley we went on!

This greenhouse is filled with basil. It smelled great, as you can imagine, and was about 95 degrees. This contraption below is a "Bug-Vac"... organic farmers have to be creative, you know.
You may have seen herbs from this farm in your supermarket-- look for "Jacob's Farm" or "Del Cabo", in little plastic clamshells. Although I applaud them for practicing chemical-free growing, I still question the need for a million square feet of greenhouses and excess consumer packaging for a crop that everyone could grow easily on their back porch (or U-Pick at their local CSA farm!)
They did have some handsome cover crops in some of their greenhouses that I was impressed with-- grown just to restore the soil diversity and organic matter.
On the bus ride through the valley we passed a lot of fields that looked like this:
Any guess what is growing there?
Strawberries. Yep, almost all the strawberries in the country come from this place. That's right, those Driscoll Berries you bought at Wegman's last week, they were grown in these fields of plastic. The black plastic mulch keeps the weeds down, and warms the soil. You can use straw to keep the weeds down too (that's probably how strawberries got their name). But no one uses straw here, not even the organic growers. Everything is streamlined, and operations are often thousands of acres. And don't even get me started about Methyl Iodide, used for soil fumigation. The land is so expensive, due to amazing soils and nearby development pressure, that farmers can't afford to rest the land in cover crops, or sometimes even plant anything but strawberries. So they have a lot of diseases from growing strawberries after strawberries for years in the same ground. So they sterilize the ground with some pretty nasty chemicals. Below you can see the hedgerow of native plants (on the right) planted by the organic farmer we were visiting-- a stark contrast. A pocket of diversity and verdant life in a sea of sterility. After seeing those expanses of plasticized fields I think differently when I see a strawberry now. Hopefully we can grow some soon!
On our way back to the conference, we stopped by an organic sheep dairy and tasted some delicious cheese. It was run by two young women farmers, and they were just starting out. There is an amazing number of dedicated young people who are getting into the organic farming movement, and it is inspiring to see. I look forward to getting back to the east coast, though, where water is plentiful and land is more affordable.
Oh, and did we mention that we took the train out here? Amtrak, all the way -- New York to California in three days. Can't wait for the ride back.

1 comment:

Craig said...

Great post, Erin!! Lots of wonderful pics, much food food for thought. Sounds like a really good "perspective break" for you. -Craig