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farm hunting

February 17, 2011

one of the great things about spending the past few months looking for a new place to farm is that i’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of farms. people welcome me on to their land, and we walk around and talk about the layout, the soil, the plants, the water resources, the people connected to the farm, their approach to farming, and visions for the future. since i’ve been considering both working on existing farms and starting my own, i’ve also seen farms in all sorts of stages of development, from an unimproved field that still needs to be cleared to acres of tidy rows of vegetables.

my grand tour de farms really started in fall 2009, when i spent a week on the central coast checking out everywhere i might do an apprenticeship while i was visiting california from chicago. besides blue house farm, where i ended up in 2010, i also met the new flock of laying hens at fifth crow farm, helped clean onions and took in the ocean view at freewheelin’ farm, did a self-guided tour of live earth farm while everyone was off at the pre-thanksgiving farmers market, and learned about the challenge of dealing with symphylans at green oaks creek farm. over the course of the 2010 season, i visited all of those farms again, plus a handful of others, during Central Coast CRAFT field days. so by the time i started looking for my next farm home last fall, i was used to showing up at a new farm, getting the lay of the land, and asking lots of questions.

round 2 of farm hunting started with petit teton farm, a family homestead near booneville, CA. they run a small CSA, delivering to their neighbors in san francisco, and are preparing to expand. they’ve done a lot already, especially considering that none of the 3 family members who started it had much experience growing food before they began. they were getting started on building a commercial kitchen when i was there, so they can do a whole range of value-added products for their CSA.

next i visited county line harvest, a 25-acre farm in petaluma, ca that this year launched a satellite farm (county line south) in thermal, ca to keep up with winter demand for their baby head lettuces and specialty greens. they also have a “rogue market” program which allows customers to order a box of mystery produce to pick up at a restaurant or market in their neighborhood, rotating through different locations. at county line i learned the difference between watercress and ancho cress, packed some lovely boxes of mixed heirloom kale, and harvested some of their famous baby lettuce.

in november and december, i joined two tours of available properties with california farmlink. for the most part, these were not active farms, but land with potential. landowners contact farmlink to list their land as available, and farmlink helps match people who want to farm with those pieces of land. with reggie as our guide and conversation starter, we visited with landowners at 3 properties in the pescadero area and, on a separate trip, 2 sites in the santa cruz area. one property (a former lavender farm) boasted a small greenhouse, a lavender drying shed, and a still to make essential oils. another had pomegranate trees, berry bushes, a fantastic ocean view and an old barn under renovation. at another there was a 2-acre vineyard, inhabited by an adopted donkey, plus a hoop house and 5 acres of cleared ground ready to plant. many possibilities and unique features at each property, tempered with potential challenges we openly discussed, the most recurrent being lack of housing for the farmer. it’s a huge issue, especially in these areas where renting another place off site is not only inconvenient for access to your crops, but also prohibitively expensive.

in november i headed to hidden villa in los altos hills. i joined a group of adult and teenage volunteers on a sunny wednesday to pull tomato stakes out of the ground and remove drip irrigation from the fields. at hidden villa they use sturdy round drip hoses with an emitter every 12 inches. they’re bulkier and more expensive than the flat t-tape i’ve mostly used, but with good care they can last a decade or more (t-tape survives 2-3 seasons if you’re lucky). the farm manager, jason, taught me their system for rolling up and storing the hose for the winter, which involved pulling 2 hoses taut on the ground side by side, creating a 3-foot diameter loop and tying it tightly with twine, and then rolling that loop along the length of the hoses to create a neat, easily carried and stored coil. after the workday we shared a potluck lunch featuring lots of tomatoes harvested from the now unstaked fields.

i also visited a farm on mt. veeder, a relatively unknown (and beautiful) mountain on the west edge of the napa valley. the farm is part of an artfully landscaped estate, featuring many varieties of fruit trees — apples, citrus, pineapple guava — as well as perfectly arranged vegetable gardens, a big greenhouse, chickens, an apple barn, a vineyard, and many ornamental plants and natural areas. the farm is transitioning to growing organic chinese medicinal herbs as its primary crop for market, a relatively untapped niche in california.

wrapping up 2010, i visited alba‘s training farm in salinas as part of the orientation to their small farmer education program.  given that it was december 23rd, it got dark early and it was hard to see much. still, the other participants and i got to see cilantro that had netted one woman several thousand dollars in her first year farming, and hear about the cooperation necessary among the farmers leasing land in the incubator to make sure enough people water their crops at once that the water pressure is right. we were also entertained by several black farm cats who scampered through the fields in the dark.

stay tuned for part two, featuring my 2011 visits to two farms in the midwest and more back in california…

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