Amigo Bob Cantisano was a true politician and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He passed away the day after Christmas 2020. Amigo changed my life, and if you care about clean food, healthy soil, and a sustainable future for us on this earth, he helped to change yours too. I’m convinced that it would have taken a lot longer for conventional agriculture to change its tune about organic farming practices if it had not been for Amigo’s persistence, determination and leadership.
Was it really 33 years ago? I can still remember the day I met Amigo Bob and Kalita Todd for a job interview at their home in a community in Grass Valley. It turned out to be one of the best days of my life. He ran Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, located in a shack in the middle of the woods up on the San Juan Ridge outside of Nevada City. I remember thinking it was a cool place with lots of great tools and supplies for gardeners and farmers and, if you were one of the lucky ones to get Amigo on the phone, loads of useful advice. I got a job there, my background was in Plant and Soil Science, but this gave me focus and direction pointing me into the world of sustainable agriculture.
At the time “Organic” felt like a movement. To be in it was to be surrounded by like-minded people that became lifelong friends. We worked hard to create ways for farmers to grow food without heavy chemical use. Amigo was one of the masterminds and many of us were on his team. Eventually I found myself involved in all sorts of sustainable agriculture activities and for the next 11 years I lived a rich life, much of it under the guidance of Amigo Bob.
Amigo was a lot more than a shopkeeper and farmer. He was a leader in the organic movement and I was a dedicated understudy. I worked with him to present and lead the day long “Sustainable Agriculture Conference Series” held in the places and focused on the crops that used the most pesticides across the state of California. This was one of the projects shepherded by the organization that Amigo founded, known at the time as The Committee for Sustainable Agriculture that eventually became the Ecological Farming Association.
The Committee for Sustainable Agriculture worked tirelessly to persuade conventional agriculture leaders and university agriculture departments that sustainable agriculture was in their best interest. I remember sitting in a meeting in a living room with Amigo and others on the Committee discussing the UC Extension Advisors that were our backroom supporters. These were the first Farm Advisors that were willing to dip their toes into the world of sustainable agriculture. It was a quiet bunch, and they tiptoed out onto the public stage with the help of Amigo’s encouragement.
At the time, doing these conferences was like walking uphill backwards, there was hardly a UC Co-op Extension agent that would say the words “Sustainable” or “Organic” let alone speak on the subject. As the lead organizer of these conferences, I was the one cold-calling UC Extension offices and researchers to invite them to speak. The most memorable day was calling Kern County Extension and having one of the guys say, “what is a woman doing calling to ask about agriculture”, and then responding “no way” would he speak on sustainable or organic farming practices. And then, there were the quiet ones that gladly joined the conversation. We had to carefully craft the topics around their expertise such as cover cropping in vegetables or mite problems on Strawberries or mildew on Grapes. But the point is, we got them in the room and the conversations grew from there.
These same extension agents later went on to start new research projects that would help pave the way for bringing evidence-based science to normalize the practices of cover cropping, or planting beneficial hedgerows, and that by adopting these practices farmers would end up using less pesticides.
When we got frustrated with the resistance from conventional agriculture, Amigo would be our biggest cheerleader, reminding us that there was more work to complete. He carried the torch into the future initiating and completing very important work. He had as many projects up his sleeve as a magician has tricks. One year at the Eco-Farm Conference, along with the wine tasting, Amigo surprised us by bringing 10 different varieties of Olive Oil to taste from olives that he had grown. He was extremely interested in rare fruits and he loved encouraging growers to plant beneficial insectaries. His work became global and eventually farmers from Europe to Central America were calling on him for advice and to help solve their problems.
It’s been many years now and lots of us have watched the organic story unfold. We truly were the frontline workers of that movement bolstered by Amigo’s vision, confidence, and dedication. There were lots of us that helped make the changes in agriculture that led to the organic farming laws and institutions we have today. Amigo would credit the farmers that were willing to try something new, the farm advisors that eventually came out in the open, and the willingness of those within the university establishment for having taken these risks to step out of their comfort zone. Amigo was a master of laughing things off and just kept going. He also knew how to have fun. I enjoy remembering how the talent show at the Eco-Farm conference was one of his favorite events to MC, and he loved the farm tours filling us with stories as we rode the bus with him from one farm to the other learning everything we could from farmers working hard to grow food organically.
And now we have what he has left for us – a goldmine of gifts and a boatload of work still yet to do. Thank you, Amigo, for being a pioneer for the Earth, and for all your encouragement and for your work ethic and love. I am grateful for our friendship and your big smile and you are forever in my heart and in the hearts of many.
© 2021 Essay and Photos by Starling Linden.
Starling Linden has been a part of the organic and sustainable agriculture community since 1987. She worked for the certifying organization CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, and the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture for over ten years. She has worked in nurseries and on farms, is an artist and a little more recently, Andy’s partner and working with him on Mariquita Farm.
Top photo: Amigo Bob conducting a farm tour, Central Valley, 1989.
Not all gifts arrive wearing a bow. One of the best gifts my father ever got me was a big pile of dirt. I was five years old and a pickup sized load of topsoil was deposited in our backyard. My father explained that it was all mine and that I could run my trucks and tractors there without pesky regulations getting in the way. What he meant, of course, was that I could no longer run my bulldozers through his petunias. I loved the dirty gift then, and I love the fact that every time I get really dirty I still remember my dad and that moment in 1964.
As “down to earth” as that gift was, another of the best gifts I’ve ever received was also from my father, but of a more cerebral nature. Both my mom and my dad were educated in little red, one-roomed rural schoolhouses and it amazes me to think how much things have changed, they were both taught Latin. I say “taught,” not “learned” because I’m not sure that the lessons were learned by both parents. My mom told me that one of the examples of recess time doggerel that she could remember was the saying, “Latin is a dead language. It died across the sea. It killed the Greeks and Romans, and now it’s killing me.”
But my father remembered his Latin. And because he became a botanist, and because the International language of botanic taxonomy is Scientific Latin, my father had frequent occasions to understand and use Latin as a living language. Dad taught me how language could be understood as more than a convention of arbitrary marks and sounds with stupid arbitrary rules of grammar. He explained what scientific words meant and how you could decode names and turn words into games if you took the time to understand the “roots” of the word. The scientific name for the mint family, for example, is Labiatea, from the Latin “labia” meaning “lips.” The name was given to this plant family because their flowers typically have petals that are fused to form a tube with an upper and lower lip, or labia, at the opening
Getting turned on to the fun of treating language as a code makes everything more interesting. We live in between the communities of Corralitos and Salsipuedes, for example. Spanish is simply an evolved form of Latin that’s been mixed with Arabic and various indigenous pre-Columbian languages so reading our local road signs and looking to the roots of place names makes for a fun exercise in learning history. “Corralitos ” means “little corrals,” and points back to the redwood fairy rings that once served the Spanish conquistadors as little corrals for their donkeys and horses. “Salsipuedes” means, “get out if you can” in the colloquial Spanish of the Mexican cowboys who chased their longhorns through the woods here before the Goldrush, and refers to the steepness of the canyon and the impenetrable brush of the neighborhood.
Having fun with language helped me to learn Spanish, which in turn has made my time working with Mexican farmworkers so much more interesting and valuable than it otherwise would have been. I’m thinking now of Fidel, who is the foreman in our greenhouse, and who shares my interest in plants. Starting several years ago he began lobbying me to grow “Hoja Santa.” “Everybody uses the leaf,” he told me, “fresh when they can get it that way, dried when they can’t.” By “everybody” he means “everybody he grew up with in Oaxaca.”
“Hoja Santa” means “Holy Leaf.” But Hoja Santa isn’t a botanic term- it’s a colloquialism, and I often hear the crew call the plant “Yerba Buena,” which means “Good Herb.” So before we planted any of Fidel’s Hoja Santa I hit the books to read up on the plant. Most plants that are called “holy” or “good” are very scented with healing properties, and an astonishing number of them are mint family relatives- the Labiatea with the flowers with lips all pooched out to smooch. Basil is a mint family member. So are the sages, rosemary, mints, shisos, thymes, catnips, oreganos, marjorams, nepitella, horehound, chia- the list goes on and on. I guess my father also gifted me with his love for plants.
But Fidel’s Hoja Santa turned out to be Piper auritum; a pepper plant, related to the Black pepper that we use on our eggs and in our soups and stews. Hoja Santa has a strong, sweet aroma of anis. The plant is no relation to true anis, which is in the Umbelliferea, the “umbel” referring to the umbrella-like shape common to the flower heads of the carrot family. Hoja Santa is also used, as an herb in egg dishes and in soups and stews but it is sweet, not spicy like it’s peppercorn cousin. We’re pruning the plants back now because they’re crowding the aisle in the greenhouse, but also because Fidel tells me “everybody needs Hoja Santa now to make pozole.” Well, maybe “everybody” isn’t making pozole, but Hoja Santa is a good herb for many other soups and stews. It’s also used to wrap cheeses in because it imparts some of its scent to the cheese and is delightful in egg dishes.
When I think about the scientific names of plants my father comes alive for me again, and that’s a gift. I wonder what gift I gave him that meant a lot? One gift I gave my father still means a lot to me. He wasn’t an easy person to give things to because he didn’t really want much and didn’t seem to need much (except for peace and quiet). He had simple tastes and was always satisfied with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Expensive bottles of wine would have been wasted on him – he drank water. But I observed that he enjoyed marmalade, so every Christmas I’d go to the Mediterranean Market in Carmel and get him little ceramic pots of orange, lemon, and lime marmalade imported from Scotland. Now we’re picking our own lemons and Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove, CA. is making marmalade for us that is available for purchase on its own or in our citrus gift bags. Our lime and orange trees are growing right behind the lemons and will be ready to harvest in a couple of years. He’d like the marmalade and I like to think that he’d like to see what we’ve done to the family ranch. My father gifted me a quarter interest in this property and I was able to gradually buy the rest of the family out. With this land, just like his love for language, for plants, and for soil, my father gave a big gift that keep on giving.
Happy Holidays to all of you, from all of us at Mariquita Farm!
© 2020 Essay and Photos by Andy Griffin.
Hi Everybody: For years now we’ve called the mixed produce boxes that we have been packing and selling as “mystery boxes.” So, why?
It’s an inside joke, I guess; sometimes it’s a “mystery” to me as to how we’ll get the produce harvested, packed, and delivered on time. A lot of things can happen between the time I give Shelley the list of what I intend/hope to put in the box and the moment that the cartons are opened and emptied by the home cooks. We strive to deliver value to our supporters in every box, but sometimes nailing an explicit list made days in advance down to the last letter and leaf can be challenging. Maybe I made a mistake when I looked at the fields and calculated the yields and we came up short on a promised item. Or maybe a sudden freeze, rainstorm, heat wave, or hail storm ruined the produce I’d planned on picking, and I have to improvise. Or maybe there’s a power outage the day of the pick and we can’t pump water to wash muddy produce or water the crops that are still in the ground….and it’s really hot. Or the field conditions are optimal but, since we don’t have a big crew, if somebody gets sick and can’t work we’re short-handed. Or somebody’s child has to go home from school and the parent can’t stay at work because they can’t find child care at the last minute, so we end up one person short. And, because all of our people ride share, if a driver has an issue we may lose the entire car load of workers who no longer have a way to get to work. There are a lot of potential issues that can unfold during a busy day that affect the composition of the final box. But sometimes all the stars line up and everything gets harvested just as I planned- today is one of those days- and the only mysteries remaining are for the people who receive the harvest box and ask themselves, “what is this? What do I do?” Here are some thoughts in case you’re mystified.
1. Little Gem lettuce: They make great salad lettuces but Gems can also be cooked too. See “Chinese Lettuce” below.
2. “Celtuce” aka Chinese Lettuce: The Chinese appreciate the stems on their lettuce because they can be chopped into coins and stir fried. The leaves can be cooked as well, but also serve well in salads.
3. Italian Parsley: I like to pick parsley with long stems. Parsley is a close cousin to celery. If you look at the parsley stem and imagine it to be vastly fatter you can see the family resemblance. Sure, parsley leaves are fine for salads and seasoning, but the minced stems have lots of flavor and can sub for celery in many dishes.
4. Beans: Whatever kind you get this week, be they Cranberry, or White or Scarlet runner beans, remember that these beans are very fresh and won’t take nearly as long to cook as the dried beans from the supermarket, which can be quite old by the time you buy them. There is no need to soak these beans overnight. I learned to just boil the beans until tender in unsalted water, then add any seasonings you might want later. For me, a pat of salted butter and some black pepper is enough for a satisfying bowl of beans. Easy!
5. French Breakfast radishes: Radishes for breakfast? I don’t know about that, but they’re great raw or cooked like baby turnips. Cook the radish greens or use in salads.
6. Meyer Lemons: Yes, Meyer lemons are sweeter than Eureka or Lisbon lemons, but don’t forget that half the flavor is in the peel, not the juice. I’ve been making simple syrups by cooking the zested rinds with sugar water. The lemon infused simple syrup is great for lemonade or limoncello. Lemon zest can jazz up shortbread cookies too. I use lemon juice instead of vinegar in many of the salads that I make.
7. Pomegranates: Yes, pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants, so they make a healthy addition to salads or to eat out of hand, but they can also be juiced to make a killer cocktail when antioxidants sound boring. We garnish guacamole with pomegranate seeds too, and they can be a nice surprise in a green salad.
8. Winter Squash: Some of you may receive a “Doran” squash, which is a small, round Butternut variety, and some of you may receive a Napolitano squash, which is a larger, longer Butternut type. Either way, these squash make great pies, soups, and roasted dishes, and they can be stored for a year if kept in a cool, dry place. Both of these squash types are open pollinated, heirloom crops, so if you’re a gardener you can save the seeds from the ones you receive and plant them next year.
9. Red Beets: Beets are great, but too many people forget that the greens are as good as chard. In fact, beets are the SAME PLANT as chard- Beta vulgaris- beets just have fat roots. The beets would be nice roasted with the French Breakfast radishes, the round carrots, and any potatoes you have lying around.
10. Round Carrots : These small, round, sweet carrots eat well out of hand, but their shape helps them roast well, and they’re also good for blowing little kids’ minds, because their shape is surprising.
11. Spigariello: This kale cousin is actually better at being kale than most varieties of kale are; the leaves are tender, cook fast in the wok or pot and they make a nice layering leaf in a veggie lasagna. The plant is Brassica oleracea- exactly the same as kale- so it can honestly be used to make a kale salad that is better than kale salad.
12. Arugula: Yes, arugula is good for salads and pesto dishes, but this mustard green marries well with the Peanut based sauces that show up in Thai food.
One of the big mysteries remaining for me is “how mild and negotiable is this winter weather going to be?” I’ll find out in the fullness of time. For now we’re planting like there are going to be no problems. Spinach is sizing up, cauliflowers are buttoning up inside their big floppy leaves, the broccoli is thinking about heading up and green garlic is almost ready to plant. Thanks, Andy
© 2020 Essay and Photos by Andy Griffin.
Thanksgiving marks the end of the season for the farm in a way that New Year’s Day simply does not. Apart from sowing a few beds of quick turnover crops in the protected cover afforded by our greenhouse, our planting schedule is always suspended from Thanksgiving until the first of the year. The days are so short and the nights are so cold at this time of year that anything we plant now will not mature any sooner than the same crops planted after the New Year, so why bother planting, watering and weeding? It’s smarter to wait and plant in the new Year. The crops we’re harvesting now through February were all planted back in August and September so the die is pretty much cast by Thanksgiving. And by March we’ll be picking the crops we will sow in January. For the next month or so we can count on a period of relative calm; busy for the hours we’re working, but not crazy busy, and the more relaxed schedule gives us time to think about next year- and to give thanks for the help we’ve received this year. It’s been such a crazy year and I’m grateful we made it this far.
We want to thank you, because without your patronage we’d be out of business. And we owe the pick-up site hosts a big “thanks” for their generosity in sharing their homes and business with us so that we can share our harvests with you. And I want to single out Victoria Libin for a special note of thanks. When the initial Covid shutdowns shuttered the restaurants that we counted on to buy a lot of our produce we were in a tight spot financially since many of them were unable to pay their outstanding bills promptly, leaving us without the cash flow to continue. Because Victoria was familiar with the restaurant business she saw the problem developing from afar and called me to offer to help bankroll production to keep us going. It didn’t turn out that we needed the help, but her timely call gave my spirits a real boost, just knowing that there are folks out there who have our back. Thanks, Victoria. And a big thanks to Thomas McNaughton of the Netimeas Restaurant group. Thomas presides over three restaurants in SF: Flour and Water, Central Kitchen, and Flour and Water Pizzeria. He’s been hit hard by Covid, and his response has been very community minded and he’s opened up his Central Kitchen space to farms so that they could have a place to distribute their produce to their supporters. Thanks, Thomas.
She probably didn’t know what she was getting into when she got tangled up with me, but my partner, Starling, deserves a lot of thanks. When Covid hit and we couldn’t afford much help she jumped in and helped jump start the farm for a new chapter. She started by reorganizing the packing shed so that the two of us could do the packing by ourselves, and she’s been relentlessly enthusiastic, even when I’d get discouraged. And she’s packed A LOT of boxes. Thanks, Starr.
Shelley wasn’t planning on having a crazy 2020, but it happened anyway, and she worked overtime to help get the farm up to speed for all the new problems. Besides handling all the daily sales she also took the lead in getting us a whole new website and e-commerce platform so that we could survive in the new Covid world. (Shout out to Travis and Kim at Aptos Village Creative!) And Shelley’s persistent good will and attention to detail is always welcome, even when we’re not in a plague scenario. Thanks, Shelley.
And then there are all of the so-called “essential” workers to thank. Yes, they were essential in this Covid year of 2020, but they’ve ALWAYS BEEN ESSENTIAL even when so many people didn’t notice and I’d like to thank them by name. Seeds don’t plant themselves, vegetables don’t hop in the box, and the cartons of produce don’t trot themselves to market; people do the work, and this year more than most, the people doing the work have had to put themselves at risk to get the job done. I’d like to recognize and thank Abisai, Jose, Nataneal, Maria, Gayle, Jovito, Elias, Eliza, Rodney, Fidel, Carmen, Federico, Claudia, Neftali, Gildardo, Rebeca, Ramon, Maria, Luis, y Efrain. Thanks. Gracias.
We wish you a peaceful and happy and healthy Thanksgiving. Once the holiday is past I’m going to get started planting for years 2022 and beyond! I’ve got another 60 young citrus trees to plant — more Bearrs limes, some Rangpur limes, Yuzu limes, plus some Sudachi, a few citrons, and a few more lemon. And I’ll do some picking. The citrus I planted several years ago are now yielding so I’ll be picking a crop of lemons to take to our friends at Happy Girl Kitchen so that they can make marmalade for us. 2021 is going to have some sweet moments no matter what else happens.
Thanks again from all of us here at the farm!
© 2020 Essay and Photos (except as noted) by Andy Griffin.
Photo of Gayle at Piccino Mystery Thursday by Debra Baida.
Photos of Ladybug host sites by Gayle Ross.
The Latin word, “radix,” meaning “root,” is the “root word,” so to speak, for our modern word “radish,” as well as the related mathematical term “radical,” the political adjective “radical,” and the technical botanical noun “radical.” Today we’ll stay grounded in the kitchen and discuss the roots we eat.
I remember a woman who stopped by my farmers’ market stand in San Jose many years ago. She looked at a large pile of bunched radishes that I had heaped up. “Those look awfully small for beets,” she said, “but they’re a pretty purple color.”
“They’re not beets, I replied. “They’re ‘Plum Purple’ radishes. It’s a Japanese variety. The flavor is the same as a red radish, but Plum Purple radishes stay nice and crunchy and mild, even when they get quite large. And the Japanese appreciate the greens as a leafy vegetable for cooking up or putting in soups, so you can see the leaves are long, tender, and smooth.”
“Radishes are supposed to be red,” she said. “A purple radish? I could never try that.” And she scurried off.
“Wow,” I thought. “She doesn’t like to be challenged to try anything new in the kitchen.” Every culture has certain foods that they esteem more than others. Here in the United States we’ve made a popular fetish out of our tomatoes; seed catalogues show off an amazing spectrum of heirloom tomatoes in all their myriad colors, we prize our beefsteak tomatoes for how big they get, our gardens showcase many varieties of cherry toms, we have our favorite tomatoes for sauces, and salads, but when it comes to radishes many Americans are not yet so sophisticated.
The Plum Purple radishes on my market table didn’t stay lonely and rejected for long. San Jose is home to an amazing diversity of people and the purple radishes with the big, tender, leafy greens were soon snatched up. My experiences in farmers markets taught me that Asian cultures in particular value radishes and that there are just as many varieties of radish available to plant as there are tomatoes. In an effort to widen my own farm’s appeal to a broader public I began to plant more radishes and read up about them in cookbooks. And the more I read about radishes the more surprised I was. It turns out that the long rooted form of what we today call the “Black Spanish” radish is one of the earliest kinds of vegetables that farmers ever developed, and it may be the most ancient vegetable crop that is still cultivated in its original, antique form. Before the black radish was “Spanish,” it was Egyptian, and laborers who built the pyramids ate them daily.
I learned that there are radishes cultivated for their seeds which are pressed into cooking oils. There are radishes that are grown for their edible, crunchy green seed pods, which are cooked as vegetables. There are radishes grown specifically for their leafy greens that are harvested and bunched, like mustard greens, and there are radish varieties that have been developed to be used as cover crops, never eaten, but designed to be tilled under to revitalize the soil. And then there are the radishes that are grown for their edible roots. If you’re a home gardener and you want to try some of these more exotic radishes you should check out the Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland, California. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Their most recent catalogue that I’m flipping though now lists 45 different radish varieties! I guess that’s not too surprising. The Kitazawas are Japanese Americans, and the Japanese in particular have a deep appreciation for radishes.
I’m smiling now, because I’m remembering a lovely fall morning several years ago when my friend, Toku, came to visit me at the greenhouses that I rent from the Nagamine family. Toku brought a friend with her who was visiting from Japan to visit my farm and the two women were chatting in Japanese when my landlord, Senior Nagamine, came out of a greenhouse where he was growing a crop of daikon radish. Mr Nagamine is in his mid 90s, but farming has kept him young at heart. Hearing the two women speaking Japanese put a smile on his face and he greeted them warmly. After some initial salutations and introductions he invited us all to inspect his daikon crop. Toku and her friend were charmed and delighted- two farm visits would be twice as fun!
Did Toku like daikon, Mr. Nagamine asked? Of course Toku likes daikon. So Mr. Nagamine stooped over to pull out a fat, long, white daikon root from the ground. The radish was a good twenty inches long. Senior inspected it carefully. Unfortunately, near the tip of the root he discerned a bit of root maggot damage- just a tiny bit, to be sure- but Mr. Nagamine prefers that the produce he sells, and especially the produce he gives to guests be flawless. These days Mr. Nagamine focuses his growing operation on the production of organically cultivated traditional Japanese vegetables, specializing in the varieties he grew up with as a child in his home village of Kagoshima, Japan, but for many years of his life he grew cut flowers. If the customer expects the rose or carnation or the chrysanthemum to be perfect, why should they settle for anything less with the radish?
So he pulled another giant radish from the ground. This one too displayed a tiny imperfection. He was about to pull a third up when Toku stopped him. These radishes would do just fine, she said, and the imperfections were only a reminder of how the crop was grown naturally with no pesticides. Mr. Nagamine stopped pulling up radishes, and he was happy that his two visitors were happy, but he did apologize because this daikon crop was actually a Korean variety, and not the Japanese kind his guests deserved and that he usually planted. We all had a laugh at that, but it reminded me how the Koreans too are a culture that takes their radishes very seriously.
This week in your harvest box we’re including some Korean purple daikon. These radishes are very beautiful and mild flavored. They can be used in salads, and I like to slice them into thin coins and dress them with just a squeeze of lime juice. But they’re versatile. These daikon could be used in soups, cut and cubed and roasted, stir fried, pickled, shredded for slaw, and even juiced. I’ve even seen artists carve them into beautiful shapes, transforming these simple smooth roots into flowers, koi fish, and purple swans. They will also keep for a long time in the refrigerator if you don’t need a salad, a soup, a pickle, a stir fry, or a purple swan. Over the course of the cooler months we’ll see a variety of different radishes as each variety comes into its best season. By April 15th the radish concert will have been played through and we’ll begin planting our tomatoes. When we know all the vegetables the world has to offer we can have a fun food fetish for every season!
© 2020 Essay and Photos by Andy Griffin.
Concerning the Piennolo tomato, there’s a noted Bay Area restaurateur who shall go unnamed because, despite my present state of mild annoyance, he is a charming individual, smart and creative, who pays his bills, and has always been generous to me and my farm. But the dissonance- I wouldn’t call it a conflict- between our perspectives does make me think about the roles that marketing, advertising and “branding” play in our lives.
At its best, advertising is simply story telling. Granted, advertisements are stories told in the service of commerce, because a “happy ending” has the consumer buying into the plot line by purchasing the targeted product, but there’s no reason that an ad has to be full of lies. An effective promotional campaign can even be a vector of useful information. With the Piennolo tomato there is a compelling narrative for the salesman to recount that pushes plenty of happy buttons; traditional family values, bright flavor, simpler times, rustic charm, Grandma’s kitchen, country living etc…As it was promoted to me by the restaurateur in question the story goes something like this:
There is in Italy a delightful, open-pollinated, traditional variety of tomato known as the “Piennolo.” Not only are the Piennolo’s small, firm, fruits packed with flavor, the plant is indeterminate, meaning that the fruit set occurs over a long season, not all at once as the determinate tomatoes do. Modern tomato varieties that have been developed for mechanized agriculture are typically determinate so that the growers only need to run their mammoth harvest machines through a field once. To accommodate their production contracts large scale operations will plant sequential crops of determinate tomato crops that roll off, one after another, to accommodate the schedules of the canneries or the marketing commitments of the retail distributors. Machine harvesting is efficient, but there are costs, and sometimes flavor is the price the consumer pays for cheaper food.
The Piennolo tomato is not only indeterminate, it’s also quite sturdy, and it can yield a tasty harvest even long after other, more commercial, varieties have dropped dead from mildew. The Italian peasant farmers that first cultivated the Piennolo learned to pull their plants from the ground before the first frosts and hang them from the rafters of their cottages. As the green Piennolo plants withered, even the last green fruits on the vine would slowly turn red, so the cook of the house need only reach up over her head to pick some tomatoes, made all the more flavorful by being so luxuriously late. (Yeah, I wrote that; maybe it could be “his” head but I always heard that it was Grandma doing the cooking)
Ok; so that’s great. My friend, the restaurateur, was hoping I’d grow this tomato for him. It could be a great crop for everybody. He could have a lovely, distinctly Italian tomato to sex up his menu deep into the fall. The diners would get to appreciate true, traditional Italian cooking that they’d otherwise never be able to taste without going to Italy, and I’d get a new product that I could sell late into the fall and keep my cash flow pumping after the main tomato crop had been turned under. I was interested, so I hit the books and I did some online research.
Slightly different versions of The Tale of the Tasty Piennolo were not hard to find online. So I poked through my seed catalogues. Try as I might I could not find seed for Piennolo tomatoes. The closest I came was a tomato called the Principe Borghese, which looked the same in photos as the Piennolo. I bought some Principe Borghese seed and planted it.
Like the fabled Piennolo, the Principe Borghese was a strong plant, apparently resistant to just about every disease. The variety thrived under a dry-farm regimen, requiring no irrigation whatsoever to produce an indeterminate crop of small, firm, flavor-packed tomatoes deep into the late fall. And, like the Piennolo, Principe Borghese sported a curious nipple at the end of its small, cherry tomato sized, almost pear shaped fruit. I liked this tomato a lot, and was excited to show it to the restaurateur who had suggested the Piennolo to me.
My customer friend’s chef de cuisine liked the tomato too, but not enough to buy any. “If it’s not a Piennolo, it’s not going to work on our menu,” he said. I understand branding, so I understood where he was coming from. The restaurant wanted to promote the dishes that they’d planned for the Piennolo and they had a story they were excited to tell. Maybe the Principe Borghese looked and tasted like the Piennolo but when you’re putting your reputation on the line and you’ve got snarky critics to satisfy you wouldn’t want to go with an off brand tomato. So I harvested my crop and introduced the Principe Borghese to my customers, to people like you.
I kept looking for Piennolo seed, season after season. And I kept growing Principe Borghese. I kept offering them to my friend’s kitchen. And I kept on thinking that the Principe Borghese really was just the Piennolo tomato under a different name. I considered just calling my Principe tomatoes “Piennolos,” to get the sales, but as much of a hustler as I am, I didn’t want to be the guy in the parking lot selling fake Rolexes.
So then last fall, my friend, Annabelle, called. She had some Piennolo seed just arrived from the Boot. Did I want any?
Well, yes I did. Annabelle’s offer made me glad that I hadn’t “rebranded” some knock off cherry tom as a “Piennolo.” She’s always been the person I knew with the best, truest, varieties of traditional crops and I wouldn’t want her to catch me cheating.
So this year I planted the true Piennolo. And you know what? They are EXACTLY the same as the Principe Borghese, not “like” the Principe- they’re the same plant. Are we in some sort of Champagne scenario where you can’t call the tomato the “Piennolo” if it’s not grown on the slopes of Etna? Are they changing the Tomato’s name at Ellis Island? Or maybe the Piennolo’s different American name is due to some sort of witness protection program kind of situation? So now I’m kind of cross; I finally have a tomato- the same tomato- that I can produce for my customer, and Covid has destroyed this season’s restaurant business.
So now I only have you. You and your home cooking have kept our farm plugging along since 1998. And I’m grateful. We’ve tried to keep our place at your table by growing the tried and true, and we’ve tried to maintain your interest, and our own, by offering some new and different crops. So here’s an old crop with a new name, or at least a different name, and now you know why. No, I’m not going to pull up the plant so that you can hang them from your rafters. You may not have rafters, and anyway it would be a mess to ship. But we will have some late Piennolo tomatoes for you. There was a slight frost last night, so the end of the tomato season is near, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the last Piennolo tomatoes are still good to eat even after the election. Now make sure you vote, and please VOTE TO GET THIS OFF BRAND MUSSOLINI OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE!
© 2020 Essay by Andy Griffin. Photos (except as noted) by Andy Griffin.
Top right photo of Piennolo (or are they Principe Borghese!?) by Shelley Kadota.
If you’re not “at home” with ambiguity, surprises, and triage as a lifestyle, then farming probably isn’t for you, but even by that measure 2020 has been extra special. Now, as the days get shorter, the nights get cooler, and winter lies just over the horizon, it’s natural to take a deep breath, look around, and… First, there’s the climate to consider.
Dennis Tamura, my friend and neighbor who runs Blue Heron Farm, just down the road, asked me the other day how I was planning and planting for the winter. “We use to wrap most harvesting up by Thanksgiving,” he said, “because after that it was too wet, but now it seems like there’s been a shift and we can keep going all the way through December. But the rains seem to come later now and it’s harder to get an early start in the spring.” I agreed. Yes, it’s only anecdotal evidence, but our climate does seem to be changing in ways that already affect our behavior. I told Dennis I’m still planting some salad and cooking greens in my outdoor ground that I’m planning on picking into the new year, but because I can’t trust the weather to “stay put” I’m also planting in the greenhouse so that, one way or another, I’ve got crops to pick. For each of the last several years we’ve had enough late rain to delay our entry into the outside ground I’ve got here in Corralitos until May. And, just to be really sure we have a harvest we can count on, we’re also planting out in the Hollister-Gilroy area of San Benito County that we know as “The Bolsa” because it’s in a rain shadow of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Even when it’s raining on this side of the hill it’s dusty 30 miles to the east. Right now we’ve got chicories, lettuces, and brassicas, like cauliflower, planted over there.
Then there’s the political climate to consider. If the vagaries of the weather weren’t enough, many farmers have to keep an eye on the political climate. Stone fruit growers, for instance, can be dramatically affected by policies out of Washington that would seek to sharply limit or decrease the supply of immigrant, migrant labor. Since native born people seem absolutely unwilling or unable to do this work, there have been in recent years, many examples of fruit crops falling from the trees or rotting on the ground. I’ve noticed that there’s more open ground around Watsonville than I’ve ever seen as berry farms have shut down or moved to Mexico in part because of persistent labor shortages. Grain farmers who count on foreign demand to keep prices up can also suffer when Federal embargoes affect the market. None of this ever affects me directly because we have a diverse planting schedule for fresh produce sold locally but I do need to make sure I have steady work for my crew all year long because the housing situation is so dire that if I lay people off seasonally they’ll have to move to someplace where they can afford the rent and then I’ll struggle to replace them. We work all year long because we have to- not because it’s easy to farm in the winter. We are planning on shutting down for a week or so round Christmas though, just to rest. And later, from the third week of January through the second week of February, we won’t be harvesting, but we will be doing production work in the greenhouses ahead of our early spring harvests.
And then there’s the economic climate. This year, the Covid 19 plague, wiped out the restaurant market that we’d counted on for a substantial amount of business, and that forced us to make a series of rapid adjustments. Thanks to you and your support, we’ve been able to “weather the storm” so to speak. We’ve kept a crew going, kept planting crops, kept harvesting, and now we’re planning out year 2021 with you and your needs and expectations first and foremost in our mind. Some crops, like our artichoke crop, are already planted, and just waiting for the spring rains to come. For other crops, it’s time to buy seed ahead of the new season. I’ve already got potatoes in the cooler that are destined to be planted out in February- weather permitting. Seed got harder to get this year- and became more expensive- so I’ll be buying my seed earlier than I have in the past. And I’ve been saving seed from my own crops. Carmen will clean some bean seed this afternoon, beating on the pods with a stick and winnowing the crushed hulls away from the seeds, just like people have done for thousands of years. Some things never change.
Lastly, I’d like to thank our pick up site hosts. Without the generosity of our site hosts we would not be able to do this business. Shelley who has been our mystery box coordinator for some time now does an amazing job pulling all the pieces together necessary in making this a viable business. She works with the hosts and the customers with untiring customer service. Thanks to all of you we can provide a program that works! On a helpful note, in keeping the pickup site orderly we ask that everyone folds and stacks their boxes prior to leaving the site.
All of us here at Mariquita thank you for your support.
Andy and the crew at Mariquita farm
© 2020 Essay by Andy Griffin. Photos by Andy Griffin.
Starling is drying bales of Hoja Santa in the food dehydrator so our kitchen is enveloped in an aromatic, herbal haze, prompting me to think about breakfast, lunch, and history. Let’s look at the past before the repast.
History is written by the victors, not the victims, so when I was in kindergarten Columbus “discovered” America. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that history is “rewritten” by the victors. Our past is constantly undergoing reinterpretation as new information comes to light or as we mature enough as a community to look at the old facts in a new way. Also, the oppressed voices of previous generations don’t necessarily remain silenced forever. If a defeated community regains its sense of worth, then it’s natural that the people in it will begin to push back against a dominant culture’s version of history that chooses to ignore their past accomplishments, demean their historic role in creating our present or minimize their right to participate in planning our future. That’s where we’re at today in America, with a fraying establishment’s narrative undergoing some timely and therapeutic re-examination. If your sense of self-worth depends on a historical order that’s under re-evaluation then critical scrutiny by contemporary historians can feel like an attack. A foolish yet natural response of the frightened ignorati is to attack the messenger for bringing the news. So, for example, as the 1619 Project encourages us to reexamine our nation’s history of slavery and racism, it’s getting common to hear slurs being lobbed at the historians who would dare to take another look at our shared past – “communists, anarchists, socialists, liberals, terrorists, snowflakes, etc.” Universities get the brunt of the abuse because they are the vectors of learning and new ideas. But history isn’t just academic; it’s as down and flavorful as the crops in our fields or the food on our plates.
Of course, the myth of Columbus was always an odd half truth. It’s not only that the millions of people already living in the Americas in 1492 didn’t need Columbus to “discover” them in order to exist. Columbus crashed into America. He misunderstood the lands that he encountered upon crossing the Atlantic to BE India. But lots of money was at stake. The lucrative trade in Black pepper, Piper nigrum, that motivated investors to bankroll Columbus’s radical voyage across the Atlantic to India, was too important to ignore. So, to satisfy investors the native Americans became “Indians.” Lacking real black pepper to return home with, Columbus loaded up a cargo of the dried, spicy chilies that the Native Americans were cooking with and called them “peppers.” The American Capsicum species are not related to the Piper nigrum peppercorns of the “Spice Islands” that Columbus thought he’d found his way to, but they are spicy. It’s interesting that once the Spaniards discovered the Pacific and crossed it to Asia the residents of the real Spice Islands were more delighted with the American chili “peppers” than the Europeans who’d “discovered” them were. You don’t want to make blanket declarations about any continent’s culture, but it is true that the chili pepper slipped into Asian cuisines very readily. Today there are many varieties of chili that have been selected and improved by Asian farmers, but they all have their roots in the Pre-Columbian agriculture of the Americas.
Corn, squash, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco, chili peppers, chocolate….; the Native American farmers cultivated so many plants that became major foods for the rest of the world that it’s interesting to look at the varieties that were not immediately adopted by the rest of the world. Ironically, one Native American garden plant that Columbus didn’t “discover” was actually a true pepper variety, related to the Piper nigrum that motivated the Spanish adventure in the Americas in the first place, Piper auritum. The leaves of this plant have a rich, anise-like scent. While the Piper auritum has many names across Latin America- “Anisillo,” “Tlanepa, “Acuyo”- one of the most common names is “Yerba Buena” or “Hoja Santa,” which means “Good Herb” or “Holy Herb.” One problem for food historians is that a wide range of desirable herbs have been called “Yerba Buena.” What’s now the City of San Francisco was once the village of “Yerba Buena,” for example, and the “good herb” in this case was a native California mint family member. If the historical revisionists reject the community’s present name “San Francisco” because it celebrates Catholicism I can see the town’s name reverting to “Good Herb,” but that’s another story.
I started growing Hoja Santa because Matt Gandin, the Chef at Comal in Berkeley, asked me for some. I didn’t know anything about the plant, but Fidel, our farm’s foreman in the greenhouse, was very familiar with the crop so I felt comfortable giving it a try. Our friend and neighbor, Don Pablo, has a nursery, El Capulin, that grows a wide range of ornamental and edible plants that he sells in farmers markets so he set us up with some plants and we were off and running. The Hoja Santa plants grow big and tall. They require some protection from the cold of winter but they’re pretty hardy. Fidel tells me that “every family” in Oaxaca has an Hoja Santa plant growing in their yard, so it’s not worth a farmer’s time to produce the crop for sale, but the leaves are used in daily cooking. The big, heart-shaped, aromatic leaves are used to wrap fresh cheeses and they lend their scent to the food. Sometimes the fresh leaves are used as wrappers for other foods too, the way that corn husks are used to wrap tamales. And the leaves are dried and crumbled too, for use in egg and bean dishes, in soups and in stews. Because the Hoja Santa has a sweetness to it there are also a number of drinks or cocktails that can be made using it’s flavoring. In my own kitchen I’ve used Hoja Santa to flavor scrambled eggs and quesadillas. When it’s not so hot outside and my mood turns more to soup I’ll try it in broths. This Friday I’m thinking I’ll try some Holy Leaf cocktails!
The Hoja Santa plants stop growing and lose most of their leaves here during the cold weather or winter, so we’re drying what we can now while the plants are green and fluffy. We will be preserving other herbs too, as time allows. In the greenhouse we’re propagating more lemon verbena, oregano, marjoram, savory, thyme, rosemary, sage, nepitella, lavender and mints. We’ve been growing a lot of roses in the yard too- we’re up to over a hundred plants- with an eye to rose bouquets, rose petals, and rose hips. They’ve all got their uses in the kitchen and they’re all Yerbas Buenas.
© 2020 Essay by Andy Griffin. Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden
Covid creeps closer; a worker on our landlord’s farm fell ill and is in quarantine at present. I’m not too alarmed (yet) for our farm because we don’t share a workspace with that farm crew, we keep our distance, we have prophylactic measures in place, and the sick worker is being cared for. But I am angry. At a time when the country is threatened by this illness and so many people are out of work and struggling to pay their bills, it’s insane that the president ignores the advice of his own administration’s medical experts and holds mass indoor rallies to celebrate his vanity and trumpet his ignorance. What can you say about his so-called “conservative” supporters who seemingly seek to conserve nothing more than their own sense of privilege? Meanwhile, the essential workers, like the farm workers, must labor to survive in an increasingly dangerous environment. I’m mindful that no matter how careful we are at work, at the end of the day the workers must return home to crowded apartments where social distancing is impossible. For many farm workers the workplace may be their safest place. It’s hard to keep positive sometimes and I’m counting the days until I can vote for change. Meanwhile, we’re already planting the crops that we’ll be harvesting in what I hope will be a new era where medical science gets renewed respect.
The smoke has been hard to live with too. It’s been difficult to breathe at times, and every breath is a reminder of what we’re losing to the fires. As a farmer, it’s easy to observe how the smoke is slowing the growth of some crops. A friend with a fruit farm remarked this morning how her fig crop is ripening more slowly under these unseasonably dark skies. In our own greenhouse we can see how the arugula is responding to the lower light by growing slower and more etiolated. Climate change deniers, like Trump and the chumps who crowd his rallies, reject the idea that human activity is capable of changing the climate. But the smoke tells the truth. Poor management is the issue, says the man who bankrupted a casino, as well a number of other businesses, and he blames Democrat States for not “sweeping the leaves.” Of course, many of the fires are on Federal land- supposedly his jurisdiction and responsibility- so he’s an idiot who only speaks to “own the libs” and blame the victims. But even a broken clock is right twice a day; it’s true that poor forest management is partly to blame for these catastrophic fires, which only proves the point that human behavior DOES have a lot of influence on the climate. So, while we wait for an opportunity to depose the Twitler, we strap on our masks against the Covid virus and the smoke and we do the essential work of harvesting food. Right now we’re in the middle of tomato season, while much of the crop has been lost to scalding heat and disrupted markets, there’s still plenty to pick over the next month.
So things are sad, but one remedy for depression is to stay busy. We don’t have the luxury of hiding from the smoke but at least it smells great inside our house. The crew has been grooming the beds of perennial herbs, and Starling has been running the dehydrators 24/7, drying oregano, thyme, and marjoram. These aromatic, mint family herbs all go with tomatoes like cookies go with milk, so it makes sense to pick them now that it’s time to make tomato sauce for the winter. With so much uncertainty over the viability of supply chains we’ve noticed more interest on the part of the public to lay aside a stash of tomato sauce against the coming winter. Or maybe it’s just that being out of work means more people have time to make sauce. Anyway, our house smells like herbs and it’s great. And it’s good for the oregano, thyme, and marjoram plants to get a trim too; that way the plants don’t go to flower, but are stimulated to produce fresh growth. Oregano, thyme, and marjoram are perennial in this climate and will grow all year if encouraged. I want to have healthy plants come winter because these herbs also marry well with the soups, stews, and roasted winter veggies. Speaking of winter, we picked the first “winter squash” this week and you have them in the box. These are “small” Napolitano squash- and they are small, considering that the “big” ones reach 30 and 40 pound apiece. I’m still thinking about how we’ll move the whoppers. Cook Napolitano squash like their Butternut cousins. They’ll keep for up to year too, if you can’t use them now. That’s a fact, not Trumpstyle b.s. – keep the squash out of direct sunlight in a cool, dry space and they’ll only get sweeter with time.
Starling is also drying herbs for teas and herbal infusions. Yes, it’s an Allman Brothers’ tune, but “Sweet Melissa” is one name for Lemon Balm or Melissa officinalis, which makes a delightful tisane. It’s a mint family member too, and “Lemon mint” is another name for it. I propagated the plants we’re picking now from wild plants I found in the redwood forests 20 years ago. With so many local redwood forests burned I comfort myself to know that the redwoods will largely survive the fires and grow back. Sweet Melissa will survive too- she’s tougher than she looks. We might talk about about “destroying the planet,” but the planet is going to be fine. The cockroaches, the rats, the ground squirrels, and the flies are going to be fine- it’s our grandchildren who are going to suffer if we don’t take responsibility for our actions on the planet. A true conservative with family values would value the future; these Trump republicans are like locusts without the grasshopper’s ability to fly without burning oil.
Then there’s apple mint, another survivor. It makes a pleasing herbal tea and nothing can kill this plant! It does have a sweet apple scent, and it’s calming, which is always a good trait. I should drink some now!
And finally there’s Lemon verbena, which is not a mint family member. It makes a delightful tea with a flavor that is just the right thing to help ease us into fall. Various claims are made about the health benefits of Lemon Verbena. All I can say is that it has to be better for you than injecting bleach.
We will be rolling out lots more dried herbs as the weeks unfold; summer savory, sage, sweet laurel, rosemary, lavender and a special herb that I will talk about later, Hoja Santa. November can’t come quick enough and when it does we can all raise our cups with hope for what the future can bring. Let’s look forward to fall cooking and a celebration that will have us all toasting to the opportunity of breathing new life into our land.
© 2020 Essay by Andy Griffin. Photos by Andy Griffin and Starling Linden