The guys on the crew called him “El Bullo” but I can’t remember what his real name was. He was a Jarocho, a native of Veracruz, and, true to the stereotype Mexicans have of Jarochos, El Bullo had a gift for music. I can still remember the song he’d sing between bites of his taco at lunch. With his palm to his chest like an opera singer and his other hand holding a taco and held out wide to acknowledge the applause, El Bullo would begin his corrido slowly in a deep voice: “One woman, two men, and three gunshots rang out!” he’d sing. I can’t remember the rest of the song, but it never stayed the same anyway; Bullo would sing it some days so that different people died, and sometimes the woman was pregnant and one of the men was the real father of the infant, and sometimes it was the other guy, and sometimes all three bullets missed their marks entirely and only innocent bystanders were killed. Bullo had a good voice and a great sense of humor. He was a fine story teller, an amiable personality, and he had a nimble mind. But he was a lousy worker. Just thinking about Bullo reminds me how, as an employer, sometimes the best thing I can do for someone is fire them.
I was in charge of the harvest crew for Riverside Farms back then. We had two hundred workers and we farmed in Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz, and Monterey Counties. The people who worked for us were great, but it’s the human condition that you can’t gather 200 people together without having issues. One problem started with a call from the foreman. “I need you to talk to ‘El Bullo,’” he said. “He won’t hoe weeds.”
At Riverside Farms we worked under contract with Teamsters Local 890. There were rules. I went over them once more with El Bullo. “You know the deal,” I said. “You have to show up for work on time. You can’t drink or get high on the job. You can’t fight at work, or wear gang colors, or bring a firearm to the work site, or conceal guns in your car. And you have to do your job.”
El Bullo nodded.
“We’re not playing games here,” I told him, “but this is like beisbol; three strikes and you’re out.”
One Monday I came to work and my message machine was choked with messages from the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department. The cops alleged that my crew had violated noise restrictions on Saturday, and they insisted that I contact them promptly. “This is impossible,” I thought. “I didn’t even have a crew working in San Benito County last Saturday.” Alas; the Sheriff’s Department was on to something. The weeding crew I’d had on the Sargeant Ranch, down in the very corner of Santa Clara County alongside the Pajaro River, had created a ruckus. El Bullo had showed up to work that Saturday driving a borrowed beat box bug, a Bochito, a Volkswagon Beetle, that had had it’s rear seats stripped out to make room for an immense sound system with independent tweeters and subwoofers that could be placed on the roof of the vehicle and aimed. As Bullo hoed his long row he got further away from his tunes so he kept turning up the volume. Sound carries in the country. By noon, as El Bullo was reaching the end of his row, home owners a mile away along School Road in San Benito County, across the river and up the mountain from the farm field, were calling the Sheriff’s Department and screaming. The Sheriff had to respond when one resident threatened to open fire on the bug with a scoped 30-06.
Then one day I got a call from Federico, the foreman, complaining that El Bullo wouldn’t do anything. I headed out to the field.
El Bullo was visible from half a mile off. He was a great big, round guy anyway, but he was sporting a preposterous white, cartoon-like straw sombrero that had to be at three and a half feet wide with a cone-like crown that stuck up into the sky like a witch’s hat. He looked like Pancho Villa’s sidekick.
“What’s with the hat?” I asked, “And how come Federico is so unhappy?”
“It’s hot today,” El Bullo replied, “and my sombrero keeps me cool. Plus, this is the hat the pistoleros wore during the Revolución. Federico needs a Mexican revolution; he’s muy cacique!”
A cacique is a tribal chief. Someone who is “muy cacique” throws their weight around and lords it over others. Federico wasn’t “muy cacique.”
“Look, Bullo,” I said. “We’ve been over this before. Federico is only doing what I’ve asked him to do. The problem is that you don’t want to work. You’re like a soccer ball; you only move down the field if someone’s kicking you.”
“If you fire me now, how am I going to eat?” Bullo asked. “I’ll have to go Santa Cruz and sing sad songs on the street corner. Maybe then you’ll throw me some pennies.”
“Come on, Bullo,” I said. “Let’s go.”
That was fifteen years ago. I’d almost forgotten about El Bullo. Until the other day. I was driving a produce truck southbound on 101 outside of San Jose. Traffic was at a crawl. On the northbound side of the freeway traffic was stopped dead and I saw an old, battered bus painted in peeling yellow hoisted up on a very large tow truck. Outlines of seven happy faced musical notes, chipped with age, danced down the side of the bus. In big letters I read the legend; “Los Canarios.” Still on the bus, decked out in stiff black cowboy hats, looking glumly out the windows and going strictly nowhere, were the seven “singing canaries.” Then I remembered El Bullo.
Two years after I fired Bullo I was at the side of a field on Betebel Road off of 101 south of Gilroy with the crew as they took their ten o’ clock break. An Econoline van came down the off ramp and stopped short. A big man got out wearing a stiff, white, cowboy hat. He put a hand over his heart, reached out wide with his other hand to gather the applause, and began to sing: “One beautiful woman, two ugly men, three pistol shots rang out!”
“El mero Bullo!” someone yelled out, and Bullo came forward laughing and started passing out handbills. He’d found enough to eat. In fact, he was fatter than ever.
“Is life treating you well?” I asked.
“The best,” Bullo answered. “I’ve got my own banda group. I sing and play the bajo sexto. We’re on our North American tour. Come check us out. We’re playing at El Rio Nilo in Gilroy tonight.” And he handed me a handbill. “Tell a friend!”
I had to smile. El Bullo was promoting his band and doing what he wanted to do. He was working, working hard, and I didn’t have to kick him down the field. Sometimes a story has a happy ending.
photos by Andy Griffin. They are not part of the story, but they are autumnal and chosen by Andy’s editor for this piece. (that would be me, Julia)
This Weeks Farm Activities! San Marzanos, Pumpkins, and More! and a San Marzano Tomato UPICK this Saturday in Hollister! If you are planning on canning and picking your own tomatoes at our fields, this is your 2011 autumn chance. Join us!
Fri. 10/21 Palo Alto 4-6m
announcement info || form to make order
Sat. 10/22 Piccino 11am-1pm this is our Tomato Emergency for the year! 5 boxes (20# each) of San Marzanos for $100.
San Marzano & Pumpkin Patch
form to make order
Sat 10-22 Hollister SAN MARZANO Tomato Upick
Diversity is a buzzword. But just because “diversity” has become a politically correct term with its edges worn smooth from use doesn’t mean that the concept is any less valuable. In fact, when I think about my life, my farm, my business, and the customers I serve it becomes apparent that respect for diversity is the key to the future. Diversity is a natural law; ignore it and pay the fine. Let’s look at how the value of diversity ties together disparate notions of environmental sensitivity, demographic reality, and economic necessity. But enough of the long words; I’m talking here about dirt, food, people and money.
My formal education in agriculture ended with the sale of my show steer at the Tri-County Fair in King City and my graduation from the Carmel High School Future Farmers of America Vocational Ag Program. I produce my vegetable crops using organic practices because that’s how I learned to farm from the farmers who hired me on as a farmhand. As I’ve grown in the business I’ve stuck with organic practices because they conform to the best environmental science as I understand it and because I have faith that farming without dependency on toxic chemical is the best way to go for me, my workers, and the customers who support our efforts. An appreciation for the value of diversity is a core element of a grounded, “organic” mindset.
Organic farmers act on the belief that if they care for the soil then the soil will care for them. Care of the soil does not end, or even begin, with adding fertilizer. Soil is a living thing, an ecosystem, a complex bioactive medium, and a renewable resource. Each plant family draws a certain spectrum of minerals and nutrients from the soil, and each plant family attracts and hosts certain pathogens. Organic growers rotate crops to avoid depleting the soil or increasing the population of pests. At Mariquita Farm we take each piece of ground on a cycle through the Alliaceae, Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Chenopodiaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Fabaceae, Gramineae, the Solanaceae etc. These Latin words are only botanical words for common plants; we rotate crops from the onion family, through the carrot family, the lettuce family, the cabbage family, the beet family, the squash family, the pea family, the corn family, the tomato family, and so on. Crop diversity is intelligent soils management.
There is a natural affinity between small farms, organic farming practices, and Community Supported Agriculture. True, every form of agriculture is supported by some sort of community. Large scale monoculture operations, for example, like cotton farms, wheat farms, or corn farms, depend on the support of a complex “community” of barge captains, silo operators, commodity futures traders, bankers, diplomats, and politicians. But a little farm like mine depends on support from the local community. Good organic practice demands that we grow a wide range of crops. And by delivering a diverse harvest of vegetables over the season we hope to keep your interest in our produce alive. Nobody wants to eat the same thing every week. If we fail to satisfy their expectations we lose them, and they are not always easy to please. Talk about “diversity;” There is no “average Mariquita Farm customer.” You all are the actual picture of diversity!
There were at least a hundred people who showed up at the last tomato U-Pick we hosted in our Hollister fields and I heard at least six languages being spoken. Every cultural tradition has its own food preferences; just to make a gross generalization, for example, East Indians tend to appreciate eggplant, while your standard issue, white bread gringo like me doesn’t always know what to do with it. I’ve had to learn. Some people demand spicy peppers while others barely tolerate them. We have to grow diverse crops for the soil, and we have to grow diverse crops to appeal to the wide range of people that live in the Bay Area. A pleasant side effect of the diversity in the field is that our everyday chores tending these different crops vary from hour to hour, and that keeps life interesting.
The crops themselves demand of the farm that we have a business plan that looks to a diverse customer base. Our CSA shareholders serve as our bankers. CSA is an awkward acronym that stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” Our CSA subscribers advance us monies several times throughout the season that we use to push production forward and we repay them with weekly deliveries of “interesting boxes” of the produce that they have helped to produce. Without our CSA supporters we wouldn’t be able to employ our workers all year long, pay our rents, or invest in equipment.
Crop diversity can be an advantage when dealing with pests, but it can be a challenge too. Strawberries, summer squash, tomatoes, and peppers, for example, need to be harvested several times each week. We harvest Tuesday for Wednesday’s CSA veggie box delivery, and pick on Wednesday for Thursday’s box, but what do we do with the crops we need to pick on Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday? Some CSA farms in our position go to a farmers’ market to move their excess product. I choose to sell produce that is not taken up by our Community Supported Agriculture program to restaurants and to offer some of our crops in bulk to people who want to make jam or sauce or pesto through our Ladybug Truck Farm delivery program. My business plan is simple; I sell food to people who cook, be they home cooks, professional cooks, or people who make a hobby of canning, freezing, or drying food. The diversity of the customer base we serve is the key to our survival as a business.
We couldn’t exist without our CSA subscribers, but restaurants are good partners too. Besides helping us to use produce that falls between CSA harvests the chefs help us by inspiring us to try many new and different crops. I didn’t grow up learning about produce but since I started farming I’ve grown everything from agretti to zucchetta rampicante. If you point to a crop in my field chances are strong I can tell you the name of the cook who prompted me to learn how to grow it. I’ve learned a lot about food from the chefs I’ve worked with and their passion is inspiring and infectious. I need the checks the restaurants send me, but the love for their work that they share is important too.
Some of the restaurants we serve have graciously allowed us to use their facilities for our Ladybug Truck Farm bulk deliveries. Thank you Camino, Cotogna, Greens, Incanto, Piccino, Slow Club, Aziza, and Carried Away. Without your generosity and good will we wouldn’t have spaces in the City to park our trucks and distribute our produce. (It’s also nice to finish up a tomato or pepper sale in the evening and find ourselves tired, hungry, and thirsty, but magically parked outside a nice restaurant.) So all in all we count on three sources of cash flow, each operating on a different logic and schedule, which hopefully means there’s always some money coming in to deal with whatever crisis is at hand.
There is strength in diversity. The weather can change. Some seasons the warm weather crops do well, and other seasons the cool weather crops are what pull us through. When we have a number of crops some may fail, but others succeed. The economic climate varies too. Some years people are flush, they eat out a lot and our restaurant business is strong. Sometimes the economy is in the dumps and people go back in greater numbers to cooking at home. Eating never goes out of style but the only constant we can count on with farming is that things will always change. Diversity is the nature of Nature. Diversity is a challenge we cope with and diversity is the tool we use to negotiate our way through a changing world. To everyone in our diverse group of supporters, thank you for being here for us.
Photos above: 1) Andy with his steer in FFA in high school. photo taken by Joan Griffin; 2) Allison, owner of Camino, outside with a vegetable customer. photo by Julia Wiley; 3) CSA pick up site for Mariquita Farm. photo by Andy Griffin
Ladybug Truck Farm Deliveries this week: