(julia’s note: this is Andy’s bio and he wrote it, I’m still learning about the blog world. Photo by Janet Fine of Cabrillo College.)
I was born at the tail end of the fifties, and if it’s true that we are what we eat, I didn’t stay pure for long. My parents were students, and we lived in an unremarkable apartment building in Berkeley. One night a neighbor hosted a cocktail party. The next morning my mother helped her friend clean up while I crawled around on the floor. When mom caught up with me I was eating cigarette butts and washing them back with the dregs of yesterday’s martinis. Quite by coincidence, we were visited that afternoon by a couple of dry old ladies from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They asked my mother to pledge that she would never her precious baby’s lips touch demon alcohol. Too late.
In the early sixties my father got a job as a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. We moved to Redding, at the top end of the Sacramento Valley, where we lived on a typical suburban street. We probably had cookouts in the backyard with hotdogs and Kool Aid, but I don’t remember any of that now. I was totally absorbed in my life as a cowboy. Back then, being a cowboy was more about homicide than working with herds of cattle and managing the range as a renewable resource. Somewhere we have a black and white photo of me astride my tricycle in my cowboy hat with my gun belt and two six shooters. But pictures can’t tell the whole story. My great grandmother gave me an Indian war bonnet of colored chicken feathers, so sometimes I shot cowboys.
Either way, I was tough, until one morning when I stepped on a bee while playing in the sprinkler, and then I cried like a four year old. My mother healed me with a bowl of perfect Bing cherries. I doubt that I’ll ever eat a cherry that tastes as good as those first Bings my mom gave me because no farmer’s growing practices can compete with a mother’s touch when it comes to creating complex, sweet flavors with a lifelong finish. When I grew up to be a farmer, instead of a psychopathic serial killer, I learned first hand how much emotional cargo consumers bring with them when they shop for fruit. I grew strawberries for a while, but now I stick to cultivating vegetables and herbs. I find that growing savory flavors better suits my bitter temperament than trying to produce fruit that can match the consumer’s sweet memories.
The swelling went down from the bee sting after I finished my snack but it took a while for me to recover from my infantile bout with “mad cowboy disease.” My family moved to rural Monterey County, in the mountains south of Soledad. I holstered my pistols and started working on ranches when I turned twelve. There were tough times and setbacks. I was given a calf to nurse that had a botched castration. The deal the rancher made me was that if I could cure the calf I could keep it. I envisioned the sick steer as the humble start of my someday vast herd. But after a lot of blood and sweat and pus and agony I had to shoot the poor animal with a real rifle.
I joined the Future Farmers Of America vocational agriculture program in high school. I won the livestock judging competition at Bolado Park in San Benito County. Then I won the Livestock judging competition at the much larger Tri-county fair in King City. But victory was traumatic. It was the custom at the King City fair for the rodeo queen to give the (male) winner a chaste kiss on the cheek as she presented the blue champion’s ribbon. Looking back now I can see that we were a mismatched couple—I had won my title by judging, she by being judged. I was a winner, but I was also a bearded teen-aged freak, so she lobbed the ribbon at me like a hand grenade and ran. No kisses from a rodeo queen for me.
I graduated to other ranches in other places. Its all a blur now, but it’s easy to remember the moment I decided to get out of the livestock business. I was working on a dairy ranch along the Tamales Bay, in Marin County, north of San Francisco. We milked a string of about 250 Holsteins with some Jerseys thrown in to raise the butterfat content. I say “we” but what I mean is that other guys milked the cows; my job was to herd the cattle into the milking parlor, feed them, take care of the calves, clean the barns, and fix the fences. There was plenty of work to keep everyone busy ten hours a day, and sometimes twelve, with a day and a half off each week.
We started at three a.m. by bringing the cattle in from the hillside pastures where they slept to the barnyard. It wasn’t hard. The cows would hear the chugging motor of the three wheeled motorcycle we used and begin to drift down the slope towards the barn. The same bossy cow always led the herd and the same hand full of laggards always needed encouragement. Milking was well underway by 4:00 AM and over by 7:30. After I fed the cows we would all take breakfast. After the cattle ate their hay they would go back to their pastures to sleep and graze. We repeated the procedure at 3:00PM.
Winter brought rain. Instead of scraping the pens clean it seemed as though we were trying to sweep back an advancing ocean of liquid manure. Work started in the dark, ended in the dark. What life lacked in sparkle and novelty it made up for with manure and predictability. We decided to break up the monotony of honest lives lived close to the earth by having a New Year’s party and watching the ball drop in Times Square, New York. On tv. There was no time to fly to the Big Apple between milking shifts.
The dairy farm was situated on the shore of Tamales Bay. A straight, sloping drive lined with wind twisted cypress trees led straight down to Highway One. There was so much brine in the air that every battery in every truck or tractor was perennially conked out. It was our custom to park the vehicles in a fan at the top of the drive, facing downhill, so that roll-starting the motors would be easy. Of course, if the engine didn’t catch by the time you coasted across the Highway, and if the brakes failed, you’d roll into the drink. Unless the tide was out. Then you’d end up mired in stinky tide-flat mud.
The ranch house was a creaky, white, two story Victorian that had weathered a lot of storms. Lichens encrusted the flaking paint. If a yellow glow from our windows hadn’t warmed the house up it would’ve appeared haunted that last, rainy night of 1978. Inside, we had a fire going in the hearth and cold beers in our hands. We played pool on an old warped pool table and kept the television on. At exactly 12:01 AM we saluted the new year with a last swallow of beer and tumbled into bed exhausted. It had been a long day and our pre-dawn routine was just around the corner.
As soon as I closed my eyes my boss pounded on the door. “Get up. We’ve got problems.”
I crawled out of bed, a little drunk and already half asleep.
“The Highway Patrol just called. The cows are out on the highway.”
We found our raincoats, grabbed our flashlights, pulled on our rubber boots, and stumbled out into the night.
But the cows weren’t on the highway. The tide was out and the cattle had decided to take a walk on the seashore. Or, shall I say, a walk in the seashore. Led by the boss cow, the whole herd of cattle had stomped into the mud flats and was wallowing about sniffing at the sea weeds. Our bobbing flashlights confused the cattle. Where was the comforting putt-putt-putt of the motorcycle engine? Icy, little ripples from the incoming tide alarmed them. Where were their pleasant, turfy beds? The cattle sloshed about in circles, lost in the mud. Where was their bossy leader who’d led them into the morass? Panicked bellowing and angry swearing harmonized in the night rain.
It was three in the morning before we crowded the last cow into the barnyard. But you can’t get clean, white milk out of a tit that’s been dipped in black tidal muck. We uncoiled the pressure hoses that we used to spray down the milking parlor and blasted the sticky mud from the cows, beast by beast. Even when we’d finished cleaning the cattle we couldn’t get straight to milking them. Excited cows can’t let their milk down easily. Cows need to be lulled into lactation with comforting routines. Music helps cattle relax. The Mexican milkers swore that the cows preferred the classic Ranchero songs of Vicente Fernandez, but my boss said they gave the most milk when David Grisman played the mandolin. The University Of California at Davis ought to do a study.
We finished the first milking at 2PM, seven hours late. There was just enough time to clean the feces out of the out of the parlor before we began the second milking. At eight in the evening we finished the second milking, then fed the cattle and retired for our own dinner. We’d been up for close to forty two hours with no sleep. I looked down at my pants and boots all caked with manure and tide mud and knew I’d never fit well into an office setting. Even a career modeling underwear seemed distant. But maybe, after a bath I could consider farming vegetables. Lettuce doesn’t panic in the night. “ Andy,” I told myself, “It’s a big decision. You can sleep on it.”
My alibi is airtight—on the day of the crime, March 3rd, 2007, I was with my family in a minivan, driving south on I-5. But that afternoon someone left a small plastic bag full of ladybugs inside in the gallery of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There was an exhibition of Belgian artist Rene Magritte’s work going on when the ladybugs began crawling out. Luckily, a sharp eyed security guard saw the ladybugs escaping the bag. The crowded museum was evacuated, and the ladybugs were apprehended. The March fourth edition of the LA Times reported that “no one was injured and no artworks were damaged.” Well duh! What did the Times expect? Magritte liked to paint bizarre images of a stolid, bourgeoisie figure dressed in a conservative suits with oversized green apples floating in front of the his face. Were the ladybugs going to feed on the green apples? Obviously no, because ladybugs eat the insects that feed on plants. So were the ladybugs likely to jump an innocent museum patron and suck the blood out of her Gucci bag? Maybe yes, considering that Hollywood is only a few miles from the LACMA. I can imagine the previews for “SWARM” Demi Moore is the fearless mother who fends off a plague of vengeful ladybugs that want to eat her children. Matt Damon is the brave firefighter who burns down the seething nest of spotted killers.
My farm is named after the ladybug—mariquita means ladybug in Spanish—and I count on beneficial insects like the ladybug to control the insect pests on my farm. I can hardly imagine a cuter or more useful insect friend than the ladybug. If I didn’t have ladybugs on my farm I’d be compelled to go buy some. I’m proud to say that I’m gradually creating an environment on the farm that attracts ladybugs from around the area and convinces them to stay. We had an open house at our farm this spring. A bunch of children came to the fields and they were excited to find ladybugs crawling around in the fava bean patch. Maybe the LA Times can report that “no one was injured .”
Isn’t it amazing that the public gets so freaked out about bugs and nature that (in)security guards feel like they have to treat a hand full of ladybugs like a terrorist threat. I’m hoping that the guards vacated the museum so they could save the ladybugs from getting trod on by careless visitors. I want to believe that the security guards took the ladybugs into the gardens outside of the museum and gently blew them aloft, chanting “ladybugs, ladybugs, fly away home.” Maybe the expelled museum patrons watched in a hush as the ladybugs took flight into LA’s smoggy yellow skies. Then everyone clapped, the music swelled, the credits rolled, and the City Of Angels opened it wings and its heart to the ladybugs.
Yeah, right. Rene Magritte was a confirmed surrealistic, so he would probably have been amused at the chaos provoked by the ladybugs. I don’t mind surrealism—it’s what sometimes passes for “realism” that’s got me worried.
Hello, Blog World: Andy just rewrote this (substantially) and wanted to share it here. Soon (or already) there should be some adorable photos of our new lambs, they have nothing to do with this story! -Julia
The Mennonites heard that Charlie had hired a long-haired kid from California and put a ban of silence on me before I even opened my mouth. The men could talk to me if they wished, but the kids, no. It would have been irresponsible of the community to allow a drug-addled freak from California to seduce their sons and daughters onto the path of Satan. The irony was that with Ken Kesey of Merry Prankster fame living in nearby Springfield, and student communities in both Corvallis to the north and Eugene to the south, there were more hippies running loose in Oregon than where I’d come from in California.
It was June of 1977. The day after my high school graduation I took the dog bus from Salinas to Corvallis, for a chance to learn what farming was like with draft animals. I called the Jensens from a friend’s house in Corvallis to get directions. Charlie’s wife Esther answered..
“Oh, you can’t miss it,” she said, and rattled off the names of half a dozen country lanes I would follow to reach their farm. “The house is white and the barn is red.”
I eventually found the farm, no thanks to Esther. In that part of the Williamette Valley all the houses were white and all the barns were red. The fields were green, too, the cows doe-eyed and placid, and there weren’t even any or beer cans in the ditches or bullet holes in the road signs—the whole neighborhood looked like a mock-up for an advertisement from the dairy council to promote drinking milk at breakfast.
We pulled into a storybook farmyard to ask directions to Charlie’s house. The farmer looked at me curiously from under his straw hat and then gave me precise directions. I arrived shortly thereafter at the Jensen’s farm. After greeting me, and confirming that I didn’t smoke anything, Charlie and Esther showed me the room I’d be occupying for the summer. Charlie explained that his was the only farm left in the entire area not owned by the Mennonites.
Mennonites are “plain folk.” They accept the use of modern technologies in their communities so long as they are of a productive nature, like hay balers, tractors, or other such utensils. But they draw the line at devilish communication devices like radios, television, and they permit few if any gestures of vanity. Their children are taught inside the community, they marry inside the community and in time they raise a family inside the community, perhaps purchasing a property adjacent to the community and thus expanding its boundaries. Mennonites don’t get drunk and drive around the neighborhood blasting road signs with shotguns and flinging beer cans in the ditches. Their communities are clean and well ordered with very low crime rates. No one knows how much crime they have because Mennonites don’t go to the sheriff or the courts with their problems, and they don’t gossip with outsiders. Their women wear simple, long dresses of gray or blue fastened with snaps, not buttons, so as to not be tempted into putting on airs.
As Charlie and Esther talked it became clear I had been hired not so much for my experience, which was limited compared to any of the local Mennonite farm boys they could have hired, but because I was an outsider. Charlie could always talk about farming if he encountered a neighbor, but Esther had ear rings, and she felt judged. She didn’t want any farm hand reporting the sinful details of their private lives to the neighbors. Not that the Jensens lived like libertines. Charlie drank one can of been every day after ten hours of work in the fields. When dinner was over he might settle down to watch professional wrestling on the tube for a bit before going to bed early. Esther was embarrassed once when Charlie left a pack of playing cards in the living room that had naughty pictures of naked ladies on the back. Given that no one for ten miles would even talk to me besides Charlie and Ester I wouldn’t be gossiping with the neighbors about the erotic ramifications of the Page of Spades even if I’d wanted to.
Charlie wasn’t thrilled with my long hair and he didn’t hide his feelings. His hobby of farming with draft horses was not inspired by the hippie back-to-the land movement of the late sixties—Charlie had never left the land. I smile to think of it now, after spending years in the field myself, to think that anyone would “retire” from farming with tractors only to take up farming with horses. Even throwing the oiled black leather harness over the back of a draft horse is like tossing a sack of cement mix over a minivan. Except that the minivan won’t paw, snort, stamp, kick, or bite.
Working for Charlie was a history lesson. He was older than my father by a generation, and as a young man growing up in a sod house on the Nebraska plains he’d breathed the Dust Bowl deep. He came to Oregon with nothing. He worked ceaselessly, saved every penny, grew his own food, and was eventually bought a beautiful farm on the banks of the Williamette River. Charlie believed in work, and working with draft horses was his meditation—he only used the tractors when the situation was urgent. Charlie kept several teams of Percherons. They were beautiful beasts, mild tempered and intelligent as horses go, patient, and willing to work A tractor is just a chunk of steel, grease and rubber, as stupid as stone. Stupidity has its virtues.
One morning at dawn I was raking hay with the team of Percherons. Driving a team is not an easy chore, and it helps to be smarter than the horses. Even then, holding up the heavy leather reins gets tiring quickly. Raking hay is the simplest of tasks, but I stood proud as the horses grunted and puffed and the hay rake clicked along. It was a gorgeous, calm morning. No modern sight or sound intruded on my reverie.
I began to hear voices. Not angry, delusional, schizophrenic voices from inside my head, but silvery, happy, laughing voices above my head. I looked up into the blue sky and my jaw went slack in amazement. There, floating dreamily above me like an iridescent bubble, was a beautiful, rainbow colored, hot air balloon.
The pilot flipped on the propane burners to heat the air and raise the balloon over the trees at the field’s edge. The sudden roar of the gas jets spooked the horses. They lunged forward in fear. The hay rake bucked and crashed, frightening the horses even more. We raced wildly across the field. Soon the harness began to shred and tangle, then the whole apparatus cart wheeled. Lawyers, guns and money can’t stop horses when they panic like that. I was lucky to end up on my butt in the stubble, alive. The horses thrashed off, dragging the wrecked hay rake behind them, until they were exhausted.
I admired Charlie’s dextrous ability with any tool and his gentle mastery of the horses. He tolerated me, and was even warm when the subject was how to harness a team, how to guide a team, or how to care for them after a days work was done. I didn’t fare so well with his wife, Esther. She’d worked for years cooking meals for unappreciative kids at the local high school cafeteria. It was my fate to carry the cross for all the disrespect those kids heaped on her and get chewed out for all the food they wasted. “B-b-b-bitchin’ bout my g-g-generation.” She didn’t give Charlie much of a break either. I talked to the horses. It was a long summer.
So it was with sincere happiness that I waved goodby to Charlie and Esther as they pulled their horse trailer out of the yard one day. They were taking a team of draft horses to a pulling meet in Eastern Oregon and would be out of touch for two weeks. (This was pre-cell phone, and the obscure rodeo grounds in the desert outside of Bend didn’t have pay phones.) Two weeks to myself, and all I would have to do would be to feed the dog, feed the turkeys, feed the cattle, feed the horses, water the corn, water the alfalfa, water the pasture, mow the lawn, and check the oil levels on the pump. And also paint the house.
“Two coats at least,” Charlie told me the day before. “More if you don’t run out of paint.”
“Do a nice job,” Charlie said as he showed me the pyramid of paint cans hidden in the barn. “I want Esther to be surprised when we come back.” Esther had been nagging him all summer about how the peeling paint made their house look shabby, compared to the neighbors.
I set to my chores with alacrity, and almost before I knew it I came to the pyramid of paint cans hidden in the barn. I opened one up.
“There must be some mistake,” I thought as I pupped the lid. The paint was a lurid, phosphorescent chartreuse. So I uncapped another can. And another. And another. Gallon after gallon of chartreuse paint. I was in a quandary. I couldn’t paint the house chartreuse. Just imagine what the neighbors would say. Esther would kill me. And yet, if I neglected to paint the house because the color of the paint was in poor taste Charlie would fire me for being lazy. And who was I, anyway, to question my employer’s tastes about exterior decorating?
It was possible that a paint store employee had made a mistake. But, given that Charlie was cheap to the bone, it was equally possible, even probable, this paint had been “on special” at the hardware store, priced to move and never come back. Charlie had wanted to surprise his wife, so she may not have had an opportunity to pass judgement. Given her sharp tongue I could just imagine what she’d say. Well, perhaps the paint would dry to a serene pastel. I’d just paint a board and see how it looked in the morning. I climbed the ladder with my bucket and my brush. I heard voices. A gaggle of teen-aged Mennonite girls were walking past, cute as buttons under their blue-grey bonnets, heading home after a day picking wild black berries by the river. I waved. They didn’t wave back.
Next morning after feeding the animals I checked the dry paint on my trial board. Violent, jarring, emergency day glo. I considered my options. I was going to be fired for doing my job, or fired for not doing it. Either way I’d be happy to leave. My mood brightened, though in no way did it approach the intensity of the paint. I began with one small garage wall, stopping back occasionally to admire the effect. All of a sudden I was startled by the scandalized squeals of the rosy cheeked Mennonite girls on their way back to the berries. I looked down from the ladder to see them pointing at the wall, bonnets bobbing, buckets tossed to the ground. My mind was made up. I’d impress the girls!. No half measures! With long, straight confident brush strokes I set to my task with enthusiasm.
Three days later I stepped back to admire my handiwork— a sizzling, neon, two story, yellow-green farmhouse, erupting up out of the green grass and placid cows of the bucolic Oregon country side like a sulphurous middle finger..
“I like it” I said to myself. “ A chartreuse house with a red barn. My dada masterpiece.”
“The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”-”Genesis 1:12
“What is a Weed? A plant whose Virtues have not yet been discovered.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson-
You can take the mouse out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the mouse—which must be one reason I like Erica, because I’m a country mouse too. Erica Holland-Toll is the Executive Sous Chef at the Americano Restaurant in the Hotel Vitale, on San Francisco’s waterfront, right across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, where we sell our vegetables every Saturday. Some Saturdays Erica passes by our stall to buy vegetables, sometimes she stops by to say hello, and sometimes she comes looking for information. One day she came asking after chickweed. Did I know what it was? Did I have any?
Every farmer knows about chickweed – ”it must be one of the most successful weeds in the whole world. Chickweed started out in Eurasia, but it’s now found on every continent, even Antarctica. Chickweed can tolerate all kinds of environmental conditions, but it thrives in moist, nitrogen-rich soil, so it’s a common garden weed. Even in shade chickweed can sprawl into a lush mat that competes with the “legitimate” vegetables. I’ve read that a single chickweed plant can produce over 15,000 seeds, and that those seeds can remain viable in the soil for years. Just to make the odds on survival even better, chickweed propagates itself vegetatively too, by sending roots out from recumbent stems. “What do you want chickweed for?” I asked.
“Salads,” she answered.
I had to smile at that. Sure, I know chickweed is edible, in a green, herbaceous, weedy kind of way. Chickweed stems are slender and slightly crunchy to the tooth. The leaves are small, ovate, succulent, and mild flavored, with a soft texture. The plant often sports tiny, white, starry flowers, hence its scientific name Stellaria media, from the Latin stella, for star. ( I’ve read that a chickweed seedling can flower and set seed only five weeks after germination. Under snow!) But chickweed is humble salad compared to a “real” salad green like butter leaf lettuce, and the Americano is a sophisticated restaurant with a glossy, modern take on traditional Italian cuisine.
The Americano also has a very popular bar. Walk down the Embarcadero on any evening you’ll see mobs of dressy, fashionable patrons spilling out the Americanoâ’s doors onto their patio. I couldn’t see the women, having just descended from the office towers, wanting to subdue a tangled chickweed salad as they maneuver through the crowd atop high heels, and I couldn’t see the flatfooted men bothering about chickweed when there are so many women to pay attention to.
“Yes,” Erica said, “the bar is popular.” But she reminded me that the popularity of the bar with drinkers is one reason that her boss, Chef Paul Arenstam, can afford to be committed to purchasing the finest, seasonal ingredients from local farmers. That’s another reason I like Erica. She could flaunt a big attitude, like you always hear that gourmet chefs have, and she could whine that the Americano’s bar steals the attention from the kitchen, but instead she works quietly backstage to make sure diners get a memorable meal. And I’m sure that any chickweed salad Erica makes will be memorable. It could even be that chickweed’s little green stems tickle ancestral memories deep inside us. It tickles me to think that to enjoy the sort of wild salad that a shepherd, a goat, or a sheep might nibble at it’s necessary to go to a soignee joint like Americano.
Chickweed may grow everywhere, but it’s a free spirit— its very tenderness makes for its strongest defense against any attempts by commercial agriculture capture, brand, and warp it into a commodity. Chickweed can survive temperatures well below freezing, but the plants would be bruised in the icy rain of a big farm’s hydro-cooler. Chickweed’s lax stems allow it to sprawl and mat across a garden or a meadow, but its slender stems would be smashed if a worker tried to wrap a wire twist tie around them to make a retail-friendly bunch. Chickweed can be enjoyed as a salad green but it needs to be handled with care. Care is precisely the last virtue that a mass market, commodity driven economy wants to encourage.
Spring mix salad greens makes for more suitable 21st century greens than chickweed, because the harvest and handling of baby lettuces can be mechanized. But, as we’ve seen with the repeated E. coli scandals, even machines can’t solve every problem that mass marketing poses. Manufactured products like toilet paper meet the needs of today-s retail environment more perfectly than fresh vegetables can – ”everybody needs toilet paper all the time, and it can be stored indefinitely in inventory without rotting. Toilet paper comes in a variety of consumer friendly “decorator colors” too, appealing to the eye, and the product is immune to consumer complaints about flavor. Plus, the plastic film the toilet paper rolls come wrapped in provides a perfect platform for advertising “information,” from the brawny image of a he-man to the coo-worthy face of a baby. Best of all, toilet paper can be scented, so as to distract us from the more graphic details of our own existence. From a mass marketing perspective toilet paper is golden, and chickweed is – well, chickweed is shit.
I asked Erica what prompted her to think of chickweed, and she told me that when she was a girl, growing up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains she and her friends would wander through the woods and meadows and gather things to eat. She would try anything, she said, from blackberries, chickweed and miners lettuce, to less obviously delicious fare like manzanita berries. Once Erica made herself sick eating the berries off of an oleander bush in someone’s yard. Her parents could tell her “No!” but they couldn’t stop her, so they kept the number for poison control prominently posted by their telephone..
What Erica didn’t know was that even chickweed is toxic if you eat enough of it. Chickweed has a natural chemical in it called saponin, a steroid alkaloid. Lest Erica’s employers become concerned that she wants to serve a chickweed salad, let me remind them that other foods, like asparagus, wine and olives also have saponins- it’s all about partaking with moderation. Chickweed is also medicinal. It is listed as having anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxident properties. If more farmers picked chickweed for their local restaurants instead of spraying their fields with herbicides to kill it we might not need so many anti-cancer drugs.
I’m happy Erica survived the edible experiments of her childhood. Seeing Erica at the farmers market, happy and smiling in her chef’s whites, I can see her as a girl, arranging impromptu, woodsy salads on skunk cabbage leaves, the Sierra Nevada Mountains around her as her imaginary restaurant with blue skies, the green meadow at her feet transformed into a white tablecloth, and her friends all grown up into sophisticated women out for a night on the boulevard.
I’m a lot older than Erica, and I’m glad I got to meet her when I was all grown up. If we’d both been kids in the same hills I’d have liked her, and I’m sure I’d have been an oaf about expressing it. I knew chickweed, and miners lettuce, and I gathered them, but that’s where any parallels between Erica and I go askew. I remember racing ahead of my sister, grabbing wads of miners lettuce and chewing it until my spit turned green. Then I staggered back drooling green foam and making gagging noises before falling down in a spasm. Anything for a reaction. I wasn’t ready for the patio bar at the Americano. After all my years there are still days I don’t shine like silver when I’m placed next to a white tablecloth.
Erica has balanced her country mouse roots with her inner town mouse. One thing is for sure – when you want to eat a shepherd’s salad sit down at Erica’s table, not mine. I have sheep, but I don’t have any chickweed, at least not growing among my crops. I have chickweed growing in my pastures, but it would be too expensive for me to forage it from among the grasses, even for Erica. I don’t want to contradict a sage like Emerson, but sometimes we can know a plant’s virtues, yet it remains a weed— it grows rank until the moment we can make money off it, then disappears. Every plant is virtuous in the right circumstances. Weeds are the virtuous plants that smile at us and the absurd limitations of our unholy economy. I don’t need herbicide. When Erica asks to buy chickweed the chickweed in my field dies of laughter.
A little old man with a short, curved bladed paring knife came down to the farmers market one cold, wet, winter day and picked up a fat carrot with a broken tip that had fallen into a puddle. He stood in the middle of the wide aisle with shoppers streaming around him and with an economy of deft slices rapidly carved the carrot into a dramatic goldfish. Passersby gathered around in amazement to watch this spectacle of a fish being released from a stumpy root.
“Oooh, gorgeous” proclaimed a woman. The old gentleman bowed, replied in Chinese, and handed her the piscine carrot.
Another woman perceived her opportunity and handed the sculptor a watermelon radish from her shopping bag. No, a watermelon radish is not a genetically engineered cross between a melon and a radish but rather an antique Asian radish variety that can easily grow to the size of a grapefruit. The off-white skin of the watermelon radish is tinted green at the top where the root is exposed to the sun. Slice the vegetable open and the dull exterior is revealed to wrap up a core of brilliant ruby flesh, hence the name watermelon.
The old fellow held the radish up high by its tail and inspected it. He made his decision and began cutting in swift, short, strokes. Red chips of radish meat rained down onto the pavement as the root was turned in his hands. Three minutes passed and the radish blossomed into a most refined, delicate, scarlet dahlia cupped in his palm for all to see.
Agriculture can be a competitive business. As a young man trying to make my way in farming I was blessed with an employer who helped me immeasurably by answering my questions as completely and as honestly as possible. Later, when I had a farm of my own and gave my mentor stiff competition in the marketplace, he remained invariably gracious, supportive, and friendly to me. While I can’t ever repay my former employer in kind, I can express my gratitude by freely giving information and candid advice to any employees of my own that ever ask me for it. One day I got a chance.
Ryan was a fellow that worked for us selling our produce at farmers markets in the East Bay. Working at a farmers market is fun, and you meet a lot of people, but in the end farmers market work is retail work, not farm labor. Ryan decided that he wanted to farm. He applied for, and was accepted into, the U.C. Santa Cruz Organic Farm Apprenticeship Program. He payed his fees, moved into a tee-pee at the edge of their field, and went to work. When the time to enroll for the second session came around Ryan showed up at my house.
“I’m enjoying the garden program, but it costs a lot. I’m getting a macrocosmic perspective on how agriculture could be improved worldwide, but I don’t feel like I’m getting a whole lot of the practical experience that’s going to help me start my farm. What do you think I ought to do?”
I was blunt.
“I think you ought to get a job on a farm where you’re paid for your labor. Learn from experience. U.C. S.C. can teach you about practices which can theoretically be implemented on organic farms, but once you’re out of the ivory garden, the economic climate is going to be as important as the weather. Having a farm that fills a niche in the retail environment, and pays your bills, is as critical as maintaining the health and biological diversity of the natural environment. Spend a few seasons working for people who are doing the things you want to do, and you’ll see how idealistic visions of a nuclear-free, organic, sustainable world, with liberty, justice, and self fulfillment for all, are tempered with respect for short term cash flow. Plus, if you work on a ‘for profit’ farm, you’ll likely pick up some Spanish, which is as important a skill for a farmer as knowing how to make compost.”
“But I want to grow edible flowers. I want to grow pansies for dessert chefs, and borage blossoms, nasturtiums, lemon thyme flowers. Marigold confetti, Bachelor’s buttons, that kind of stuff. Where do you think I ought to work?”
“You want a pansy ranch?”
“Being clear about what it is you want is a good start,” I said . But I couldn’t think of any pansy ranchers Ryan could work for.
“Maybe the fact that aren’t many edible flower farmers is good news,” I suggested. “Maybe you should jump into the market and go for it— learn to grow pansies the hard way, before some corporate outfit starts growing them like cotton, and swamps the market.” That’s the beautiful thing about farming for guys like Ryan and I; to start farming you don’t need to complete a program, pass a test, earn a diploma, get a licence, or pay for a permit. All you have to do is be willing to work your ass off, take risks, and trust in Mother Nature.
So Ryan rented a small piece of ground, and bought a tractor, some irrigation pipes, and a Spanish/English dictionary. I introduced him to some guys that were looking for work and gave him the addresses of some packaging companies and trucking firms he’d need to know about in order to do air shipping. Ryan must have been busy, because I didn’t see him for a while. I heard that he picked up a partner, another drop-out from U.C.
One summer evening two years later Ryan stopped by the house. I was sitting in the yard.
“How do you do it?” he wanted to know. “I’m working like a slave. I’ve got customers, I’m getting by, but all I ever do is work. I’ve got no social life. I’m exhausted.”
“Well,” I replied,”You wanted a flower farm and you got one. No one ever promised you a rose garden. I worked like a slave for years too.”
“Yeah, but right now you’re sitting down, drinking a beer, and petting the cat at six thirty in the evening. How do you do it?”
I considered his question carefully.”.
“I married well.”
“You married well?”
“Seriously. I married well. I’m not saying that marriage works for everyone, but it worked for me. Julia’s not just my alpha chick, she’s my beta site, she’s my in-house focus group. Our farm depends on people just like her subscribing for our weekly boxes of produce or shopping at the farmers market. What I don’t know about the needs and expectations of the consumer would fill a book. Look at me. Almost all my friends grow food, and all I’ve ever done was work on farms. Before I got married a store was just someplace I went for beer, and toilet paper. Successful farming is about selling what you grow, and with Julia, I know that when she’s happy with what I’m growing, when she’s not outraged about the prices we charge, then we’re doing ok.
“I’ve got happy customers,” Ryan said. “I just can’t get the billing done on time, or keep up with the payroll taxes. What kind of software are you using for your accounting?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t even have decent mouse skills. I rely on Julia to solve all that stuff. When I met her Julia was a kindergarten teacher with benefits. She grew up in Venice Beach. Being a farm wife never crossed her mind. That’s key! Women with visions of a little house on the prairie with a pie in the oven and a horse in the yard ought to come with warning labels, because once they marry into farming they’re liable to measure the reality against their fantasies. Farming always comes up short, and then they leave, and you’re stuck with tractor payments, land lease payments, payroll, packaging costs, power bills, plus alimony.”
Ryan nodded. He’d started his farm with a friend named David who thought he wanted to be close to the earth but realized soon enough that there’s steadier money in construction. “Maybe it would pay to hire an administrative assistant.”
“Sure, but if you hire someone to be an administrative assistant that’s just more payroll out the door, and sometimes a small farm can’t generate enough money to justify all the expenses. Because Mariquita Farm is a family farm, with a farm wife, the administrative costs stay in the family. Plus, an administrative assistant might quit, but a farm wife is going to pay attention all the time, because she’s the C.E.O. the C.F.O and the B.F.D, all at once. I couldn’t do this without her.”
“Are you enjoying farming?
“Yeah. It’s got it’s stresses, but I like the people we work with, and I feel like Julia and I are building something positive together.
So did Ryan listen to me? Did he respect my counsel? Maybe, or maybe not. All I can say is that six months after our conversation he sold his tractor, his pipes, his land lease, and his list of clients to another young farmer, moved to San Francisco, and enrolled in cosmetology school. He is now a professional hairdresser. I’m sure that his farming background will help Ryan in his new profession. The focus and discipline that farming demands are good skills to cultivate for any business, and as Ryan styles his customers’ hair he can fix his whole attention on them, undistracted by dreams of going back to the land. All I can say is the citizens of San Francisco with hair better keep buying our vegetables, or I’ll quit farming and open a beauty salon.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
note: This is a true story, but the names have been changed a bit to protect the innocent.