The seed catalogs are landing in my mailbox. I’ll read them all with a mix of professional interest, curiosity, amusement, and horror. If you will consider seed catalogs to be a form of literature for a moment– a sub-genre of fantasy, perhaps– then I’ll volunteer to be a literary critic. What? You think they’re nonfiction? Seed catalogs sell a fantasy of summer, and what better time is there for that when the chilly winds of winter blow? In fact, the first catalog to arrive this year was Totally Tomatoes, which is as focused on summer as any catalog can be and I’ll get to it in a moment, but first, a few words about love and cigars.
There are so many varieties of love; romantic love, unrequited love, lost love, maternal love, and the love we have for our pets, just to name just a few. The writer who takes on love as a subject has an endless amount of material to work with. I’m not saying that love is easy to write about. We all experience love, even when we only feel it as a hunger, so every reader is potentially as much an expert as any author. Writers who choose to explore more technical subjects, like cigars, face a different challenge. I don’t smoke, but I have found myself reading Cigar Aficionado Magazine from time to time. “Cedar notes? With accents of autumn leaves?” I like to see how the editors labor to present cigars anew, month after month. I look for the rhetorical tricks that are employed to get readers like me to smell the cedar. Writing for an annual seed catalog with over 30 pages of glossy photos and mini essays dedicated almost entirely Solanum lycopersicum, must be a difficult task.
In catalog world, novelty sells. “New and Improved!” But tomatoes, like their close cousins, the tobaccos, were first cultivated by Pre-Columbian Native Americans, so what can possibly be new? For 2012 Totally Tomatoes presents for the very first time “Tasti-Lee™ Hybrid tomato with up to 40% more lycopene than other leading varieties of tomato.” Lycopene is a red pigment with antioxidant properties. According to some preliminary scientific findings there is an inverse relationship between eating a lot of tomatoes and cancer risk, especially prostate cancer. As a tomato grower I’d like this to be true, but I’m not “sold.”
Before I put any credence in any scientific claim any catalog makes I read it from cover to cover and look for the most egregiously manipulative and fraudulent claim. “Aha!” I say when I find it. “This is how low they’ll go!” On page 25 Totally Tomatoes presents the “Peron” tomato, billed as “The world’s only sprayless tomato, requiring no pesticides.” I never use any pesticides on any of my tomatoes. Just for good measure Totally Tomatoes also says that Peron has 2.5% more vitamin C than the other leading breeds. I suspect that catalog writers twist “recent studies” into creative ad copy whenever the variety that they’re writing up doesn’t give them anything more concrete to work with.
Names count for a lot in catalog literature. A good product name evokes the values that the buyer treasures. For a gardener the size of fruit may be important, as well as the earliness of the harvest, and the potential profitability quotient. Throw in an appeal to ethnic identity and timeless family values and a catalog writer has all the bases are covered. Totally Tomatoes doesn’t disappoint; the reader gets “Goliath,” “Early Goliath,” “Goldrush Goliath,” “Italian Goliath,” and – I kid you not- “Old Fashioned Goliath ™ Hybrid VF.” Don’t you hunger for the “good old days” when peasants named the hybrid fruits of their labors after their Biblical heroes, then trademarked their creations and used their profits to hire lawyers?
But let’s not forget color. Getting paid to write for a catalog where you need to say something unique and appealing about hundreds of different kinds of red ball-shaped is enough to make a poet out of a person; in Totally Tomatoes there are descriptions of fruits with “red,” “deep red,” “bright red,” “shiny red,” and “intense red.” It must be a relief for the writers that there is so much contemporary consumer interest in heirloom tomatoes with their oranges, greens, purples, yellows, and stripes. I give Totally Tomatoes credit for carrying many heirloom varieties. Crafting the story lines behind these antique, open pollinated breeds of tomato that have been passed down through the generations gives the catalog’s writers some room to stretch out and tell a good tale. One quibble with the storyline though; “Old-Fashioned” is not a flavor, it’s a rhetorical crutch, a phonetic catalyst designed to evoke sepia toned nostalgia for better times that probably never existed. But that’s ok. I’m not looking for Steinbeck in the seed catalog. The appeal to “Old-Fashion Values” is only the flip side of “New and Improved” which plays to our utopian hopes of a shiny, bright future.
So what do I look for?
As a grower I want to know if the tomato variety is determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes set almost all their fruit at once. This is a convenient trait for large-scale growers who harvest their crop with machines. I prefer to harvest more modest amounts of fruit by hand every week over a long season, so I look for indeterminate varieties. Growing indeterminate tomatoes allows me to find markets for my harvest, even out my cash flow, and keep my crew gainfully employed for months.
I’m always curious to know what the disease resistance of the plant is. I don’t use fungicide, so I’m always looking for crops which are resistant to pathogens. That’s been the problem I’ve had with some Italian heirloom tomatoes I’ve trialed with disappointing results. Each heirloom tomato evolved under different conditions with different amounts of humidity to contend with, different soils, and different pests. Some varieties work here, some don’t. I don’t expect a catalog like Totally Tomatoes with ambitions of a continental reach to be able to tell me what will grow well on my farm in San Benito County. Trial and error is my best guide.
Flavor is important. “Old-Fashioned” may not mean anything, but before I try a new variety I do want to know what the acid/sweet balance of the fruits is. I like to know what the texture of the fruit is like too and how uniform the fruit size is too. Size is important, but bigger is not necessarily better. Huge fruit can be hard to pack, and if a crow takes one peck out of a huge tomato I lose a lot. I prefer a plant that gives me a lot of smaller fruit, so Mr. & Mrs. Crow can wet their beaks without leaving me broke.
Flavor has a lot to do with cultural practices, so I like to know if a particular variety of tomato tolerates “dry-farming.” By not watering the tomatoes the plants are forced to reach deep into the mineral earth for their water, and in so doing they gain access to all the trace elements and micro-nutrients that make for good flavor. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or NPK, might be the most important fertilizers for vegetative growth, but it’s all the trace elements that give character to flavor. Some tomatoes will tolerate dry farming conditions and some won’t. Because successful dry-farming is so dependent on local conditions national catalogs can’t really honestly address the issue. Most, like Totally Tomatoes, don’t even bring it up.
So, will I buy anything from Totally Tomatoes?
Yes, I will. “Early Girl” is a hybrid tomato offered by Totally Tomatoes that is indeterminate, disease resistant, flavorful, and adapted to dry-farm culture and I will buy 15,000 seeds. The rest of my tomato seeds I will either save from my own crop, like Principe Borghese, or buy from Johnny’s Seeds. Johnny’s Seeds doesn’t carry Early Girl but they are sensitive to the needs of small-scale organic and specialty growers and they offer many varieties of tomato. For the record, the Johnny’s catalog is the clearest, most informative one out there. I keep it by my bed.
Andy Griffin || all photos by Andy Griffin || Tomato Recipes, of course!
Recipes A-Z from our farm
Bulk Deliveries to many Bay Area locations: Ladybug Truck Farm
Mariquita Farm CSA
The room where I sleep is a scene of disorder and mayhem. That’s nothing new, I suppose, but it smells like a shed, too. I blame the weather! First of all, I have no nice, dry, mouse-proof shed in which to store my crop of Indian corn, so when the sky clouded up last week I had my kids help me stack all the totes of corn inside the house at the foot of the bed. Then last Saturday was all about seed saving; I butchered 10 Galeaux d’Esyines pumpkins and scooped out the seeds, washed them free of their sticky entrails and spread them on a cardboard panel to dry- in my room. Two chilacayotes went under the knife too, followed by two Calabasas de Castilla. Then I switched over to peppers and cleaned some Padron, Friarelli, Goat Horn, and Carmagnola peppers for seed. It was cold outside where I was working so I built a fire, and I plugged in the radio so I could listen to “This American Life” as I worked. As I cleaned the peppers I put the seeds into dishes to dry. But even before I was done, and even with the flames and the smoke and NPR droning away, little birds started to swoop down and raid my seed dishes. So the pepper seeds went into my room too. I’m happy that I’ve got so much seed set aside for next year, and I’m confident it will dry out well and that the spicy, funky smell will moderate over time. I can always build a fire in my wood stove and warm up the room if the process appears to be taking too long. Not everybody is happy with the situation, though. My daughter thinks that it’s embarrassing to be related to someone who lives like a peasant, and my dog, who usually shares my values, is annoyed that I moved the fleece she sleeps on by the door to a less convenient location. There’s more seed to clean too- Cayenne, Aji Rocoto, and Principe Borghese tomatoes, for example, so the situation will only get worse before it gets better. But once the seed is dry I’ll put it in envelopes and file it away. And once I have the time- probably after Thanksgiving- Kira and Adam are going to help me shell and grind the corn so we can have some fresh cornmeal to sell at our wintertime Ladybug Truck Farm deliveries. Adam and Kira have a bicycle powered corn meal grinder and an old fashioned hand cranked machine that shells corn. That’ll be fun, and once we’re done the house will smell like corn bread baking and my room can go back to looking like something Martha Stewart, my daughter, and my dog can all be proud of.
Andy Griffin text and photos
Upcoming Ladybug Deliveries: mystery boxes, cauliflower and more
11/22 Cotogna/SF 5pm – 7pm
Announcement with info re: this delivery
Order form for Cotogna
11/23 Santa Cruz 12 noon – 2pm (day before Thanksgiving and all)
Announcement with info re: this delivery
Order form for Santa Cruz
11/30 Palo Alto & Los Gatos
12/1 Camino in Oakland
12/3 Cotogna in SF
12/7 Santa Cruz
12/21 Santa Cruz
and others! we’re working on upcoming schedules. thank you. -Julia & Shelley
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:
I know Natal better this afternoon than I did this morning. He’s a short guy, built like a bull, Portuguese, out of the Azores, with a big mustache. I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side. Not that he’s known to be fierce; Natal’s reputation is for being a hard-working guy. He’s got to work hard because he’s a California flower grower. Ever since 1991, when the first President Bush signed the ATPDEA, our domestic flower industry has been in a free fall. What were the politicians thinking? Supposedly by opening our markets to flowers from Colombia we were giving the Colombians farmers a legitimate crop they could sell instead of cocaine. Naturally, some of the coke lords saw the Andean Compact as an opportunity to invest in legitimate flower shipping businesses so they could launder their coke dollars. Colombian flower exporters have thrived. And why not?; growers in Columbia pay less for a day’s labor than a US farmer does for an hour, they have no meaningful controls on pesticide use to contend with, and their geographical location at higher elevations in the Andes near the equator provides a consistent cool climate and long days that mimic perpetual spring-like conditions and make for very high quality, long-stemmed roses and carnations. Not only that, but the international nature of the flower market and the standardized 48x20x12 flower cartons which are air shipped by the hundreds of thousands all around the globe combine to create the perfect vector by which the narcotraficantes can export their small packets of white powder to major cities. But don’t get me started; today the US flower industry is almost dead, our greenhouses are empty, and imported flowers are cheap. Our politicians are either naïve, stupid, or corrupt. Any domestic flower growers still in business today have got to be hard workers, real smart, or rich enough to keep losing money year after year. Natal isn’t rich. I knew he was a hard worker, but after today I can see he’s sharp too.
I’ve rented cold storage from Natal all year but I’ve only rarely talked to him. He rents the coolers he doesn’t use for his flower business to other growers. I store potatoes there so I pass through his warehouse from time to time. When I see Natal he’s usually standing at his desk in the middle of the shed talking excitedly on the phone in English, Portuguese, or Spanish. When he hangs up he hustles out, hops in his pick-up truck and speeds off to his green house for another load of Gerbera daisies. But when I went to his cooler at 6am to pull a pallet of potatoes he was seated at his desk looking at his phone. I stopped to talk. We discussed the biochemistry of ripening fruit.
Apples, or any fruit for that matter, give off a gas called ethylene in the ripening process. Ethylene is a gaseous plant hormone. If you’ve ever ripened a hard avocado by putting it in a brown paper bag with a yellow banana you’ve been taking advantage of the ethylene given off by the banana to provoke the avocado to ripen. When you hear the term “gas green tomato” it refers to the process by which tomatoes are machine harvested when they’re still green as grass and hard as rocks and then ripened to red in gas chambers pumped full of ethylene. Right now the apple crop is still hanging from the trees. Once they’re picked I want to store the apples in a cooler so that we can have them for sale through December without losing any to rot or to rats. I asked Natal if he’d have any space available.
“You can’t store them with the potatoes,” he said. Natal went on to explain that the cooler I’ve got the potatoes in shares the ventilation system with all the coolers in the building. The cold air is recycled, so any air that is fanned out of the cooler I occupy would find its way into the other coolers, and if I was storing any apples the ethylene-laden air would soon make its way into the other coolers. Ethylene not only ripens fruit, it causes flowers to mature rapidly. Since the neighboring coolers are full of flowers, my apples could cause the blooms to open in the dark and lose petals and the flower stems could shed leaves. Luckily, Natal had another cooler especially for apples that Life Earth Farm was going to rent. We agreed that I’d talk to Tom at Live Earth and see if I could share their space and park my apples with theirs. Natal’s phone rang. My phone rang. We jabbered in English and Spanish we each hustled off, jumped into our trucks, and sped off.
At 2pm I was back at Natal’s for another load of potatoes. He was standing at his desk talking excitedly on the phone. I walked through the warehouse and entered the cooler at the back. It’s a cavernous space maintained at around 34º, and almost entirely empty except for my pallets of potatoes in the corner. I got to work. It’s time for me to decide how many potatoes I want to save to plant out for next year’s crop. I began shuffling totes around, consolidating the pallets and sweeping. I like working in the cooler. There’s no cell phone reception in there. I also like the cold. Sorting and counting potatoes is my way of “chilling out.” I was surprised when I heard the big door open, and I heard the Mexican music from the warehouse float in. I looked over my shoulder. How strange; two white women in late middle age, both quite conservatively and professionally dressed, wearing heels, with frosted bouffant hairdos had entered the cooler. I motioned to them to close the doors; there’s no point in renting a cooler if you’re going to let all the cold air out.
“Are you Mr. Griffin? One of them asked.
I thought for a second before I answered. They didn’t look like inspectors. And I couldn’t think of anything specific that I had or hadn’t done that required inspection, and I don’t owe anyone money, and I don’t think I’m in trouble with the IRS.
“Yes,” I replied. Whatever these women were up to, they’d certainly gone out of their way to find me. They’d had to drive up a country road until the valley narrowed to a canyon and the redwoods closed in. Then they had to park outside and walk past a ferocious looking Azorean cattle dog that guards the entrance to Natal’s warehouse. Then they had to brave the fierce macaw that patrols the loading dock; a shrieking, swaggering, flapping, psychedelic, avian badass with a beak that can cut bolts; even the dog keeps his distance. Then they had to negotiate around the women trimming flowers and go through a dark dry-storage space full of cob webs before opening the huge door and entering the refrigerator.
“Are you the owner of this business?” they asked. “Mr. Natal said we’d find you here.”
“Hmm,” I thought. “Mr. Natal? This doesn’t sound right. Natal’s a flower grower, not a hair dresser.”
“I’m the owner of A business,” I replied.
“Good,” the older woman replied. “We’re conducting a poll of small business owners and we’d like to ask you a few questions. First of all, what’s your opinion about the ways that Obamacare is going to negatively impact your profit margins?”
I considered the situation.
The other woman spoke up. “It’s cold in here,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of questions. Maybe we can step out into the sunshine and talk where it’s warm.”
“Ladies,” I relied, “if you want to talk to me we’ll have to talk in here. I do have a small business and I am busy. I’m here sweeping the floor and counting the potatoes because I am the designated potato counter and floor sweeper.” I kept stacking potatoes.
“What do you think about the effect of intrusive government regulations?” asked the first woman. “Did you know that the government wants to make you to change all your light bulbs? Would you like less regulation? And taxes; would you like to see lower taxes, or no taxes, or are you in favor of higher rates? And do you want the Government to open up your business to unions? Or do you think that it’s fair that small businesses are going out of business?”
“I don’t think life is fair,” I answered. “Look. Every one of these questions is lush with controversy, and if this were talk radio we could spend all day mulling over the pros and cons of these issues, but I’m a farmer. I haven’t got the time. I’ve got to go.”
“We represent a group that is fighting on your behalf,” the cold woman said. “And for a minimal charge based on the number of employees you have you can help us continue to help you. How many employees do you have?”
“Twenty,” I answered. I was curious to hear their price.
“Six hundred dollars,” she answered.
I had to laugh; that stinker Natal. “Come on ladies,” I said. “We’ve got to go.” I pushed the big door open and we stepped out into the open warehouse with the musica romantica playing, the women working with their piles of flowers, and the dirty-mouthed macaw, asleep for once, perched atop a fork lift. Outside in the sun it was warm and the Azorean cattle dog was asleep in the shade. Natal was nowhere to be seen. He’s not stupid; he’d seen these ladies coming, figured they wanted money and ‘put them on ice,’ so to speak, by sending them on in to hustle me. When I see Natal next I’ll tell him I signed him up at the 900 dollar rate; we’ll see what he says in English, Portuguese, and Spanish.
all photos by Andy Griffin
We are selling tomatoes and mystery boxes This Week in Oakland at Camino! We’ll be there Wednesday from 5-7pm, all by preorder. Here’s the Google Form, here’s more information about what we are bringing. Here’s where to sign up for future Oakland Deliveries!
more information || just the order form (we are likely only taking orders until Monday evening/Tuesday am) Camino’s Website
We are also coming to Greens at Ft. Mason this Thursday with tomatoes and mystery boxes and strawberries. All by preorder. 4:30pm to 7pm. more information || just the order form || To sign up for future SF deliveries, we do them throughout the city 12 months a year. You get a reminder email, then decide if you want something or not. Palo Alto/Los Gatos/San Jose/Menlo Park etc deliveries. Santa Cruz Bulk buying list|| Greens at Ft. Mason website
and our UPICK DAYS are this week: Thursday and Saturday from 9am – noon. IF you’re interested, please read our latest ladybug Postcard missive, (info is at the bottom) and look for the next one on Tuesday midday for the most up to date info. We will likely post to our facebook page as well: like to get the info. Andy has been posting photos and answering lots of questions there too. Indian Corn will be available, and pumpkins, and lots of tomatoes to pick
Tomato Sauce Photo Essay from Julia
The Ladybug Letter is an open letter from Mariquita Farm to everyone with a curiosity about the people, practices, and politics of farming. We send it out every few (several) weeks when we have an article we think you all would love. We do continue to send a weekly newsletter every week year round with many recipes, notes about our events, CSA, notes from Andy (and often a full article from him), upick dates and messages, and more. Sign up for our Ladybug Postcard weekly email here. More about our frequent produce deliveries of bulk produce throughout the bay area at the bottom of this message. Tomatoes, Strawberries, Padron Peppers, Melons, and more!
Rogation Day by Andy Griffin
Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Meridian Avenue in San Jose is one of our CSA vegetable box pick-up sites, and it has been for years. This week we start the third quarter of our seasonal harvest box deliveries and I want to thank everyone who has signed up to receive our farm’s produce again. I want especially to thank all of the pick-up site hosts who generously allow us to use their homes, their businesses, and their places of worship as distribution points. Without their patience and generosity of spirit Community Supported Agriculture programs like ours would be next to impossible to manage, and our farm would be history. I look at every pick-up site we service as a blessing. But beyond that, I’m a farmer, an employer, a manager of land, and I’ve got teenagers, so I can always use an extra blessing or two.
Julia didn’t go with me to the Rogation service. Her mother, Fran, had taken both Julia and our daughter, Lena, to visit friends in Denmark, where my great-grandparents immigrated from over a hundred years ago. When I was in the Lutheran Church in San Jose Julia was visiting the ancient Lutheran Church in Falling where she found my great-great grandfather, Rasmus Jorgensen’s gravestone in the churchyard. The Jorgensens were farmers. Most people were farmers back then, I suppose, except for the people in the castle, and Falling has a big castle. My great grandfather, Marius, could have been in a Rogation procession that led out of the church in Falling and into the fields. Denmark was a poor country back then. The farms were little and the families were big. For Marius, coming to America was a blessing.
Pastor Bea, from Christ the Good Shepherd, emailed me a couple of days before the service. Meridian Avenue in San Jose is a long way from the fields these days, she pointed out. And Americans aren’t super traditional, so she had the idea that we could try to bring a little bit of the farm to the sanctuary; a bowl of soil, to be precise, and she would bless that, along with other bowls and sacks of soil from the backyard gardens of the people in the congregation. And people don’t necessarily know a lot about what goes on farms anymore, she wrote so would it be ok if I talked with her for a bit in front of the congregation during the service.
Sunday was a beautiful morning. I dug a shovelful of dirt from the herb patch and went to San Jose. I sort of knew most of the hymns, but luckily I hadn’t been invited to be a solo singer; I’m better at talking about dirt. During the service Pastor Bea introduced me to the congregation and asked me, “What is happening in the fields right now?”
“The potatoes are all in the cooler now,” I answered, “and the tomatoes and peppers are starting. Planting is going on for the fall harvests.”
“And who is working at Mariquita Farm?” she asked.
“I have 20 employees,” I answered, “and some of them have worked with us since 1992. They are not ‘migrant workers.’ Nobody ‘migrates.’ The whole premise of the farm is year-round employment.”
“And how many families does your farm feed?”
“Besides my family, and the twenty families of my employees who depend on our farm for their livelihood, Mariquita Farm sends weekly boxes of produce to 600 families from Gilroy and Corralitos up to San Francisco,” I answered.
“And what dream or wish do you have,” she asked, ‘for the people or the land that you work with?”
“There are tens of thousands of children and young people in America,” I answered, “who came to the United States as babies of parents who worked in the fields, or on construction sites, or in hotels or restaurants. These kids have grown up as Americans, they are culturally American, and they have American dreams, but they have no future. In the thirty years that I’ve worked on farms and ranches around California and Oregon I’ve gotten to know some of them well. I listen to the radio and read the news and I understand the complexity and frustrations of the immigration situation as well as most, and I’m probably more familiar with the intestinal workings of immigration enforcement better than many, but I think that it is cruel, unworkable, and actually insane to talk about deporting these young “aliens” back to countries they barely know. My wish is that we Americans summon up the integrity for an honest debate what a real and comprehensive immigration policy should be, and my dream is that we welcome these kids in before we have a huge toxic permanent underclass that brings out the worst in everybody.”
There’s no harm in asking, I guess. They don’t call it a Day of Rogation for nothing.
My bowl of soil was blessed and I left the church feeling better than I had all week. It had been a hard week; two trucks had broken down, we’d fallen behind in transplanting, and there had been various and sundry scandals, half measures and frustrations to digest. It felt good to be reminded that in this venture I call Mariquita Farm we do have communities on our side. Thanks again to all of you. Andy
[More photos from Julia’s visit to Falling, Denmark.]
Copyright 2011 Article by Andy Griffin. Photos taken in Falling, Denmark by Julia Wiley.
Garlic is a crop that needs to be cured. But why “cure” something if it isn’t sick, especially something like garlic which is, itself, widely touted as a cure for everything from vampire infestations to heart disease?
To cure means to heal. The word “heal” come to us from the Anglo-Saxon word hal, meaning whole. As our language developed it was natural for the word “cure”, which comes to English from the Latin word curare, for caring, to also begin to mean “make whole.” “Caring for” and “keeping whole,” eventually become synonymous with preserving. Thus, even a ham is said to be “cured” after it has been kept from decomposing by being bathed in brine and spices, though its only “illness” was to have once been the leg on a swine. Curing a head of garlic is not nearly as violent a process as “curing” the leg from a pig.
When garlic plants begin to yellow and we observe that the bulbs are swollen we stop watering the crop. At this point the garlic’s roots are beginning to shrivel under ground and any excess water would only invite rot, spoiling the bulb. Then we lift the bulbs and break the dirt clods from the roots. We lay the garlic on the ground in rows to finish drying. We are careful to protect the crop from sunburn by layering the garlic so the bulbs are tucked under the withered leaves of the garlic plants preceding them in the row. The effect is like a thatched windrow.
As the garlic cures any residual sugars are drawn from the wilting leaves into the cloves, and this helps them keep. Remember, unlike a pig that’s been cured of its life, properly cured garlic is a complete living organism, or rather bunch of organisms, since each clove in the cluster is a clone of the mother plant. When the papery husk that envelopes and protects the head of garlic dries we clip the bulbs from their stalks. We will store the dried garlic inside the shade of a dark barn in bulb totes that allow the free passage of air so that there’s no condensation of trapped moisture to provoke rot. In late October we’ll break apart the garlic bulbs we’ve saved for next year’s crop and plant the cloves.
“Curing” garlic isn’t cheap; all that planting, irrigating, weeding, lifting, windrowing, clipping, and packaging takes time and labor– rent and wages, plus taxes and diesel fuel, of course. So, if the farm is going to stay in business, it’s important to get the highest price possible for our crop. In recent years garlic has presented special challenges on both on the production end and on the retail side of the agricultural equation. China has been exporting massive amounts of garlic to the United States at very “competitive” prices. It helps that the cost of Chinese farm labor, when compared to US wage standards, is practically free. It also helps the Chinese producers that garlic, once cured, can be easily held in storage for a long time, allowing the crop to be shipped cheaply to US markets on a “slow boat from China.” Over here, consumers don’t often know where their food comes from, and many of them don’t care; price is almost all that counts.
Time also counts. America is the land where time IS money, and many consumers don’t feel like they have the time left in their lives to peel garlic. Americans are more sophisticated about food than they ever have been before, and garlic is more popular than ever, so much of America’s increased demand for garlic is for convenient, “value added” products like peeled garlic, prepared garlic pastes, dried garlic flakes, and garlic salt. As a small-scale farmer, I can hardly afford to cure my garlic crop, to say nothing of processing it, so I have devised other strategies to grow and market garlic.
First of all, we sell much of our crop as “green garlic.” In the fall, we plant the cloves densely together so that they grow thick. For lack of root space this garlic wouldn’t thrive if we left it in the ground to mature, but we harvest it young and tender, at a scallion stage. Being a fresh, green crop that is perishable, we face no competition in the local marketplace from the Chinese. Green garlic is flavorful but mild and can be used in many applications where cured garlic might make too forceful an impression on the palate. And I like that too, but what I really like is that green garlic is ready in early March, just when our farm has the least to harvest and I need all the sales I can get.
Secondly, every fall we plant some garlic two rows per forty-inch bed at a rate of one clove per every six inches. This garlic will fatten nicely and form a plump bulb. In the past we would have let this garlic fully mature and then we would have gone through the whole curing process. One problem we used to have is that during the curing process we would sometimes get a visit from the night time coastal fog rolling in over the fields. The garlic’s papery husk get damp in the fog and then turn gray, rather than remain the bone-white that the consumer appreciates, making it even harder to sell. Nowadays, we sell our full-sized garlic when it’s fresh. True, without curing, fresh garlic won’t keep, but we’re selling the garlic to people who are cooking with it, not storing it, and they appreciate the bright flavor and the juiciness that fresh garlic has.
Lastly, we often grow a small amount of so-called “snake garlic,” or Allium sativum ophioscorodon.” (Ophioskorodon is Greek for serpent.) A Muslim story has the first garlic sprouting from a print the Devil’s left cloven hoof left in the dust as he followed Adam and Eve out of the Garden, but this garlic earned its name, not because of any satanic relationship or culpability in the temptation of Eve but because the plant sends up a flower stalk that curls like snake. The flower bud is called a “scape,” and it is tender, and mildly flavored of garlic. Due to their unusual shape, garlic scapes make great vegetables for tempura. The scape harvest gives our farm an unusual crop to offer our customers and helps us to attract and maintain our restaurant clients. The scape harvest also comes a few weeks earlier that the fresh garlic harvest, which, again, helps even out cash flow. Once the snake garlic bulbs swell, they are sharp flavored and delicious. Because snake garlic is expensive and sometimes hard to find we’ll save the best heads of our own crop and cure them so that they store well and are available for us to plant back in the fall for our next year’s crop.
green garlic recipes
A-Z recipes from Mariquita Farm
Green Garlic pesto photo essay and recipe
our 2011 CSA has begun!
We appreciate the disfigurements that come with age– the bent backs, the scars and twisted limbs– as marks of great character and beauty…. in trees. Maybe that’s why the older I get, the more I admire the old trees; they age with distinction. When I encounter a tree that captures my imagination I’ll often photograph it, and sometimes I’ll go back and visit it. I’m sad to report that on a recent walk along the edge of an agricultural field near Moss Landing. I discovered that a favorite tree had disappeared. It was a rather comical Monterey cypress, a last lone sentinel remaining from what had once been a long, sturdy, green column of trees standing up to the strong winds that blow off Monterey Bay.
I suppose it’s silly and hypocritical to mourn a tree, especially a tree from a windbreak. We farmers are developers; we take “raw land” and shape it to our needs. We cut it, we drain it, we rip it, we plant it, and in creating our practical agricultural landscapes we destroy what existed before, whether it was a wild ecosystem or the remains of a historical but obsolete agricultural scheme. There are good reasons to cut down the old windbreaks. Big trees drink up lots of water, and water costs money. Wind breaks require maintenance, and labor costs money. A good windbreak takes up valuable real estate, and the trees can’t help but shade some percentage of the field, possibly even retarding the growth of the very crops the farmer harvests to pay the bills. And big trees don’t even make great windbreaks.
Cold, persistent wind is a fact of life in the Salinas Valley. The first farmers that settled on the valley floor planted miles of trees to mark the boundaries of their fields, to keep the soil they plowed from blowing away, and to shelter their crops from the wind. Near the bay the most popular tree planted for windbreaks was the Monterey Cypress because it tolerates the damp salt air. Further inland, Blue Gum eucalyptus trees were a common choice because they grow fast and tall. Eventually, the long lines of wind break trees became a dominant landscape feature in the Salinas Valley, and they softened the otherwise stark landscape.
For a tree to actually “break” the wind it needs to have a full, bushy profile. The best way to maintain an effective windbreak is to plant a second row of trees parallel to the first, once the first trees have got some height to them and their naked trunks are letting the breeze through. Eventually, even a third row of trees should be planted before the trees in the oldest row become senescent and begin to topple over in the wind. The farmers who planted the early wind breaks lived on the lands they cultivated. They felt relief from the raw wind in the lee of their trees, they gathered up the broken limbs that fell to the ground and chopped them up for firewood, and they looked on their lines of trees growing ever taller as proof that their dreams of transforming a windy and barren plain into a garden of Eden had taken root. Agriculture is an industrial process now and the wind rows are usually just considered to be in the way. In Greece a broken row of marble columns rising up out of the grass may mark the site of an ancient temple, but the spirit that once animated the building is dead. When today we see a row of tall trees marking an old windbreak it is a picturesque sight, but it is essentially a ruin.
Wind breaks have many benefits that are hard to quantify but are valuable nonetheless. If you’ve ever worked in an open field you know how nice it is to take your lunch sheltered from the breeze or the sun or the rain and to sit down with a solid trunk as a back rest. Migrating Monarch butterflies took advantage of the eucalyptus wind breaks in the Salinas Valley to mass together. Trees provide shelter for birds too. If you don’t want rodents pillaging the fields then give the hawks that hunt them a place to roost. If you don’t want insects to plague the crops then it makes sense- and money- to give birds a habitat to nest in and rest in. Birds eat bugs that damage crops, but the companies that sell insecticide will feel more comfortable if you forget that fact. Windbreaks can be such important habitat features that a few modern researchers have been inspired to design new kinds of windbreaks for new kinds of farms.
The Wild Farm Alliance is one organization that works to integrate farming systems with the natural environment and to change public perceptions about the role of birds, bugs and wild animals play in agriculture. The WFA promotes the idea of planting hedgerows along the edges of fields as a core organic practice. Modern, scientific hedgerows are often composed of a diverse mix of low-growing native bushes and herb that harbor a wide range of beneficial insects and animals. These biologically appropriate hedgerows aren’t as demanding on scarce water resources as the old style of windbreaks were. In fact, they’re probably better than the old rows of eucalyptus or cypress in almost all respects, but to my eye they lack the formal dignity and the historical presence of windbreaks that I loved from childhood. I reserve the right to be sentimental and to mourn the loss of the old trees whose time has passed. Maybe these two pictures I took several years apart from almost exactly the same spot can illustrate why; the field in Moss Landing when there were still a couple of cypress left standing, and the same field, seen from almost precisely the same vantage point after they were removed. Don’t the contorted cypresses make for a more compelling landscape? The third photo is of a relatively young eucalyptus windbreak near the mouth of the Arroyo Seco where it joins the Salinas River, outside of Greenfield, with the snowy Santa Lucia Mountains in the background. The last photo is of an elderberry hedgerow surrounding an agricultural field on Mariquita Farm in Hollister.
Copyright 2011 Andy Griffin
All photos by Andy Griffin
When I pick up a rifle and put my eye to the sights I have a choice; I can focus on the bead at the end of the barrel or I can look towards the distant target, but my eyesight is too poor to see both things at once. I’m not the hero of this story. I don’t even shoot at the ground squirrels that plague my farm for fear I’ll slay an innocent irrigation pipe, or worse, my left foot. But this is a tale of the hunt, another chapter in the saga of civilization’s struggle with Nature, and an account of how the stuffed head of a Mountain Goat came to hang on the wall of one man’s home in the suburbs of Salinas, California. So let me take you back to a starting point very near the end of the story, to this past Christmas and to a sock hung from the mantle of the fireplace in my living room.
Santa Claus is for kids. In my family adults don’t exchange gifts at Christmas. But Julia broke the rules this year when she saw a little button for sale– the kind that you can pin on your shirt. This button displays the little cartoon profile of a goat and above the tiny image floats the word “old.” Old goat. So she thought of me. She bought the button and put it in a Christmas stocking. I suppose her gift came wrapped with a subtle message too; perhaps my beard has grown to long, or maybe I ought to bathe more often. I accepted the gift, and the joke, and pinned the button to the band of my old black cowboy hat.
The “old goat” pictured on the pin is a barn yard goat, Capra hircus. I like goats. I’ve kept a flock for years. Goats are endlessly amusing creatures to watch, beautiful, and intelligent. The wild Mountain Goat that animates big game hunters and sends them on foot into the highest peaks is Oreamnos americanus, a very different animal from the domestic goat. True, there is a superficial resemblance between the two species; both sport beards and horns and cloven hooves, and both animals are related to deer, but they aren’t closely related to each other. The domestic goat comes from Western Asia and has been the companion of man for thousands of years while the few remaining Mountain goats hide in isolated mountains across the American West. Before whites came with rifles, Mountain goats ranged from the Chugach Mountains of Alaska down through the Rockies and the Cascades into Washington and Idaho. In modern times hunters have decimated the population over their natural range, but Mountain goats have been successfully introduced into places as far south as Nevada and Texas. Mountain goats are alpine animals. They are able to withstand profound cold– their coats help them to withstand temperatures as low as −50 °F and winds of up to 100 mph. Where mountain slopes plunge to the sea Mountain goats have been seen on the coast, but they typically inhabit the remote, high peaks, and they’re “at home” up to 13,000 ft. The size of these animals, their beauty, their rarity, and the difficulties a hunter must overcome to find a Mountain goat amid the crags and glaciers and kill it turns the hunt into a quest and makes the horned head a trophy beyond compare. I wasn’t thinking about any of this on the 2nd of January when I loaded my dog, Red, into my pick up truck, put my hat on, and drove out to Chew’s Ridge.
You reach Chew’s Ridge by driving up the Tassajara Road behind Jamesburg. There’s an old Forest Service lookout tower on the top of the ridge at 5082 ft elevation. When you arrive at the summit you see why they built the tower there; the view is spectacular. To the south and west stand the mountains that make up the rocky heart of the Santa Lucia Range; Cone Peak, the Ventana Double Cone, and Devil’s Peak. To the north and west and you can see over the Carmel Valley and Jack’s Peak to the mouth of the Salinas Valley where it spills into the Monterey Bay and across the bay all the way to the Santa Cruz Mountains in the blue distance. Look north and east and you see Palo Escrito Peak and the ridge line of the Sierra de Salinas. Paloma creek drains off towards the Arroyo Seco Gorge in the east. The Gabilan Range, the San Benito Mountains, and Kreyenhagen Peak lie beyond. After my father died we scattered his ashes on Chew’s Ridge, just down the slope on the north side of the lookout. He was a botanist and he did a lot of work in these mountains. We lived on a field station at the foot of the ridge. As far as final resting places with views of forever go, Chew’s Ridge is as good as any. I try and visit the spot a couple times a year.
Red and I saw the first snowflakes on the windshield of the pick-up truck as I drove past White Oaks Camp. “You’re going to enjoy this,” I said. Red is a Pyrenees Mountain dog and she loves snow. Soon there was a stripe of muddy snow between the tire tracks down the middle of the dirt road and then a solid white blanket covered everything. I put the truck in four wheel drive. Where the road crests the ridge there was eight inches of fresh snow on the ground. We got out and Red ran in circles, licking the snow and rolling. The pine trees with their trunks charred black by past wild fires stood out stark against the snow and the massive ancient oaks loomed in the mist like ghosts.
We crunched through the snow up a side road to the lookout tower. When Red and I got to the top of Chew’s Ridge we found ourselves in the middle of a cloud so thick I could hardly see the brush that presses up around the tower. I walked to the northern edge of the clearing and looked out into the white. I knew that down below us a half mile and a thousand feet or so, hidden in the mist, is a flattish, grassy, open area sprinkled with pines called the Bear Trap. Back during the Mexican times vaqueros used to ride all the way out there from Monterey to catch grizzly bears. They built a square cage of pine logs stacked one across another and lashed them tight together with strips of wet rawhide, three walls and a roof. They left one side open for a heavy pine wood door which was propped up by a sapling pole stripped of branches and leaves. For bait they’d hang a deer carcass from the roof. Then they’d tie a riata to the sapling pole and slip back into the brush to wait. A bear would inevitably come by– the hills were thick with them then, and as the Grizzlies were the lords of all they saw, afraid of no one or anything, they’d lumber right into the cage and rip at the meat. The hidden vaquero would tug on the riata, which would pull at the pole, which would fall to the ground and release the trap door to fall, which would imprison the bear. The vaqueros would then climb up on the cage, drop the loops of their ropes through the spaces between the pine logs and catch the bear by the head and each foot. When the bear was subdued they’d roll it onto an ox cart for the 40 mile ride down the trail to the arena in Monterey. Crowds would gather to watch the bear fight for life in a death match against a long horned bull. I comfort myself that every once in a while a vaquero got eaten when the bear hunt went sour.
When I was a kid there were old timers around who could still remember where the rotten pine logs had laid in a pile, which was all that was left of the bear trap that gave the meadow its name. They showed me where it had stood, but there was nothing left but grass. Below the Bear Trap though, near Carmel Valley Road, there was a hunting club that we called “the Fish Pond,” because of the murky lagoon back that lay behind a ring of rickety cabins. Most of the hunting club members were retired cops from Monterey, Seaside, and Del Rey Oaks, men like Al Hall. Of course his friends called him Al “K” Hall. The cops must have done some hunting, but mostly they drank. Steinbeck would have loved these guys. The County Sheriff’s deputies visited the club several times too, or maybe I should say, “they responded.” For example, two cops got drunk and one of them shot the other- a hunting accident. Then there was the time a cop went fishing in a row boat on the pond, got drunk, got tangled up in his fishing line, fell overboard, and drowned. Fishing accidents are hell. And then there was the time a cop got drunk, tripped, fell on his face into the fireplace and burned alive.
One day I went over to the Fish Pond with Jimmy. Jimmy had the ranch across the road from the hunting club. When I was a kid I used to help him with the chores. He was sore because the cops had been poaching does on his ranch and leaving the gates between the pastures open. Deer hunters are supposed buy deer tags- hunting permits- from the California Department of Fish and Game, and they’re supposed to tie the tags to the antlers of any buck they shoot to prove they had the right to kill it. They’re also supposed to ask permission before hunting on private land. Jimmy was reminding the cops that they didn’t have permission to hunt on his ranch when Officer Golden of the Fish and Game drove into the yard. He stayed in his pick up.
“Had any luck, fellas?” he called out. He’d heard some shots and was sniffing around.
“No luck this year,” one of the cops said.
“Hell,” said another cop. “No luck last ear either. We still got a fist full of old deer tags we never used.
“Don’t believe ‘em for a minute,” Jimmy said to Officer Golden. “Does haven’t got antlers.” He turned back to the cops. “I guess you could tie the tags to their ears.”
The cops chuckled, but Jimmy was half serious. He took hunting seriously. He was born in 1911 and came of age during the Great Depression when food had been hard to pay for and hunting had been a necessity; if you kill all the does, where is the next generation of deer going to come from?
My mood and my head were both starting to feel heavy so I took off my cowboy hat and knocked off the snow. The “Old goat” button looked back at me and I had to smile. Jimmy had an old goat named Bill. For Jimmy, a .30-06 was practically an extension of his trigger finger, and even years after he spent much time hunting he still could load and shoot a gun with a speed and accuracy that was practically instinctual. Good old Bill almost made Jimmy regret a perfect shot.
Bill was a stinky, ornery, brindle colored beast with naughty yellow eyes and a massive rack of curving horns that made him look a bit like a Bighorn Sheep. He’d been a cute kid once, a poor choice as a pet for some child, and the stupid parents that bought him had never bothered to get him castrated. So he got big, reached sexual maturity and started to smell. It’s really a mistake to let an un-castrated male goat become familiar; they move quickly with age from being affectionate to feeling dominant, and when they start butting their inferiors to prove that dominance, the silly, would-be pet owner can end up as a victim. Well some friend of a friend of Jimmy’s had gotten Bill as a kid, rough-housed with him when he was small and cute, and when he grew large enough to be dangerous, the didn’t know what to do with him they dropped him off at the corral. Then one day we slaughtered a steer.
At the edge of the corral, under the shade of a live oak tree, we had a walk-in cooler where Jimmy used to dry-age beef. The cooler was the back end of an old Formost Milk truck and there were a few steel steps to mount to enter the box. We’d hung the beef carcass from a limb outside the cooler and split it down the spine into halves with a chainsaw. Then we cut one of the halves along the rib line to make a quarter– it probably weighed 250lbs and it was greasy and hard to hold on to. Jimmy and I were struggling to haul the quarter up the steps into the cooler when Bill charged. He crashed into Jimmy from behind at the knees, driving his kneecaps into the metal steps and causing him to fall backwards into the dirt with both the quarter of beef and me landing on top of him. Jimmy’s face was red with pain and he let loose with a blue streak of invective, but as he staggered to his feet he swept up the .30-06 that he’d used to dispatch the steer. Quick as lightning he slammed the bolt home, raised the gun, and drew a bead on Bill’s horny head. Then…..then nothing. Jimmy let the rifle barrel dip.
“Look at that son of a bitch,” Jimmy said. “He’s proud of himself.”
It was true. Rancid old Bill was across the corral, all puffed up with glory, pissing on his own beard out of joy and curling his lip.
“I can’t kill him,” Jimmy said, “but he can’t live here.”
So we ran Bill up the cattle loading chute and into a pick up with stock racks, drove him up the Tassajara Road and jumped him out the back just past the Chew’s Ridge summit where there’s a barbed wire corral for Forest Service pack animals and a horse trough. With water, a view to die for, and more brush than a goat could eat in a million years, Bill was only short a few lady goats from being in heaven.
It must have been a year later that Jimmy had to meet some guy who lived in Greenfield. They decided to meet half way, so we drove down to Miller’s Lodge on the river. When we got there his friend hadn’t arrived yet so we went inside. A couple of old boys were at the bar bragging. “…. so then I made the kill shot,” one of the men said, letting out a lungful of blue smoke.
His friend was looking into a mug of beer. “You’re not going to believe this,” he replied, “but I bagged a Mountain goat last month.”
“Bullshit,” his friend said. “This is as far from Salinas as you’ve been in a year”
“I killed it here, up in the National Forest,” he said.
“I can still hardly believe it myself. I saw the tracks first. I was up on Chew’s Ridge, about half a mile down that jeep trail that drops off to Miller Canyon. The tracks were so big I thought it must be a monster buck, so I went back in the evening and hid up behind the spring. He came down for water, and… BANG!”
“You’re full of shit. There’s no Mountain goats here.”
“Yeah, I probably got the last one.”
“Hey, my word is as good as my aim; I’ve got the head mounted and it’s hanging on the wall of my den.
copyright Andy Griffin 2011
Photos by Andy Griffin: the ‘spooky forest’ is at Chews Ridge; the pin is his Christmas present; and the goat eye is of one of Andy’s billy goats
Upcoming mystery boxes in Los Gatos and Santa Cruz:
Los Gatos Thursday, Jan. 27th from 4-6pm (brussels sprouts, chantenay carrots, and butternut squash are also offered!)
Santa Cruz Wednesday, Feb. 2nd from 4:00-5:30pm (brussels sprouts, chantenay carrots, and butternut squash are also offered!)
Like us on Facebook if you do that sort of thing. Andy posts small tidbits and photos during the week.
Mariquita Farm 2011 CSA page (boxes start in March)
Every time we grow a new vegetable we like to take a picture of it for our on-line photo gallery. I’m not much of a food stylist, so some of these pictures come out looking more like mug shots than glossy spreads so I like to think of them as posters for “America’s Most Wanted” vegetables. This week we’re cutting- and photographing- Radicchio Castelfranco and Cavolfiore Alverde. What? you say that “most American’s don’t want Radicchio Castelfranco or Cavolfiore Alverde?” You’re probably right- for the moment- but there was a time when even broccoli was an ethnic vegetable welcome only in the Italian ghettos of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. At Mariquita Farm we like to grow things that are a little off-center, partly because learning about new crops keeps life interesting for us, and partly because once a vegetable becomes a commodity it’s production, distribution and sales is inevitably controlled by businesses that are too large for us to compete against. Trying to create new markets for vegetables that are considered “obscure” or “weird” here in the US makes me an “entrepreneur” of sorts. I don’t let the idea of being an “entrepreneur” go to my head though. Gayle, my book keeper, reminds me that the word “entrepreneur” is just “French for ‘can’t hold a job.'” So my “job” has become the promoting the consumption of the vegetables I grow. To that end, Julia and I maintain an on-line photo gallery of vegetable pictures linked to our encyclopedia of recipes, we send out our weekly photo and recipe “Ladybug postcard,” we e-publish an intermittent “Ladybug letter,” with essays and photos, we have started a Mariquita Farm Facebook page, and sometimes we host cooking classes. And yes, we harvest and grow vegetables. Next week we start the harvest of the first crop of Brussels Sprouts I’ve ever grown.
**** Julia’s Note about our various media:
1) the Ladybug Letter: this is it! It comes out every other week, and it’s usually a slightly longer piece from Andy… this week he was out of ideas for the essay so I suggested photographing some gorgeous winter produce in the sunny weather we’re having… and he wrote this bit of text to go with it. Last time he wrote about Carrots, that was a more typical Ladybug Letter.
2) Ladybug Post Card: this is a weekly blast year round on Mondays (we may change that to Tuesdays…) that replaces the former Two Small Farms newsletter. Our friend Chef Jonathan helps us with recipes, I still ‘curate’ recipes for this newsletter as well. Andy writes smaller pieces for this letter, and there are event announcements as well. The recipes in this newsletter will generally go with the vegetables we’re harvesting that week: for our CSA boxes, mystery boxes, and or ladybug truck deliveries. Anyone can be on this newsletter, of course.
3) Mariquita Farm Facebook Page: we know that not everyone does Facebook… but for those that do, this is a quick way to send out random small bits of information. This week Andy wrote about our interesting New Years Day with lambs and blood and caviar… but it was *such* a good story we decided to include it in the ladybug postcard. Usually these notes/stories will not overlap. On Facebook others can also post: recipes, photos, queries…
Mystery Box Winter Vegetable deliveries in the bay area: get your winter vegetables in SF, San Jose, Menlo Park, Los Gatos, and Palo Alto
Specific Upcoming Mystery Boxes and their Links to the Forms to Order:
Wednesday, 1-5-11 in Menlo Park 4-6pm
FORM to order for Menlo Park is here. (just click on the text to the left)
Thursday, 1-13-11 San Jose near SJSU 4pm to 6pm
FORM to order for San Jose is here. (just click on the text to the left)
SF: 1-20 at Slow Club; form link to come around the 13th
Friday, 1-21-11 Palo Alto 4:30-6pm**
FORM to order for Palo Alto is here. (just click on the text to the left)
**We will do mystery boxes this day, AND a cooking class with Indian cuisine. You can do either or both!
Upcoming Cooking Classes: Save the Dates:
Feb. 5th in Watsonville at Shelley’s house: topic and time tba
March 16th SF in the late afternoon/evening: cooking with your box!
March 17th Palo Alto: in the late afternoon/evening: cooking with your box!
March 19th Watsonville: cooking with your box! times tba