Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Farm Tour: The Day, The Month - 1/23/2013

Last Wednesday morning—a 5:15am wake-up ensured ample time for transportation and a stop for decadent pastries at Davenport’s Whale Tail CafĂ©—we embarked on the pre-EcoFarm full day farm tour, the beginning of the end of our month long exploration. Our California Agriculture class culminated with a three day farming conference: the first day was an offsite tour of four different farms around Pescadero, and the final two days were a series of engaging workshops with the backdrop of stunning Asilomar beach.
We arrived, jazzed but mildly groggy, at the tour’s commencement outside an old barn in Pescadero, California. The barn was a fitting introduction to the area, as we quickly learned that Pescadero’s character lags behind the contemporary. The quaint town looks exactly like it did 50 years ago, and its preservation is due largely to the lack of water in the region and strict zoning laws that prevent new development; “white flight” has made the area a Hispanic farming community. We received this information via a booming bus loudspeaker from none other than Amigo Bob Cantisano, an influential figure in California agriculture and founder of EcoFarm. We were fortunate enough to particpate in the conference’s 33rd year.
Amigo Bob and Larry Jacobs
The three large buses squeezed into a winding driveway, the narrow gravel road and unmarked property giving no indication that we were entering the original Jacobs Farm. We had the privilege of visiting the Jacobs Farm greenhouse operation in Freedom, CA during the initial week of our trip, and my post mentioned that Larry and Sandy Jacobs began selling culinary herbs out of the back of their little station wagon to San Francisco consumers during the 1980s. The broadcasted conversation between Amigo Bob and Larry Jacobs himself illuminated the inception of this original culinary herbs locale.
We stopped first in front of a group of small solar bungalows built discreetly into the hillside—these dwellings were constructed so that their insulation optimizes solar heat, and they provide housing for the farm’s employees. Larry encouraged us to pay careful attention to the rich grassland and eucalyptus growth around us as he recounted a brief history of the region. In 1840, the area where we were standing was part of a 3500-acre plot managed by the Santa Cruz mission, and in 1853, a New Englander by the name of Lafayette Chandler obtained the ranch, using its dry soil to farm barley, wheat, and potatoes. Soon, the land was producing flax for linseed oil—the Redwood City Gazette predicted that this was the new large-scale cash crop. In 1918, Japanese farmers came to the area and began farming peas—hence the term “Pescadero Peas”—and strawflowers, along with brussel sprouts, artichokes, and olallaberries. Specialty crops such as broccoli, lettuce, and squash proved both profitable and optimal for Pescaderos’ growing conditions, and these crops thus entered production plans from the 1930s onward. During the 1980s, Jacobs Farm emerged as the first organic farm in the area. The production of culinary herbs made sense from both the supply and the demand side. The soil of the region is heavy, containing merillonite clay and lacking water, and herbs can grow and thrive in these conditions. Moreover, Larry Jacobs pointed out that delivery space in their vehicle was limited—economically, it made much more sense to transport a couple of flats of herbs, which sell for $23/case, than to pile high the broccoli boxes, which only sell for $8/box.

The original field and packing shed
We continued our survey around the property, stopping to look at the constructed reservoir—with the scarcity, it makes more sense to obtain water this way than by drilling wells—the original herb field, and the original packing shed. Looking at the original ranch, it is both difficult and natural to fathom how Jacobs Farm is the primary culinary herb producer in the country. On one hand, the rustic, beautiful property seemed remote and disconnected from any intricate distribution system, yet on the other hand, one could easily see how the meticulous operations undertaken on the ranch could become large-scale with astute management. For a large organic farm, the Jacobs operation seems to be doing a conscientious job in regards to both quality and sustainability.
Dee Harley introduces her farm
After a brief bus ride, we arrived at Harley farm, the pioneer homestead venture for goat dairy in the region. 20 years ago, owner and founder Dee Harley was an employee of Jacobs Farm, a job in which she sold dry farmed tomatoes to a woman named Nancy Gaffney. Nancy had a couple of goats, and suggested that Dee try her hand at raising goats and making cheese. Dee grew up in Yorkshire, England, and had no experience raising animals—she lamented, “I had one goldfish, and it died!”—but she obtained a few goats and her experience quickly grew with the herd. Up until the herd numbered 32 animals, spunky Dee was milking twice a day all by herself. (“I was extremely strong, and my husband was very afraid. [Laughter] He still is.”) The herd now contains 200 goats, and their milk—now obtained through a milking machine—goes toward the production of four types of cheese: feta, fromage blanc, chevre, and soft ricotta.   

The exterior of the hayloft and storeroom
 We partitioned into smaller groups and my unit first looked at the beautiful old hayloft, complete with a long rustic redwood table, which holds farm and wedding dinners and other special events. This dining room is conveniently located over the storeroom, and we opportunistically sampled a variety of Harley’s acclaimed cheese. Both sweet and savory—chevre encrusted with apricot and pistachio, and fromage blanc with tomato and basil, for example—combinations of the four variants described above, the cheese was delectable and satisfying. We next made our way to the cheese room—the mechanized milking system deposits the milk into a cooling tank where it is then pasteurized; culture and vegetarian rennet are added after the liquid cools once again. After the whey and curds have separated, the cheese makers hang the solid matter in cloth bags, which allows the liquid to drip out. Hanging time dictates the type of cheese that emerges from this process—for instance, fromage blanc is softer and is thus hung for a shorter period of time than slightly harder chevre. Feta is made with twice the amount of culture and less milk, then aged in salt brine for two months to a year, while ricotta is boiled twice and then mixed with vinegar and salt. After the cheese room, we met the herd—a light drizzle kept the goats in the barn, which was ideal for our viewing ease but not for their high energy level.
A toothsome lunch of fluffy foccacia, butternut squash or ground beef soup, salad with goat cheese, roasted squash, and beets, and decadent apple pie provided a much anticipated midday break. As it drizzled outside, we enjoyed the meal in the old barn, and the quality ingredients in the food before us came from the tour’s featured farms—a hands-on experience, if you will. After further Jacobs Farms presentations on food safety protocol and the inception of the company’s socially just branch in Mexico, aptly named del Cabo, we boarded the buses for the short trip to Left Coast Beef.
The three-year old Angus steer
Tom Kat Ranch and Left Coast Beef is a joint operation on an idyllic 1800-acre ranch. The property’s goals are to conserve the biodiversity of the land, and to pay homage to the region’s past homesteaders—the ranch has preserved remnants, such as the dilapidated barn in which we stood, of the presence of Milky Lane Dairy. Just before, we had been to the last dairy—Harley’s—that still exists in Santa Cruz County. In 2002, a couple named Tom and Kat bought the ranch with a vision of turning it into an educational facility. Left Coast Beef, a welfare approved grass fed beef producer, has created a symbiotic relationship between its cattle and this fertile land through rotational grazing techniques. The ranch has 20 main pastures, subdivided and managed in order to give the chewed blades some much needed recovery time.    
The Egg-Mobile
 After viewing one of the three-year old Angus bulls, we observed the poultry portion of the rotational grazing relationship. The chickens, transported by the portable Egg-Mobile, pick through the cow patties after the cows have exhausted a pasture, gaining nutrients and bugs from the grassy waste. This symbiotic relationship is for profit, as well—Left Coast Beef uses the chickens for their contribution to the land rotation, yet the birds and the eggs they produce belong to Early Bird Farm. The interaction between agriculture and conservation lends nicely to the educational and foundational component of the ranch: PRBO, a Petaluma-based conservation science non-profit uses the land for research, and the property plays an active role in both the produce production and teaching methods of local school lunch initiatives.
At our final stop, Amigo Bob informed us that the farm tour aimed to feature young farmers; indeed, Fifth Crow Farm showcased a young couple that has fostered a successful business. Mike and Theresa are managing and farming an 80-acre plot of land on which they cultivate vegetables and raise chickens for eggs. The strategies that Mike and Theresa used to start their farm were both insightful and logical. Theresa stressed that even though it is difficult to obtain start-up capital, they were adamant about avoiding loans; starting small and utilizing a cycle of capitalizing and reinvesting enabled them to grow without debt. Theresa also cited marketing as the most important and most overlooked aspect of running a farm. Before entering a market, it is essential to recognize what already exists, and what novelty you are bringing to this market. By first infiltrating farmer’s markets (another question: How do you bring something new to a farmer’s market and thus gain your entry?) and then expanding to CSA production, Mike and Theresa diversified their income streams. Over the past month, many farmers have informed us that the price of food often does not reflect its true value. Theresa reiterated this point by emphasizing the importance of not feeling guilty for charging a fair—high—price that embodies the true cost of sustainable production; to charge otherwise would be to exploit oneself.
Crop fields at Fifth Crow Farm
One of the most remarkable things about the EcoFarm tour was how it illuminated the extensive knowledge that we gained during this experiential month. On the coastal drive between Pescadero and Asilomar, we reflected on all the instances that highlighted what we had learned—we had already become acquainted with cover cropping at Jacobs Farm, with the essential separation of whey and curds during cheese making, and with the basic mechanics behind a chicken tractor. In this way, the farm tour provided an appropriate encapsulation of the intensive education we received from this unique hands-on experience.    

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Monkeyflower Ranch - 1/21 &22/2013

Monkeyflower Ranch signature shot
Heritage pigs 
Our day at Monkeyflower Ranch, an artisanal cheese making operation, began with introductions to the various animals on the property. Heritage pigs came first—unlike conventional animals, which have become leaner per consumer demand, this traditional variant has a higher fat content. Pigs are useful to Monkeyflower Ranch because, among other scraps, they eat the whey that is produced as a byproduct in the cheese making process.
One of the sows had just birthed a litter the previous day, and thus we had the good fortune of viewing day old piglets. Of course all newborn animals are miniscule compared to their mothers, yet I was struck by how tiny the piglets were relative to the new mama—indeed, owner Rebecca King informed us that it is frightfully easy for the mother to roll over unassumingly and crush the new litter.
The day old piglets
It was lambing season, indeed—the “maternity ward” housed heavily pregnant ewes, and other pens encased week old lambs, tottering on spindly legs, and their doting mothers. This year, Rebecca and crew orchestrated the breeding process so that not all births occur at once—she noted the chaos that ensued when in previous years, 100 lambs were born in a week, 50 of them within a 48 hour span.    
  Ten years ago, University of Wisconsin imported ten Lacaune sheep from southern France, and one of the rams at Monkeyflower Ranch is this specialty breed. European food culture dictates that Roquefort cheese must be made with milk from the Lacaune breed in this particular region of France, and thus Monkeyflower Ranch possesses quite the specialty animal. Mixed breeds, however, are often more hearty than purebred animals, and thus the flock, about 150 animals in total, is mixed Lacaune and East Fresian, a breed known for its high milk production.
The rams
Sheep’s milk has double the amount of solid matter present in cow and goat’s milk, and the higher fat content facilitates the cheese making process. After viewing the vacant milking station, we entered the adjacent cheese making room. Garden Variety Cheese, the artisanal product of Monkeyflower, is made with raw sheep’s milk and hence the liquid must be quite fresh—using milk that has sat around for any more than a couple of days gives the cheese a funky flavor. As a devout lover of cheese, I am embarrassed to admit that I previously knew little about the process behind one of my favorite foods. Luckily, this informative session somewhat filled my knowledge void.
The pasteurizer
Cheese making begins with raw milk and cultures, which are all just variations of a slim few; subtle flavor differences come from the process itself. After allowing the cultures to grow in the raw milk at roughly body temperature for half an hour, cheese makers add rennet, an enzyme traditionally found in the stomach of baby animals. Vegetarian versions of rennet can be grown in the lab, but they do not lend to the highest quality cheese—Garden Variety uses an animal variant imported from Germany. Next, this thickened mixture is separated into whey and curds using a paddle with square slats—the mixture becomes heterogeneous, curd cubes suspended in whey liquid. This is where subtle manipulations create entirely different flavor—for instance, drawing off the whey and adding water yields mild gouda cheese, whereas heating the mixture to a higher temperature and rendering further whey from the cubes is the “cheddar-ing” process. When beginning her business, Rebecca did not set out to make certain varieties of cheese—rather, she experimented with the ingredients and conditions unique to her operation and developed her signature recipes through trial and error. She has a cheddar-style called Black Eyed Susan—each cheese is named after a sheep in the flock—and a Gouda-esque variant called Petunia, but each product is a true Garden Variety. 

The milking corral
Weeding the upper pastures occupied much of the afternoon. Our job was to eliminate camphor weed—the vibrant dandelion-like flowers are pleasant to the eyes, but the sheep are disdainful of the plant’s taste and thus coveted irrigation water gives life to a weed of little tangible valuable. The camphor hacking and pulling up was wholly satisfying, mainly because the plant has long, solid roots that let out a resounding pop when uprooted properly. Sheep milking occurred concurrently with our afternoon weeding session, and pairs of us cycled in to help with the milking process—refilling grain in the six milking stalls, attempting to hand-milk each gargantuan udder to test for infection, and when clear, hooking the animal up to the mechanized milking machine.   
Sheep milking in action
January 22nd: Today was very similar, as camphor weeding consumed our morning —how time flies out in the field! We set up neat rows of irrigation in the newly bare field, and some of us, myself included, got to drive the tractor used for pipe transport. A relaxing lunch, complete with a small-scale cheese tasting—we sampled Holyhock, a mild cheese with hints of pistachio and brown sugar, and Moonflower, the eight-month aging process giving this variant a sharp edge. Back to the field, and finally, the production room. I got up close and personal with freshly made yogurt cheese, placing hefty dollops in individual containers for farmer's market sales. We concluded our day by cradling some of the baby lambs. They are exceedingly rambunctious, but once these babies are held firmly in adoring arms, they relax, eyes half closed in the late afternoon light. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Living on the Land - 1/19/2013

Lunch time cider pressing
I assumed the role of tour guide the next morning when I led my parents on the same route we had taken just days before. After I eagerly consumed a breakfast of leftover carrot cake, we all got to work on some strawberry rows. Previous learners had planted the strawberries, and our task was to apply gypsum along the tops of the rows and cover the long beds with biodegradable green plastic mulch, which keeps the weeds down and aids with water retention. After marking each strawberry location with a Popsicle stick, we rolled out and stapled down the plastic—the sticks punctured this layer, allowing us to come back and cut holes for the plants. After examining the irrigation system, we spread hay between each row and broke for lunch and pizza dough preparation. Indeed, our dinner promised an all day preparation process, as we left the stretchy dough to rise all afternoon.
After pressing cider from some of the apples we had deemed “ugly” the previous day—I aptly dubbed the resulting liquid “nectar,” which caught on quickly—and feasting on leftovers, we went out to the outdoor pizza oven to light the fire. Our kindling and wood was soon ablaze, disintegrating into a pile of coveted embers. Meanwhile, we did some “double digging” in the Discovery Garden. Double digging involves weeding an entire unplanted bed and then covering it with compost; the namesake step involves shoveling down into the soil, aerating each portion with a pitchfork—rocking back and forth with the prongs to allow oxygen in—and then re-covering the dig with a mix of the soil and compost. This soil was like clay, and the compost so hot and nitrogenous that it would “fry” any plant on contact, hence why winter is an ideal time to revitalize the soil in this way. The other afternoon session was helping trim goat toenails. In pairs, we held the frightened goats while Laura, primary farm employee, expertly snipped off the long hoof matter.
Emily and Ali "double dig"
Sam and Amelia assist with the goat toenails 
As dinnertime approached, we got to work making personal pizzas from an impressive topping spread. Mine—one half brushed with olive oil, topped with thinly sliced meyer lemon, fried garlic, caramelized onions, and a bit of kale, strategically placed dabs of basil-parsley pesto rounding out the combination. The other half was traditional red sauce topped with thinly sliced butternut squash, broccoli, oregano, and thyme; I sprinkled finely grated cheese over the whole unit. 
My pizza awaiting the oven
Unfortunately, the oven had gotten a bit too cold by the time we constructed our pizzas and scraped the fire remnants out of the internal dome, but this only increased cooking time. We put four or five in at once, and each personal pizza emerged looking beautiful and doughy. Looks, however, are only crust deep—a salt malfunction during the dough-making process ensured that the crust was more like a salted pretzel. This type of meal enables one to savor both the experience and the flavor, and the former certainly sufficed to make this meal enjoyable.    

Many thanks to Professor Art for a couple of key pictures.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Birthday Surprise - 1 /18/2013

The fruits of our labor
“Another day in paradise,” Professor Art has said every day, without fail, as us two early risers look out on the delicate light of the past couple of mornings. I can attest to the validity of this statement—at least, as a similar lover of blue skies and farm activity in beautiful weather. Even during the winter, Fridays on the farm are big harvest days because of the weekend farmer’s market. We began the day by picking a couple of crates of meyer lemons and harvesting and bunching rosemary sprigs—the combination of smells conjured one of my favorite pasta dishes, a decadent lemon-rosemary-parmesan that I anticipated making that evening. Little did I know, a surprise would impede my planned cooking extravaganza…
David and Amelia propagate seeds

While a few others and I completed these two tasks, part of our group propagated seeds, which is the intermediary process of planting seeds—broccoli, in this case—in flats so that they can reach a certain level of maturity before going out into the fields. We transitioned seamlessly into pruning quince trees; all of us found this type of snipping more difficult than retraining the grape vines. Rather than trimming specific branches on each tree, pruning the quince did not have set guidelines—we were instructed simply to help the tree maintain its fruit-bearing capabilities. It was enjoyable nonetheless, and after a couple of rows, we broke for our midday meal.
After lunch, Farmer Tom walked us through the software that is essential to his management of the CSA. Called “Farmigo,” this tech tool keeps track of all of the CSA members: where they pick up, what size box they have ordered, and how and how much they have paid. Farmigo also has a “Box Builder” tool, which inventories all the different crops that have been harvested that week; this helps Farmer Tom put together boxes based on what is available that include the necessary variety of leafy greens, alliums, fruits, and stewing vegetables. It also includes a packing feature that Tom can print off—in Spanish—and give to the farm crew so that they know which boxes to load where for appropriate delivery. Farmer Tom could not say enough about how Farmigo has streamlined technical CSA operations. 
Baby lettuce awaiting the fields 
Next, we went down to the packing shed for some relatively large-scale apple sorting. We were greeted by two gargantuan bins, each holding about 800 pounds of apples, and were instructed to sort them based on “the good, the bad, and the ugly”—the good would go to the farmer’s market, the rotting bad would go to the chickens, and the ugly yet edible would go to Martinelli’s apple cider factory for pressing. As egg washing took place simultaneously, the “core” apple group, myself included, stood over these bins for a fast couple of hours—it’s funny what repetitive, in-depth apple sorting will do to young minds. By the time we saw the bottom of the second bin, we had analyzed sorting methodology—farmer’s market until proven otherwise, or ugly until proven worthy of premium consumers?—and I, the economics major, was exceedingly curious about just how much compensation someone would have to receive to eat one of the rotting apples. A couple more hours, and someone probably would have taken a bite…Farmer Tom informed us at the day’s conclusion that—surprise, surprise—some of the mold can be toxic.    
Apple sorting 
And what a surprise I got upon arriving back at the farm kitchen. From the distance, I spotted a figure that looked all too familiar. It couldn’t be…but it was! My mother and father had come down to Watsonville for my birthday, bearing delicious food and drink. A decadent spread of cured meats and selected cheeses and crackers—and of course, Lagunitas—awaited us. This was only the beginning: next came my favorite squash soup, made with stock form from my dad’s chicken, and three savory galettes. All three had the same buttery yet light crust and cheesy egg base, yet the vegetarian interiors differed—one was butternut squash, fennel, and mushroom, the other artichoke hearts and caramelized onions, and the final was beets and swiss chard. Farmer Tom joined us, bringing homemade quince jelly, some local drink, and further stimulating conversation. A most wonderful hours long eating and talking extravaganza ensued, the consumption finally concluded with my mother’s meyer lemon squares and a three layer carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and edible flowers. The fun, however, continued, with a game of Bananagrams “snatch” and a raucous round of telephone Pictionary. What a way to spend my 22nd birthday!
Cutting the masterpiece cake

Live Earth Farm - 1/17/2013

The Newton Creek riparian area around Live Earth
It was appropriate that Live Earth Farm Education Coordinator Jessica introduced us to the land. Since its inception in 1996, Live Earth Farm has always had an educational component, and the Montessori school children that were scampering around today were testament to the farm’s outreach commitment. We spent the morning exploring the property with Jessica, her baby Current strapped firmly on her back as we traversed the hilly terrain.    
Jessica and baby Current plus lemons
The farm is 150 acres total, with 80 in production—this expanse feeds 800 families through CSA boxes, an impressive increase from 10 families off of 1 acre when the farm began. The farm produces both fruits and vegetables mainly for its CSA members. Both Jessica and owner “Farmer Tom,” who we spoke with in the afternoon, emphasized that community-shared agriculture is truly about consumers sharing risk with the farmer and having a stake in the production. Members pay in advance to receive a set box each week; this requires a “dance” with consumers, as they must learn to eat seasonally and accept certain imperfections. This commitment extends in both directions: Live Earth Farm sources to farmer’s markets—five a week during the summer, two during winter—and restaurants only after it has met CSA demand.   
I bring up the rear in our farm tour
Social justice and environmental protection are also important aspects of farm operations. The Live Earth farm crew is an extended family of immigrant farm workers, and they are employed year after year, most of them all year round—when labor demand decreases during the winter, the women usually work less and spend time with their children. Live Earth Farm provides the crew with leased housing on the farm as well. Live Earth Farm practices organic production, and Jessica emphasized the constant search for improvement—for instance, she acknowledged that they would like to switch to biofuels for the tractors, but have not yet come up with an economically feasible way to do so. Sustainable and marginally profitable agricultural production is certainly an ever evolving practice.   
Crew member's house
Compost production

It was truly June-uary today—we spent lunch outside in the nearly 70-degree weather, soaking up the sun. Mild-mannered and articulate, Farmer Tom came over and thus began an engaging two and a half hour discussion. He grew up in Ecuador and attended Cornell University to study plant science; as many recent graduates do, he joined the Peace Corps and was placed in Samoa. This island experience piqued his interest in the interaction between unique climates and environmental degradation. After a stint with the EPA and the apprenticeship program at UCSC, Farmer Tom settled on Watsonville. He was inspired by the picturesque landscape, optimal climate, and possibility of networking with other farmers. Like all of the other farmers that we have spoken with, Tom is in this profession because he loves “living on the land” despite the slim profit margin.
Discussion with Farmer Tom
Farmer Tom’s view was candid and pragmatic. He challenged us to think about what inspires us “on the farm,” to think of solutions for emerging young farmers such as a legitimate accreditation program that teaches skills appropriate for the profession, and to recognize that the Farm Bill is not just for farmers. Perhaps there needs to be a place for big ag and genetically modified foods; Farmer Tom was certainly averse to these methods, but recognized that they “are here to stay.” He urged us to look beyond conventional vs. organic and instead think of farming as a sustainable enterprise between the environment, social and cultural factors, and feasible economics.
The requisite dinner picture emerges. Made entirely from the ingredients we received as "work trade," the potato-leek soup was hearty and creamy even without any added dairy; the texture of the potatoes gave the liquid its velvety consistency. The red kale salad was massaged with meyer lemon juice and spices and topped with thinly sliced apples and avocados—this and the broiled sourdough and cheese toast were the only lapses in on-site production. The dinner did little to dispel my perception that we're living in foodie heaven...