September 19, 2010 § 1 Comment
It was 59 degrees in San Francisco, the city shrouded in mist and fog. But as soon as I got on Route 242 at Walnut Creek, heading north to Concord and then east to Brentwood, I entered a completely different microclimate: the block of gray fog gave way to a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the sun warmed the air to a toasty 80 degrees.
I drove through what looked like a standard-issue, nicer Bay Area suburb, passing by a Starbucks and a golf course, before heading east out of town on Route 4. Quickly, shopping plazas gave way to farm fields, quilts of green lining the two-lane road. I turned right just past a cemetery and rumbled down a narrow gravel lane, following an irrigation canal to a circular drive that announced the presence of a two-story shed-like building.
I’d arrived at Frog Hollow Farm for my tour with Farmer Al, which all started with my solo attendance at the Food Heroes event a week prior.
I didn’t know what to expect. And, since I wasn’t a journalist writing an “official” story on the farm, or someone in the food business with a particular learning objective, I honestly didn’t know how to approach the visit. But when Farmer Al invited me to hop onto his golf cart for a leisurely ride around the 133-acre orchard, I eased into simply being me: asking lots of questions whose answers I was curious about.
Somehow, two hours passed, apple pie was shared and the farm’s marketing director’s birthday was celebrated before I left to drive back home. I learned a lot about what it takes to run an organic orchard in California. But the biggest thing I learned is applicable in any career and life path: how important it is to take risks; how true it is that fortune sides with those who dare.
Farmer Al has achieved what many devotees of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and participants in today’s dialogue about the “corporate-ized” food system worry is extremely difficult to accomplish: he runs a profitable, organic, small family farm, and has for years. He sells a bulk of his produce locally via groceries, farmers’ markets and a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program (plus a portion through mail order). Farmer Al’s view is that his farm is profitable in large part because of his willingness to take risks.
“Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.” –Louis Pasteur
First risk: Going into farming at all. Farmer Al’s training was in education, not agriculture. He wanted to go back to the land, and 34 years later, he grows and sells, as Frog Hollow Farm’s tagline says, “legendary fruit” (and in my opinion, the plums and pluots, now in season, live up to their claim). Now, Farmer Al is the first to say that he got lucky on the terroir (the special characteristics that the geography imparts to his produce) of the plot of land he chose for the farm. But as Pasteur said, sometimes discovering the next thing in your life happens when you’re ready to turn an accident into an opportunity.
Personally, I have experienced this first-hand: if I hadn’t decided to leave my last job to figure out how to create a more balanced, joyful and fuller life, I never would have discovered my newfound passion for edible gardening or rediscovered my love of cooking and writing. I didn’t plan to love gardening or get back into cooking and writing, but I did purposefully keep my mind open and ready for whatever might capture my imagination. And if I hadn’t, I’d never be writing this very line.
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” –Seneca
Second risk: Farmer Al leaves his fruit on the tree, on average, three days longer than other farmers do to allow an extra 5-10% of sugar to form so that when customers buy his fruit, it has a riper, sweeter flavor, distinguishing it from much of the other fruit on the market. Most farmers will pick sooner so they don’t risk waste from fruit dropping off the tree or becoming too ripe to sell.
This idea has been a theme of sorts for me over the past eight months that I’ve taken off of work. There are so many things I didn’t know how to do eight months ago – shoot a gun, make and can jams and preserves, do a headstand, make a good pie crust, bake tres leches cake, grow vegetables, figure out creative ways to defend my strawberries from the critters — that I probably wouldn’t have learned to do if I had approached each opportunity to do them with the mindset, “Why?” instead of what I did, which was, “Why not?”.
“There is the risk you cannot afford to take, [and] there is the risk you cannot afford not to take.” –Peter Drucker
Third risk: Farmer Al vertically integrated his operation. Typically, 75% of the fruit grown can be sold wholesale to groceries and direct-to-consumer through farmers’ markets and the CSA. Much of the remaining 25% is perfectly good fruit, but because it may have a surface scar or a slight bruise, or be a bit over-ripe, it can’t be sold through those outlets. So Farmer Al spent the funds to build a gleaming commercial kitchen to craft conserves, jams, olive oils, tarts and dried fruit products — meaning that what would otherwise be waste is transformed into tasty and value-added products.
For me, not taking the risk of taking a year off of work would have been dangerous. Not spending days learning about S.F. microclimates and the fact that artichokes grow a heck of a lot better in this city than do tomatoes, or trying different pie crust recipes until I found one that was buttery in taste and flaky in texture, would have meant significantly less happiness in my life. And ultimately, given that we all have this one life to live, can any of us afford to forgo the small joys we can discover and incorporate into even the busiest of daily lives?
“The universe will reward you for taking risks on its behalf.” –Shakti Gawain
Now, let’s be clear: while Frog Hollow Farm is profitable, Farmer Al doesn’t appear to be a wealthy man by U.S. capitalist standards. He works hard, and he’s plowed his profits back into his business to enable its continued growth and success; the trade-off is that he, his wife and two kids still live in a very modest trailer on the farm. But, at least from the perspective of an outsider who’s spent a few hours with him, he’s rich in other ways: he’s built a reservoir of agricultural and managerial knowledge; he has his health and a lovely family (his wife, Becky, runs the commercial kitchen and makes a mean pie crust); and he’s found — and cultivates — his calling in life.
“The joy is being part of the full circle of creating food and sharing it with people.” –Farmer Al
Yeah…I can’t sum it up much better than that.
September 9, 2010 § 11 Comments
How — and where — might this happen, you ask? Well, imagine yourself walking down a fairly empty street in a city after dark, searching for a wine bar that’s hosting an event that you’re intrigued by — so intrigued that you’re attending this event all by yourself on a Wednesday night. You’ve never been to this bar, so you don’t know where it is, and after you pass an oil change shop and a laundromat but no signs of a lively affair, you feel a slight thread of anxiety weaving its way into your mind as you wonder, “What am I getting myself into?”
But then you see a giant portable pizza oven set up on the sidewalk, spitting out what looks like gourmet thin-crust pizza, and some hipster-y looking folks milling about with paper cups of what you soon discover is Four Barrel coffee, and someone pulling up on a Vespa. You suddenly recognize that you’re in the right place.
You walk into the bar, the room bathed in warm light and the walls lined with hundreds of bottles of European wine. You push your way through a huge crowd of people sipping wine and sampling the goodies offered by eight artisan food producers that are there for the evening — everything from vanilla pear butter that has an unexpected but lovely savory quality, to a whiskey chocolate truffle, to lacy florentine cookies, to spicy dry salami.
You feel a bit unmoored, being there alone in a crowd of people who have all clearly brought a friend — or five. You’re nibbling on another chocolate truffle — this one with fresh raspberry jam inside — and you’re wondering if you should go home, even though you’ve only been there for 10 minutes.
Then, suddenly, you notice a celebrity of sorts, commanding presence in the room. He stands out in this room of hipsters and young professionals. He’s a tall guy in overalls, silver streaks in his hair, and tanned skin that crinkles at his eyes when he flashes his electric grin, which he seems to do often. People seem eager to talk to him. The chocolate producer goes a bit agog when this guy comes over to nab a sweet, telling him that he visits his stand every Saturday at the farmers’ market.
You have absolutely no idea who this guy is. So, you decide to eat another whiskey chocolate truffle. When a soft moan escapes your mouth because it’s so darned good, and you ask the chocolate producer if he makes those with bourbon, and you get into a spirited dialogue about where to get the best bourbons*, you sense that the guy in overalls is smiling at you. Perhaps he’s amused that someone he doesn’t expect to loves bourbon.
Well, this is how I got waylaid by a farmer. Farmer Al of Frog Hollow Farm.
Those of you who frequent the Ferry Building in S.F. know this place — they have a shop in the building that sells their jams, pastries, coffee and some fruit, and a farmstand out back on Saturdays that sells 25 varieties of peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots, pluots, plums, Asian and European pears and table grapes grown on a 133-acre organic farm on the Sacramento River Delta.
For whatever reason, Farmer Al and I got to talking. He brought me over to his table, where I sampled Flavor King pluots and Emerald Beaut plums, peaches and cherry tomatoes (those pluots and plums were out of this world!). He told me his life story: how he grew up in Berkeley, started out teaching in Hawaii, then realized he wanted to go back to the land before anyone was doing that. How he didn’t know a thing about farming until he started doing it by planting his first peach tree in 1976. How he didn’t think he wanted kids until he married a woman who wanted them, and how it’s transformed his life into an even better existence. About his nephew, named Khyber, after the pass. About how much he loves his life.
His passion for growing the best fruit out there, and for doing it sustainably, was infectious**. To play on a theme I wrote about earlier this week, here was a man who was clearly following his bliss.
I think we ended up talking for 40 minutes. Not that I was keeping track; I was having too much fun. And not that I had a plan for that night with which this conversation interfered.
In fact, one thing I’ve discovered this year is that often, the best things happen when you have no plan. They happen when you allow yourself to go with what feels good and right, when you are fully present in the moment, when you keep yourself open to whatever might seem intriguing.
*If you, like me, love bourbon, try Pican in Oakland, which has an impressive bourbon tasting menu (BIG thanks to our friends Andy & Georgie who introduced us to it). The San Francisco Wine Trading Company also has a killer selection.
**So infectious that I asked Farmer Al if he’d take me on a tour of his farm. He said yes! So I’ll share that story with you once it happens. UPDATE: Here’s the link to the post about my visit.
So, what exactly is this event I went to, you might be asking?
It was an event celebrating the launch of a book called Food Heroes by Georgia Pellegrini at a wine bar, Terroir. Food Heroes tells the stories and recipes of 16 culinary artisans across the world. Georgia’s own story is fascinating: she started at Lehman Brothers but decided that analyzing spreadsheets for 16 hours a day wasn’t her thing, at which point she enrolled at the French Culinary Institute and landed jobs at renowned farm-to-table restaurants (Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and La Chassagnette in France) before publishing this book. She has another, Girl Hunter, on the way, along with a TV show.
Click here to see photos of the event and descriptions of the artisan food producers who were there, and to learn more about Georgia.
Click here to learn more about the book, Food Heroes.
I’m going to read the book over the next couple of months. If you want to read it with me, let me know. I’d love to have some like-minded locavores to read and discuss it with.
And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with someone else you think would be tickled by it.