Fortune Sides With Those Who Dare — What I Discovered at Frog Hollow Farm

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.


What risks have you — or do you WANT to — take?
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