Archive for March, 2007

Saying Goodbye, from Andy

The numbers don’t lie. Since the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market moved from its temporary site at Green Street to the Ferry Building our gross receipts have fallen. Meanwhile, our farm’s costs, like labor, diesel, insurance, electricity, seeds, and supplies continue to rise. If I thought that raising prices for our vegetables would make our farmers market stall more profitable I would do so, but I doubt that charging more is going to make much difference over the long haul. This candid posting about the Ferry Plaza Market from the Yelp web site by “Toro E.” in April, 2006, is instructive. After making glowing comments about the market’s setting and the prepared foods Toro writes, “ I usually leave the place with only few things in my hand.  I know many people do all their grocery shopping here, but I think it’s easier to get that done at Trader Joe’s, throwing bags in the car trunk rather than lugging it back from Ferry Plaza walking. ”

The market has changed. Many farms have changed with it by turning their attention towards providing value added products like juices, preserves, herbal salts, and snacks that can be eaten out of hand. We’ve changed at Mariquita Farm too, by focusing on serving the restaurant trade to make up for lost retail sales. I figure that if I can’t sell fresh vegetables to diners and tourists, then I’ll sell my vegetables to the chefs that cook for them. But with a selection of bulky, fresh, wet, dripping, heavy crops that need to be prepared, we are ill suited to take advantage of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market’s upscale retail demographics. Vegetables we don’t sell at market can’t go back into inventory the way salted nuts or frozen juices can, but have to be counted as a loss against the day’s sales. The farms that we compete with at market for the cooking public’s vegetable dollars are better than they’ve ever been too, and there are more of them. Sometimes the hardest business decision to make well is to decide when to quit. Ego gets in the way.

Julia and I are proud of the contribution that our farm has made to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market over the years. We’ve been there since the beginning. We’re bowing out now, but my ego isn’t sore. I’m not quitting farming, I’m just changing how we do business. Our farm is stable and solvent. I’m sad, because over the years Julia and I have made many friends in San Francisco, and we won’t be able to see them every week any more. Saturday at the farmers market has been the high point of our social lives for years, and no matter whether Julia or I went to the market, the first question we’ve always asked each other when the truck got back to the ranch wasn’t, “How much money did you make?” but “Who did you see?”

Thinking back, it’s hard to fix on any moment that was the high point of the farmers market for me. I remember once I was able to display a harvest of strawberries, sweet peas, basil, lavender, mint, and thyme all at once, and the fragrance was almost overwhelming. Customers stopped in front of the stall like I’d clubbed them with a mallet. One woman, who worked as a Muni driver, said that my stall smelled so good it made her want to cry. That was a nice morning.
I remember, too, the first time I sold vegetables to Mr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and San Francisco always seemed as distant to me as Constantinople. In high school, when I was 15, our class took a field trip to the Steinhart Aquarium, and I slipped away from the schools of fish and crossed town for a pilgrimage to the City Lights Bookstore. My literature teacher, Wally LeValley, had been a taxi driver in North Beach during the poetry renaissance, and he turned me on to the Beat writers. Mr. Ferlinghetti. had a lot of moxie to take on the Federal Government and fight for the right for the right to publish Ginsberg’s poem Howl. He won that battle so that any of us can publish uncensored poetry! That was a real Patriot Act. So years later, when Mr. Ferlinghetti came to my stall for broccoli and cippolini, it made me feel good to have something for sale that he appreciated.

All the years in the Ferry Plaza Farmers market gave me a chance to meet a lot of interesting San Franciscans, but some of the most pleasant times at every market have been the moments at dawn just before the people showed up when I could step back and admire all the colors and smells and shapes in my vegetable display. I’d pause for a moment, and then, back at Green Street, the flock of parrots from Telegraph Hill would swoop over the market, right on schedule, squawking and scandalizing in their flight as they made their way to their hidden gardens. Then the crowds would pour into the parking lot, and the day would be a blur until I’d get home and tell Julia who I’d seen.

Customers who’ve shopped with us since the beginning can remember how many times  I’ve changed our farm’s mix of products over the years. I started out with salad greens and tomatoes, then turned to herbs, flowers and strawberries, and more lately focused on bunched greens and heirloom Italian vegetables. It’s never enough to just grow vegetables to survive as a farmer. The challenge of farming is to change as fast as the marketplace does. The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that everything always changes. Like the poet said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” We’re not dying at Mariquita Farm, we’re just molting.

Julia and I plan to focus ourselves on  Two Small Farms community supported agriculture program that we run in partnership with High Ground Organic Farms, and we intend to improve service to our restaurant account. Julia and I are going to keep putting out our Ladybug Letter because it’s a project we enjoy doing together, and we’ve started a blog because we want to stay in touch with the people we’ve met as best we can. Look for a newsletter article soon on how Mariquita Farm goats are working to restore native California coastal prairie habitat at High Ground Organic Farm in Watsonville.

And we’re going to continue to open Mariquita Farm up to the public for u-picks and open houses. This summer I hope to host America’s first Pimiento de Padron u-pick. Maybe I can convince one of my chef friends to come and toast some peppers in a skillet so that we can all enjoy tapas. Laura Kummerer, the native plant specialist who is guiding the habitat restoration project at High Ground with my goats, is planning to host a no charge field trip to show any interested people what we’re up to. High Ground is a gorgeous ranch, so I encourage you to visit. Check our next newsletter or our blog for details of this, and other events. When my crop of red flowered fava beans is ready to harvest I’d like to share the seed with gardeners who would like to help me pick and clean the crop. Details tba when the beans begin to dry.

The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has been good to us over the years, and any number of times a good day at market helped us make payroll. Julia and I can feel confident as we evolve our new marketing strategy in part because we have met so many chefs and restauranteurs at market over the years. It is our hope that another small farm can take our space and grow into a strong, sustainable business by taking advantage of the unique opportunity that the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market offers. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to serve on the Ferry Plaza Board. It was a great education. I want to thank all of you for your support over the years, and I especially want to thank farmers market’s founding Executive Director, Ms. Sibella Kraus, for inviting us into the market in the first place. I’m grateful for all the work the C.U.E.S.A. staff puts in on behalf of farmers like us and I’m thankful to Dexter Carmichael, the manager, for all the hard work he’s put in over the years. Thanks again. I’ll miss you all. Andy

here’s a gift to all our ‘frequent market customers’: a virtual farm bouquet of unexpected agricultural flowers

Julia’s note: I’ll MISS THE MARKET. And…. we hope to see many of our frequent customers and friends down on our farm when we have open days, and at dinners we’ll attend and host with restaurants we sell to.  -julia

The “Scape Pig” And Other Fairy Tales

Pity the hog. Observant Jews won’t eat pork because it’s unclean. Neither will Muslims. Christians love pork, but when Jesus of Nazareth wanted to tell the story of the prodigal son he illustrated how the young man hit rock bottom by making him a swine herd before sending him home to the forgiveness of a loving father who slaughtered a fatted calf to welcome him back. The pig gets no respect, which is why, when the press decided that “Once upon a time” a dirty swine was voted the most likely vector for the E. coli O157: H7 contamination in bagged spinach and spring mix salad greens that killed three people and sickened at least 200 others last year I smelled the feces of the “scape pig.” Recent developments in the story reaffirm my convictions.

Here in Watsonville there is a VERY LARGE strawberry farm, whose fields entirely surround a very small feedlot and slaughterhouse facility. The fellow who runs the feedlot/slaughterhouse brings in goats from Texas to slaughter for sale to local Watsonville customers who want authentic birria for quinceaneras, bodas, and general pachangas. He also has a number cattle for people who want fresh beef. Recently the strawberry company found out that the cattle feces at the feedlot in the middle of their fields tested positive for the pathogenic E. coli strain that killed people last year. Because the strawberry corporation is a socially responsible BIG corporation with BIG money to lose if they are the cause of illness or death they naturally enough want the small feedlot operator to go out of business or (and this is the interesting part) put BIRD NETTING over the feedlot!

Do Pigs fly? Of course not. Rumors fly. Fear takes flight. Emotions and pigs run wild. The point is that the VERY LARGE STRAWBERRY GROWER doesn’t have the right to run the feedlot out of business just because there is a chance that a bird might stop to eat the seeds out of a cow turd and then fly across the fence and sit on a strawberry. They’re not going to talk about this in their advertisements because fears and rumors fly farther than birds, but nobody, apart from the press and the public, believe that keeping pigs away from the fields is going to solve America’s food insecurity issues. I have farmed the land where the VERY LARGE STRAWBERRY GROWER is farming, and I’ve had goats slaughtered at the slaughterhouse before I learned how to do it myself, so I’m watching the story unfold with much interest. I’m especially watching to see what happen when the press gets hold of this story .

I don’t want to make light of the dangers posed by contaminated food. Far from it. I’m a food producer. But it seems to me that the biggest threat to America’s food security is not posed by any particular strain of bacteria but the immense concentration of production and distribution in a few hands. As I pointed out in a previous article, where a single company controls production for a few gargantuan distributors one dirty blade on one harvesting machine can contaminate the salads consumed by hundreds of thousands of consumers. When most of the greens are for a vast nation are handled by one company out of one facility it seems to me as though the danger of infecting a whole nation are higher than if many smaller producers are handling local business out of scattered facilities. Maybe with diffuse food production by many smaller producers there is a greater risk that any individual producer may fail at their task and sell infected food, but at least the whole nation isn’t stricken at once.

Obviously we have to learn how to purify the food chain at every level, and no effort is wasted that goes to making the food supply more secure. But it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about the devastating implications of having a few large producers handle the food supply for a vast nation. We should be talking about how we can recreate a diffuse food net with lots of local suppliers over the whole nation. Food security is about more than prevention. There ought to be a pro-active element to any security that involves a lot of people. Reinvigoration of local food sheds, a greater acquaintance by consumers with the sources of their food and the practices of production, and a greater openness on the part of producers are all part of the overall strategy for success. If the public doesn’t play it’s part in the ongoing debate about food security they are going to get politicians who offer to solve the problem by having cowboys fix diapers on cattle while contractors cover the skies with bird netting. And everyone lived happily ever after.

My patience with this issue is over for the evening. Just for fun, so I don’t end on a sour note here’s a piece I wrote about a real fairy tale.

Eating Rapunzel

Everybody knows the prince says “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” but do they know what Rapunzel means?.

The pregnant mother in the fairy tale wants to eat an herb called rampion so badly that she thinks she’ll die without it. Her obedient husband scales the wall that surrounds the witch’s garden and steals some leaves. The name for rampion in botanical Latinis Campanula rapunculus— which translates to ramponzolo or raponzo in medieval Italian, and raiponce in French. Rapunzel is the German name for the plant.

When he’s caught by the witch, the husband trades away his yet unborn child to the witch in return for a steady supply of rapunzel for his wife. The witch names the infant Rapunzel after the herb.

The medieval appetite for rapunzel was not usually for its leaves, but the plant’s thick, fleshy roots. Before the potato came to Europe, the foot long roots of Campanula rapunculus were cooked as a starchy food. In the spring, when rapunzel’s leaves were tender and fresh they were used in salads, too. Once potato production became common, rapunzel moved from the kitchen into history.

It’s our ignorance of botany that lets the bowdlerizers, Disneyfiers, and other agents of mediocrity reduce any disturbing content in the Rapunzel tale to fit the limits of their fears. Not only have editors bled the fairy tales of much of the sex, violence, and adult content that made them so interesting to children in the first place but, they are making the world a stupider place to be. In reviewing contemporary versions of Rapunzel I find the father trading his fetal daughter away for ramps, lettuce, parsley, and even apples.

Ramps are an Allium native to the Americas, and could not have been any more known to the craving mother or the wicked witch that the potato. The editors who substitute rapunzel for apples are probably from New York, where consumers can imagine that everything is in season all the time. But in the middle ages, before apples ripen in the fall. As the father’s theft of tender leaves of rapunzel indicates, this fairy tale is a springtime tale.

Having the pregnant mother crave rapunzel, rather than lettuce, is important to the meaning of the story, because rapunzel means something. Rampion flowers in the spring, just as Rapunzel begins to bloom in her twelfth year. Lettuce has an ugly flower and it is a soporific, which means it has natural chemical in it that put you to sleep. Rapunzel gets pregnant in the earliest version of the tale.

The thick roots of the rampion plant suggest Rapunzel’s long braids. Campanula means bellflower, and the plant has a lovely flower. When Rapunzel turns twelve, the witch locks her up high in a tower with no stairs - a tower like a campanili, or bell tower. The Prince is attracted by this wild flower and he doesn’t think he can live without her. He doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s braids to eat lettuce! Fairytales are bedtime stories, and the best ones awaken dreams.

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