Archive for January, 2008

The Field

CSY FieldThe Field

“The best time to buy a new suit,” Greg said, “is when you’re broke.”

I hadn’t gotten into farming to wear a suit. Greg’s point was that it’s precisely when you have no money that you need the confidence a new suit can give you. But what we needed was a field.

We’d just lost the lease on the ground we were farming. We didn’t have any money or credit, but if we could find some land we could improvise. Time was on our side. In 1991 there was a future in organic farming. So Greg and I walked down the railroad tracks with his friend Steve, and had a business conference of sorts. Steve wanted to show us an abandoned field he’d found. You can see the field too, if you’ve got access to Google Earth.

Boot up, click on Google Earth, and rotate the planet until you see Central California. The bite of the Monterey Bay is obvious along the coastline. Descend slowly, targeting that point on the screen image that marks the bay’s deepest penetration of the mainland. As you draw near the planet’s surface, the City of Salinas pops up, as do the outlines of four counties; Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Benito. Head for that part of the world where the four counties come together.

The town of Aromas appears as a blue electric dot against the landscape. Aromas got its name from the hot springs that steam and stink along the river. The San Andreas Fault line runs through here, and the Pajaro River follows the rift earthquakes have cut between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Anzar Hills. The grey gash to the east of Aromas is the Granite Rock Quarry.

If you watch East of Eden, starring James Dean, wait for the scene where he’s riding in a box car “from Salinas to Monterey,” and you’ll see the train cross a railway trestle. This bridge crosses the Pajaro by the quarry. Since East of Eden was shot, the hill that serves as a backdrop has been dug up by the Granite Rock Company and hauled off. Of course, in real life the train tracks don’t lie between Salinas and Monterey, but that’s Hollywood!

Down stream from the quarry the Pajaro River disappears every spring, but as we walked up the railroad tracks, Steve pointed to the water flowing under the willows below us. Upstream from the quarry, he explained, the Pajaro flows all summer. As big as it is, he explained, the quarry is just a chip off the tip of an immense subterranean monolith that lies across the Pajaro River aquifer like a dam, so the water table is high behind it.

Have you found the field? Follow the river east from the quarry, to a point where three counties are shown to join, near an oxbow. It’s triangular, with the traces of an access road dividing the land along a north/south axis. The latitude is 36 53’53.15” North, the longitude 121 34’30.85” W. Elevation, 158ft. The horizontal grey strip that forms the northern border of the field is the railroad track that Greg, Steve, and I were walking on.

“Here it is,” Steve said.

We looked down from the raised roadbed of the train tracks across the field. Scattered clumps of coyote brush stood ten feet tall among the thatch of dead weeds. Any houses on the other side of the river were screened from view by the thick jungle of cottonwoods, willows, and live oaks along the riverbank. The field felt like a forgotten place.

My uncle George told me once that back in the thirties this field was called “Okie Flats,” because dustbowl refugee families squatted here. There were apricot orchards in Aromas then, giving migrants an opportunity to pick fruit. And on a hike one day, in a canyon behind the field, I found Indian grinding stones, splinters of obsidian, and an asphalt seep where the Indians used to collect the tar they used to seal baskets. I’ve read that tar from these pits was traded the length of Central California. The field had seen plenty of traffic before Greg, Steve, James Dean, or I passed through.

“We could farm here,” Greg said.

“Nobody’s farmed here since the forties,” Steve said. “Somebody did a crop of sugar beets. It was a bitch to haul the harvest out.”

Steve had touched on a problem. The only access to the field was a rutted four-wheel drive track that ran along the railroad right of way. The track had been the Stage Coach road between the Santa Clara and Pajaro Valleys in mid 1800s, but the route had been abandoned because the river flooded so often. When the railroad came, they made a cut in the hill above the river to get above the reach of the water.

“Do you know who the owner is?” Greg asked.

“No,” said Steve, “but I talked to a cowboy who works on the ranch across the railroad tracks, and he says the owner is a Chinese guy in Taipei.”

“Maybe he won’t care if we farm this field just a little” Greg said.

“The cowboy said that for a thousand dollars he won’t notice if you do.

“The tall hemlock weeds make me think that the soil here is perfect carrots or parsnips,” I said.

“Then it’s settled,” Greg said.

So we broke the old rusty chain that stretched across the entry way to the field along Highway 129 back by the Pajaro River Bridge. We popped out the old rotted oak posts the chain had hung from, and installed a new, steel gate, hung from posts made of steel pipes filled with cement. The new gate was wide enough to accommodate the fourteen-foot disc harrow we pulled behind the tractor. We cleared the brush off the field, disked and ripped the earth, and bedded up the soil. Greg convinced PG&E to run a line across the river and we got a power drop. We installed an electric pump along the bend in the river and ran a six inch pipe up the bank and into the field. Then we planted.

The soil was rich. We chased the dirt bikers off that would come into the field to tear up the rows or chase the cattle on the hills beyond. We chased off guerilla recyclers that were stealing our aluminum sprinkler pipe valves to sell for scrap, or pulling the cables out of the Southern Pacific fuse boxes to steal the copper wire. We chased off the people from town that came to toss their trash in the riverbed. As we entered the field one day a pick-up truck pulled in behind us.

“I don’t know that guy,” Greg said. “Cut him off!”

I pulled over, blocking the road. The man jumped out of his truck. His face was red with fury.

“This is private property,” Greg said.

“You’re goddamn right!” the man yelled. “I’m the property manager. Get the f#$% out!”

Greg got out the car, wearing a warm smile and extending his hand.

“Hi. My name is Greg. This is Andy. We’re delighted to meet you.”

The man thrust a business card at Greg. Greg glanced at the card and pocketed it.

“You’re trespassing,” the man said. “This land is owned by CSY Associates. Get out, or face charges.”

‘You know, you’re absolutely right, Herman,” Greg said. “Can I call you “Herman?”

Herman’s face looked like a boil about to burst.

“You can call the Sheriff,” Greg said. “It’s criminal. I mean, we even went and got a power drop.”

“You’ve got no goddamn right,” Herman said.

“Herman,” Greg said. “Let’s all try to look at this situation as an opportunity. If you go to the Sheriff and charge us with trespassing, you become the property manager who was so slack he let hippies invade the field. We’ll go to jail and you’ll look like a real asshole….”

I was hoping Herman wouldn’t hit Greg, but Greg was mellow.

“But what if you present the Associates with the opportunity to realize a profit off their previously unproductive asset?” he said. “You tell your employers that if you’ve found some potential tenants who will accept the responsibility of grading an access road to the field, clearing the land, and getting a power drop, in trade for a free year’s rent. After that, they’ll be able to pay 400 dollars per acre rent for a five years’ lease on thirty acres. That’s 60,000$ your employers wouldn’t have had in their pockets if you hadn’t put it there. When we look at things my way, Herman, you’re a hero.”

“We’ll be in touch,” Herman said.

The rent contract ushered in a prosperous period, and we farmed the field for the next seven years. We laser-leveled the ground so that it was perfectly flat and pitched just slightly towards the river away from the centerline road, so it drained well. We alternated vegetable crops with cover crops of legumes, oats, and rye. Cool breezes blow up the Pajaro Valley from the ocean towards the warmer interior valleys, so the field was good for salad greens, carrots, cauliflowers, and strawberries. We worked the field all year round.

In the summer we could reach the field easily in a pick-up truck. In the winter we’d ferry the harvest out in wagons pulled behind four wheel drive tractors. During floods, when the road was submerged, we’d walk our harvests out on our backs. I drove the tractor up onto the railroad tracks a couple of times and drive right past the flooded sections of trail, but after I almost got flattened by a locomotive I stopped that foolishness.

The CSY Associates had a golf course/ luxury home concept for their property, which extended for thousands of acres across the railroad tracks towards the town of Gilroy, but it didn’t work out, so they sold the property. We met Jim, a manager representing the new group of investors. We saw Jim twice over a couple of years. The ranch sold again. We never met the last owners. We stopped paying rent. We didn’t even know who to pay rent to.

We started having problems with meth-fueled punks in jacked-up pick-ups tearing around the field in the middle of the night. Thieves tried to steal our tractors. We called all four Sheriffs’ Departments, but they were unable to help us. There was no Google Earth back then, and the way the Sheriffs understood it, our field was just over the line in somebody else’s county.

Then a California Fish and Game representative arrived and said that due to new regulations we’d no longer be able to pump from the Pajaro River. He was followed by a representative from the Pajaro Valley Water Management Authority who said that, according to their regulations, we’d have to install a $5000.00 water meter and pay them for every acre/foot of water we pumped. Thanks to the field, we were no longer broke, but without the security of a long-term lease, and with no protection from the thieves or the law, we decided to leave.

Until I dropped in on the field via Google Earth, I hadn’t been back. Sometimes I miss the field. We used to see wild turkeys there, and badgers. I liked the quiet, and it was fun to wave at the engineer and the passengers on the train when it rolled past. Nobody has followed us onto the field yet. As you can see from Google Earth, the field is fallow, waiting for a farmer in a new suit.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

Carrot Recipes in honor of the CSY being a great field for carrots. Both of these recipes are on our carrot page.

Carrot Mint Salad
I love mint. I love carrots. Here’s the result of another Tour du Fridge. This was actually at a restaurant I worked at.
- Chef Andrew Cohen

1 lb. Carrots
2 T lemon juice
4 T fruity olive oil
S&P
1/2 shallot, minced
A pinch each of powdered cumin and caraway or A largish pinch of ras el hanout
2 T fresh mint, minced

Peel the carrots and use a mandolin to shred medium, or use a grater and grate the carrots coarse. If carrots are tender, proceed. If not, quickly blanch the carrots just long enough to render them tender, then plunge in ice water to stop the cooking and refresh the carrots.

Make dressing; add the spices to the lemon juice, along with the shallot. Allow the flavors to bloom for a few minutes. Whisk in the olive oil. Toss carrots with the dressing. Add the mint just before service. If you wanted something a little creamier, you could add in a little plain yogurt to the dressing.

Chocolate Chip Carrot Cake adapted from Recipes from a Kitchen Garden by Shepherd & Raboff

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 ½ cups flour (I use half whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
½ cup water
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 cups shredded carrots
¾ cup chopped nuts
¾ cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. (I use my standing mixer for this recipe!) Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift dry ingredients together. (if using whole wheat flour mix thoroughly but don’t sift); add to creamed mixture alternately with water and vanilla. Fold in carrots, nuts, and chips. Pour/smooth into greased and floured 9×13 inch pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Cool and top with dusted powdered sugar or a citrus glaze or a cream cheese frosting.

Pomona in Chains

stinging nettlesBe gone, flee from Toulouse ye red ones,
For the sacrifice to make expiation:
The chief cause of the evil under the shade of pumpkins:
Dead to strangle carnal prognostication.

-The Prophecies of Nostradamus, Century IX, quatrain 46.

I don’t have the gift of vivid obscurantism that has given the rhymed prophecies of Michele de Nostradamus such relevance to so many people over the centuries and provoked so many varied and contrasting interpretations. Nor do I claim to be able to predict the fates of nations and princes as far out as 3797 AD, the way the French seer did. I’m a farmer, yoked to the mundane and obvious. But it’s a new year, and I’m not going to let my plodding, blindered, draft horse mentality hold me back any longer. I have six prophetic visions of stories that will be covered in the food/agricultural press during 2008, and if it turns out they’re not, they should have been. I’m not much of a poet, but you only have to wait one year to see if I’m totally full of bull. As a courtesy to the literal minded or cryptically impaired I provide my own interpretations for three of my oracular raving below, but let’s see if you can guess the rest. Here goes:

The Prophecies

  1. Demeter and Pomona in chains, tied to scaly trunks,
    Of giant eucalypti that smother all new shoots.
    Children in face paint talk to scarecrows at the harvest festival,
    While inspectors certify the parade.
  2. Tattooed youth flash navel rings,
    And suck on silver straws.
    Carried in a hollow gourd, green, frothing and aromatic,
    The vice of Paraguay spreads across the northland.
  3. A new ice age dawns.
    The Queen of Holstein bellows in pain,
    Her breasts swollen to bursting.
    But no men in white hats ride to her rescue.
  4. The apple tree goes up in smoke,
    But the little apple lingers.
    A joint turns on the spit
    While the sated critic looks into the coals.
  5. With a pass of the wand
    Decay shows itself beneath the green.
    The miles, the days— all is revealed.
    A little knowledge is an evil thing.
  6. Stupid thieves have eyes for gold,
    Coins, rings, and the pendent dangling in her cleavage.
    But junkies and men in loafers look beyond the surface,
    And see the wealth that glitters in dull metal.

Suggested Interpretations:

1. Pomona in Chains
: As Americans become more aware of their ignorance about where their food comes from and how it is produced the curious among us naturally want to learn more. Consumers, suspicious of the food for sale in chain stores and fast food restaurants, are turning to farmers markets as a wholesome alternative. But does the farmers’ market industry, as an institution, live up to the image the public has of it, or merit the faith and good will that the public places in it? Consumers can find the same farmer selling apples in at a farmers’ market in Vista, down by San Diego, as well as in others along the San Francisco bay. In fact, if you travel from market to market, you will see a number of the same farms selling all over the state— this in a state with thousands and thousands of farms. “Small” farms that have secured spots in the most profitable markets are becoming retail chains that spread their branches like mighty, water sucking trees, while new, local, smaller farms struggle in the shade to get any exposure at all. And the farmers markets themselves are increasingly organized under umbrella organizations that give consumers cookie-cutter versions of what “small” and “local” means in town after town. I predict that in 2008 an enterprising reporter for the business section, or community-minded bloggers with interest in the vitality of the food-shed, will begin to look beyond the face paint to seek answers for the following questions:

a) What is a farmers’ market legally, and how does it differ from a flea market, a supermarket, or the black market? Does the CDFA have the budget and the staff to adequately fulfill its mandate to oversee the markets? Is anyone really checking to see that all of the farmers are really farmers? Are inspectors or market managers willing or competent to tell the difference between dried apricots imported from Turkey or garlic imported from China? Can anyone explain how some small farms are able to “harvest” perfectly sized, graded red creamer potatoes all year long, while other farmers have to contend with seasonal harvests of potatoes of mixed sizes?

 

b) Who decides which farms get in to a farmers market, and why? Does the state have an interest in making sure that the institution of the farmers market serves the public as an incubator for a rising generation of new farmers, or should the privileges of a choice spot in a choice farmers market remain with the farmer/vendor in perpetuity? Should tax-paying farmers have to compete for limited farmers’ market stall spaces or divide their retail sales with tax-exempt non-profit organizations? Do farmers pay income taxes on their farmers’ market sales?

c) What role do farmers’ markets play in addressing the public’s increasing concerns about food security? Are the pesticide use reports that farms must submit to county agricultural agents public records, and if so, in this age of digital everything, might the public ever be in a position to know what’s really being put on the crops they eat? Why do some neighborhoods have farmers’ markets and others don’t. In short, what are farmers markets’ really like at the present, and what could they be, or are they perfect the way they are?

 

3. An Ice Age Dawns: It’s all the rage to bash illegal immigrants for all the jobs they’re stealing, and politicians of every stripe outdo each other in promising how fast they’ll throw the Spanish speaking terrorist/parasites from our country, but none of them want to discuss how the work is going to get done if they don’t also make it possible for trained workers to become legal. ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, has been stepping up workplace raids. I have a farmer friend who was next door to a dairy out in the valley when ICE raiders hauled the entire workforce off to Mexico in a bus. “You should have heard the cows bellowing,” my friend said. What happens to all the cows with engorged udders when the dairy workers are deported? Who feeds the confined cows or checks their water when, all of a sudden, the cowboys are shipped off to Mexico? Does anyone really believe that there’s an available pool of trained, legal milkers available to take on the burden of milking several hundred extra cows for an employer who’s just been raided? Does anyone really think America’s unemployed come crowding into the milking barns at 2AM to regain the jobs that were stolen from them two generations ago? If the mainstream press doesn’t hear the cows mooing for relief, the “vegangelical”/animal rights activist blogosphere will. Got milk? Got mercy? Got a clue?

5. A Pass of the Wand: “Use-by dates” are on every box of milk, but what about bags of prewashed ready-shreddy salad. Actually, given the amount of press given over to “fresh and local,” it might be far more interesting for shoppers to learn when something was picked, and where. After all, you can use your eyes and nose to tell when your veggies are rotten. In a basement laboratory somewhere a tech nerd with an interest in food science is even now inventing a tiny gadget that can be installed in every cell phone. Soon, all the information about where and when “farm-fresh, triple-washed” salads were harvested will be digitally contained on bar codes on the side of the bag. Industry already keeps this information to comply with health and safety regulations— or at least they’re supposed to— they just haven’t focused on how and why they could/should share it. Impossible? Know this: Even if digitalized harvest data gets lost or computers crash when health inspectors go looking to determine who’s responsible for an e coli outbreak, the information was gathered. Modern corporate “farms” are more like interlocking partnerships than “Old MacDonald’s” back forty. Behind a “label” and an advertisement showing a little girl in an Edenic setting, there’s a sales company that represents the label, there’s a wash plant that blends the harvest of dozens of far-flung fields, there are “independent” harvest companies that do the cutting under contract, hauling companies that get paid by the load to deliver greens from the field to the wash plant, and there are finally even farms that plant, cultivate, and irrigate the product. At each step of the harvest process there are reams of data collected, not to satisfy the health inspectors should they ever come calling, but to help the accountants who must reconcile all of the bills and bills of sale that are passed around. If the health inspectors can’t figure out where something came from, then maybe they should ask the book keepers. Accurate “picked-when, picked where” information will be appreciated by stores and consumers alike. Shoppers will appreciate knowing when and where their greens were harvested before they choose to buy their salads, and stores will find new cross-marketing opportunities for sedatives by offering bottles of pills in little racks next to the jars of salad dressings. The information age could come to the produce aisle.

That’s my idea of what Nostradamus meant by “evil under the shade of pumpkins,” and I’ve tried to give you some “carnal prognostication” to strangle on. I look forward to seeing if anyone hazards a guess as to what the other three prophecies mean. Have a happy New Year.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

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*please do comment on this piece if you have questions/comments for Andy, I’ll remind him to post replies; and please forward this to anyone you think would enjoy it! thank you. -jw




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