Archive for October, 2010

Truck Farm: Part Two

Blue the dog and Sweet Pea the donkey say hiWhen I pulled up in front of Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street there were two orange, plastic, traffic cones at the curb. Sam, the owner of the store, was on the sidewalk waiting. He jumped out and moved the cones so that I could park. “This isn’t normal procedure,” I told Miguel. I was training Miguel to do the farm’s deliveries and I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea. “On any normal day you have to fight like a heathen for a parking place. I usually end up double-parking. This is a stop that calls for fast work!”

Miguel nodded.

I stepped out of the truck and Sam came to greet me. A photographer stepped forward and snapped several pictures of the two of us shaking hands and talking. I grabbed a wet box of chard off the back of the truck.

“Hold that pose,” said the photographer. So I held the box and smiled as a thin stream of muddy water drained out of corner of the crate and onto my foot. Miguel looked amused.

“Now another one,” the photographer said. Miguel moved to grab a box off the truck.

“Not you,” I told Miguel. “You relax. Let the photographer record for all posterity a moment when I’m actually caught working.” Miguel happily got back in the truck to watch me unload the order and watch the photographer capture images of the event. Ten minutes and a hundred snaps later I was done with the delivery and we drove off. I set Miguel straight. “Sam is making a cookbook out of the recipes he’s developed for the store’s delicatessen,” I said. They’re taking pictures of all the farmers and fishermen and bakers and vintners that serve the store to put in the book.” Miguel nodded. He was still new to 18th Street.

No less an authority than Guy Trebay of the New York Times Fashion & Style section has called Bi-Rite Grocery, “a kind of foodie Vatican.” Does that make Sam a “Pope?” I wondered when I read the article. One thing’s for sure; with the Bi-Rite Creamery and the Dolores Park Café just up the street from the Bi-Rite Grocery, and Delfina restaurant, the Delfina pizzeria, and the Tartine Bakery just down the street, the 3600 block of 18th Street is a veritable gourmet ghetto. 18th Street has only two lanes. In the morning the street crawls with delivery trucks and traffic gets choked down to a trickle. But heavy traffic is an indicator of a good business environment; by brunchtime 18th Street is crawling with women.

Again, let me quote the New York Times: “Those girls are the local Holly Golightlys,” Mr. Ospital of M.A.C. said of women like Rachel Corrie, a waitress at Tartine, who as she left work last week hopped onto her bike wearing what looked like a gingham onesie, feet shod in gladiator sandals and a velvet equestrian hunt cap passing as safety gear perched atop her head… Girls like her are all over the Mission.” I agree. So it shouldn’t be hard to understand how I managed to overlook the actual fashion models when I delivered to Bi-Rite only a few days after the cook book photo shoot.

I arrive at the store a little later than usual, but the day was normal enough. There were no cones saving a parking spot for me. Au contraire– I had to double part beside the paper goods truck and behind a bread truck. The paper goods driver kindly inched forward and I squeezed in next to the curb in front of a truck from Full Belly Farm. The side walk seemed crowded too. There was a small group of young women all dolled up and standing around, but they didn’t stand out.

I overheard someone ask one of the Bi-Rite employees, “How is the shoot going?”

“What a nightmare,” he said.

“This can’t be the same photo shoot as the cookbook,” I said to myself. I unloaded my truck. A young San Francisco policeman strolled onto the scene looking like a Chippendale dancer on his day job. I looked up and down the street. There was a beer truck, a fish van, and a wine distributor, all double parked. And a second bread truck too. Virtually the whole block had the east bound lane blocked by double-parked delivery vehicles. Drivers and bicyclists that wished to continue east down the street had to thread their way around the trucks, against the flow of traffic. They made me think of the steelhead trout that slip past boulders and throw themselves upstream in a frantic, thrashing attempt to fulfill nature’s imperative. But the cop made me nervous.

I saw Simon, a store employee I know well. “I guess I have a guilty conscience,” I said. “I’m not even double parked.”

“Don’t worry about the policeman,” Simon said. “There’s a photo shoot for Dr. Scholl’s shoes today. I guess the City permit has a clause that says they have to have a cop on hand for security. Who knows?”

I looked at the cop. He seemed relaxed. I look at the street. A huge bus had thrust itself into the narrow lane. And there was some sort of problem down the street by Tartine Bakery. Traffic wasn’t moving at all. A middle aged woman driving a red Mini Cooper convertible got aggravated at being stuck behind the bus. She saw the cop and jumped out of her car and onto the sidewalk. “Aren’t you going to do anything?” she asked.

“Good morning, Miss,” he replied. “I am doing something.”

“It looks to me like you’re just standing there looking at girls,” she said.

“Those aren’t ‘girls,’” he said. “Those are professional models and I have been tasked with duty of protecting them from the public.”

“Are you #$%&^* kidding me?” she snapped back.

Chippendale put his hand on his holster with a melodramatic flourish. “Do I look like I’m #$%&^* kidding you?” he growled. Then he grinned.

“I can’t #$%&^* believe this,” the woman said. She started into a Tea Party rant about taxes, big government and the stimulus.

The officer broke in. “If you don’t move your car I’m going to have to cite you for blocking traffic.”

It was true. The logjam in front of Tartine had broken. The bus has cleared the gauntlet. Traffic could theoretically flow again. Only the red Mini Cooper convertible was left to block the only open lane of traffic. Honking horns echoed down the block. Fingers flew.

“Ahggg!” squealed the Tea Partier.

The cop smiled. I smiled too. One of the things I love about delivering into the big city is that my farm seems all the more peaceful when I get home.

Copyright 2010 Andy Griffin
photo above courtesy of Sally Katherine S.

Ladybug Truck Farm Deliveries This week = Thursday 10/21 from 4-6pm at Frances with tomatoes: romas… and  padron peppers! and Menlo Park that same day. If you’re interested in these and or future deliveries of bulk vegetables and fruits and mixed vegetable boxes, please make sure you’re signed up for your geographical area:

SF sign up      ||      Peninsula/Palo Alto Sign up     ||     Santa Cruz/Monterey Sign up

Julia’s note: Andy and I are working on photos for future posts… thank you for your patience!

Truck Farm

Hi Everybody: What can I say? It’s been a difficult and busy year and it hasn’t been easy to find the time to write, but life is smoothing out a bit and Julia and I are looking forward to getting our Ladybug Letter out on a regular basis again. The summer was unusually cool- until it became unusually hot- and summer crops were later, lighter, and less successful than I’d hoped, but, looking on the bright side, we were able to get a series of late fall and winter crops in on time and they look beautiful. We are planning a series of “Ladybug Truck Farm deliveries” this fall and winter so this essay about truck farming that I wrote this summer seemed an appropriate story to kick off our renewed effort at the Ladybug Letter. Thanks, Andy 

Truck Farm

The office at Organic Matters was scuffed and drab. Dorothy managed the company. She had a caustic wit she kept her attitude tamped down in an effort at professional courtesy. Russell was slouching against the counter. He drove the bobtail delivery truck for OM. Russell had that rock band roadie look; black Jack Daniels T shirt, pony tail, mirrored shades, blurry tattoos and a cigarette. He’d gotten the job through a government program that subsidized employers who were willing to take a chance and hire people who were on parole, but lately Russell had been in a series of confrontations with OM’s customers. Organic Matters distributed fresh organic produce to a string of natural food stores and juice bars from Monterey to San Francisco, little hippie joints that smelled of incense like McDharma’s, Sunflower Natural, and Community Foods. I worked in the refrigerated warehouse as a forklift driver. Dorothy had kept her license to drive big rigs current, but she was in no mood to get back behind the wheel. It was time for a serious talk with Russell.

“So what I’m hearing you say, Russ, is that you don’t really like driving.”

“Wrong again, honey,” Russell replied. “I love driving— I just hate to stop!”

“That’s sad,” said Dorothy, “because the ‘stops’ are what produce delivery is all about.”

So I got a battlefield promotion that afternoon out of the cold box and up into the cab. I could sympathize with Russell’s attitude though. When I’d first gone to work on farms I’d been attracted to the notion of being out in a field, far from any peering, poking supervisors. A life in the dirt with the wind and the weeds seemed like an even trade for “freedom.”

But farmers have to make money just like anybody else. I was legal and I didn’t have any DUIs, so it was inevitable that I’d end up driving the farmers’ delivery trucks. I was fine with that at first. Driving has its own romance. I liked the idea of rolling across the green San Joaquin past corn fields and alfalfa, watching the dairy cows in their pastures give way to range cattle, seeing the oak trees fade into pine forests, then revving up the engine to crest the Sierras before gearing down for the long descent into Nevada and the Great Basin, freewheeling with all the wild west out ahead of me and the boss no more than a speck in the rear view mirror.

In the early eighties I worked five years at Star Route Farm in Bolinas, and I drove the produce truck down Highway One to San Francisco. But the coast highway is all curves and cliffs and majestic ocean vistas, so I needed to concentrate on the white lines to avoid ending up in the drink. And then there was driving in the City; getting dogged by meter maids, dodging taxis and bike messengers, breathing bus exhaust. One day there was a traffic accident half a block ahead of me on Stockton Street and I had to back the truck down hill through Chinatown while the crowds swarmed around me. The truck was a manual transmission that you needed to double clutch– not an easy truck to drive in downtown traffic! Every time I let out the clutch and slipped into reverse somebody would step behind me and I’d have to stop. Eventually a cop helped me by swatting pedestrians out of my way, but by the time I rolled backwards into Columbus Avenue my right leg was so stressed it was as stiff as rebar. I double parked in front a brew pub, switched on the flashers as if I was making a delivery, and limped inside for a beer.

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “I got into farming because I wanted to be in a field with the birds and the bees and now I’m running with the busses in the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid?”

Stops! I was making stops. But I didn’t want “stop,” so I quit.

I worked on other farms down in Santa Barbara County, Monterey County and in Santa Cruz County. At every farm I ended up making stops. It slowly sank into my skull that if the stops stop, the farm stops.

The seventies, eighties and nineties were interesting years to be in organic farming. At first, little organic farms could sell anything they grew to the little organic food stores. Then the farms grew and multiplied, and the stores grew and multiplied. There were more stops. Then the bigger stores started to gobble up the smaller stores. When I was working at Organic Matters in the late 80s the bigger produce distributors began gobbling up the smaller ones. I got back into farming as a partner with another farmer. Then the littlest farms began to fail and the biggest farms began to gobble up the medium farms. Then the biggest chains began to gobble up the smaller chains which meant even bigger sales for the huge farms but even fewer stops for the little farms. The buying public benefited, I guess; there was a general trend towards more access to organic food for more consumers.

I was a partner at Riverside Farms in the Pajaro Valley in 1997 when we sold out to the company that became Natural Selections, America’s largest organic grower/packer/shipper. I wonder now if the Darwinian tone to their name was intentional, but I was happy to sign a non-competition agreement and Julia and I got enough money to start our own little farm. Julia and I didn’t even want to “compete” with Natural Selections. We farmed using a new business model; community supported agriculture, CSA, where a group of people support a farm and the farm supports the people.

I was thinking about all this the other day because my CSA route driver had asked for the day off and I was covering his route through San Francisco. I rolled into the City on 19th and down the foggy streets of the Sunset, through Golden Gate Park into the outer Richmond, then the Inner Richmond and up into the Haight , geared down for Masonic and over the hill into the sunny Castro with the rainbow flags flapping in the breeze, and all along I had stops, lots of stops; on to Soma, the Mission, Noe Valley, Glen Park. Every stop made me feel good. I know what I’m doing here now and I can remember all the other farmers who gave up or went broke. I want to stay in field on my farm with the birds and the bees and the wind and the weeds and I’ve learned that the City is the other half of my life’s equation. I’m grateful for all the people who’ve chosen to support my farm, especially the people who lend us their homes and businesses so that we can make our stops. Freewheeling across Nevada is a fantasy, but I’ll stick with the stop and go of small-scale vegetable farming; they don’t call small farms like mine “truck farms” for nothing.

Copyright 2010 Andy Griffin

Ladybug Truck Farm Deliveries This week = Thursday 10/21 from 4-6pm at Frances with just tomatoes: dry farmed early girls and romas… and Menlo Park that same day… and Pacific Grove on Wednesday 10/20.  All by pre-order.  If you’re interested in these and or future deliveries of bulk vegetables and fruits and mixed vegetable boxes, please make sure you’re signed up for your geographical area:

SF sign up      ||      Peninsula/Palo Alto Sign up     ||     Santa Cruz/Monterey Sign up

Andy is again writing every other week. (We are all glad he’s ‘back’!) We plan to continue to update this blog with the same articles that go out via email. There may be more announcement type things in the email version… but mostly it will be the same content. -Julia




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