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
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.

3 Responses to “The Field”

  1. 1 Christina

    Great read.

    Your description of the site reminds me of the opening and closing of Of Mice and Men.

    Great technique to use the Google map approach.

  2. 2 Tim

    What a great story! And well told.
    Although I feel some unease: isn’t agricultural pumping the main reason why the Pajaro goes dry every Spring?

  3. 3 Andy Griffin

    Hi Tim: The Pajaro aquifer is a slow moving disaster, and salt water intrusion is a real problem in some wells, especially near the ocean. Residents in town are content to see this as an agricultural problem, as if washing off their cars, keeping their golf courses green or watering their lawns etc. doesn’t affect the aquifer. In defense of agriculture, farms in the Pajaro Valley are among the thriftiest users of water in the state, and the water they uses does more than irrigate their fields, it keeps the economy alive too. There are only two ranches that I’m aware of still pumping directly out of the river Pajaro. The rest if the farms have quit, but not because of the overdraw problems on the aquifer. Rather, ecoli concerns from using surface water have prompted growers to move away from pumping directly from rivers. In some cases that means that growers have dug wells, while others, like me, have moved to new fields. Where I farm now, along the upper reaches of the Pajaro, the is a tremendous amount of water, and in the winter it isn’t unusual to see wells freely spouting water from atresian pressure, no pumping required. Just drive down Frase Lake road sometime in the Bolsa and look out the window. There are numerous wetlands in the Bolsa too, showing where the Pajaro aquifer has backed up behind the subterranean monolith at Aromas to puddle up on the surface. There is farmland available all over the Bolsa available for rent, but many fields have such a high water table and such poor drainage that they’re risky to farm. Thanbks for your interest. Andy

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