I am, ever and always, a research queen. I no longer do it for a living (or a degree), but if there’s a decision that needs to be made, whether it be major and life-altering or embarassingly minor and petty, you can bet I’ll come to the table armed with all the facts, opinions, and perspectives I can dig up. So understandably a lot of considerations went into such a significant decision as my choice of CSA.
Because I’m so tired, so often, I wanted food brought to me, rather than having to go to the farmer’s market each week. But I also wanted local food, and to be directly supporting specific, tangible growers, so that eliminated many of the grocery delivery services and produce-box services that box up an amalgamation of produce from all over the country and world. And I also, in my secret heart of hearts, wanted a farm that I could visit, where I could touch the soil my food was grown in and meet the people who nurtured it towards my plate.
During the month I was researching CSA options, there was a medfly quarantine in the town of Dixon, where Eatwell Farm is located. It was late summer, and thousands of ripe tomatoes, waiting on the vine to go into CSA boxes and to farmer’s markets, were suddenly quarantined, forbidden to leave the farm unprocessed. So Eatwell threw a tomato-canning party. I watched with delight through the farm’s blog as hundreds of Eatwell members headed out to the farm for an afternoon of cooking up sauce and drinking bloody marys. Nigel, the farm’s owner, wrote in the blog, “When I got a few moments to myself I looked upon everyone working hard and having a great time and thought ‘this is exactly the farm and community that I have always wanted’. So it took a few Med Fly in Dixon to realize that what we all have here is something very precious.” When I read this, I knew I had found my farm, my box.
I missed the tomato-sauce party, and winter isn’t the best time for farm days, so my first opportunity to take part in this new community I’d bought into with my weekly box didn’t come until May. Earlier this month I headed out to Dixon for the first time, to take part in one of Eatwell’s “Strawberry Days.” We were invited to come and pick strawberries in the fields, welcome to eat as many as we could stuff in right then and there, and then pay just $1/pound for whatever we wanted to take home. I brought my good friend Farmer B with me (so called because, thanks to her interest in and dedication to farming, we are all counting on her to guide us through feeding ourselves post peak-oil apocalypse when there is total collapse of the massive network of trucks and boats and planes that currently shlep our industrially fertilized food around the world) to check out “my” farm.
While we were there we picked many strawberries (and took our loot home to freeze for future smoothies – yum!) and also had the opportunity to tour the farm with Nigel, the farm’s owner. He showed us the 40 acre wheat field they are leasing to grow organic wheat for chicken feed, and took us through the rest of the farm, which is about 60 acres. We learned about the particulars of running a farm that must yield a constant variety of produce, to keep our boxes interesting each week. I hadn’t thought about it before, but Eatwell can’t just decide, “We’ll sell lettuce in spring and tomatoes in summer and squash in the fall” or whatever, because they aren’t just taking a bunch of stuff to market and selling it to people who are stopping by many stalls. They need to make sure our boxes have both novelty and variety each and every week.
On our tour we got to pick sugar snap peas off the vine, which was decadent for me, as sugar snap peas, even more than strawberries, are what I associate with “luxury” produce. We learned about the stands of trees that were the first thing Nigel planted when he got the land, to provide windbreaks for the crazy winds that can get up to 25+ miles an hour and just suck the moisture from plants and soil. We also learned that Eatwell gets their compost from the company that processes San Francisco’s food and yard scraps (we have a city-wide composting program here) which is pretty awesome, on a symbolic level. As Nigel pointed out, every time they pick a truckload of food from the farm, they are hauling nutrients away from the land, and now, because of the composting program, those exact same nutrients (barring, of course, the ones we have absorbed into our own bodies) find their way back.
And then, of course, we met the chickens. They were definitely the celebrities of the hour, with tons of questions asked and long lingering at their enclosure, whereas for the rest of the farm we’d been content to just let Nigel lead us from field to field. I learned that the beautiful green and blue eggs, which I love, come from araucana hens who are being “phased out” (stockpot, here they come) because they take three months off in the winter, producing no eggs but still chowing down on their pricey organic feed. True free-ranging chickens, although they eat plants and insects as they forage about, still need more supplemental feed than factory-farmed chickens. This is because outdoor hens use a lot of energy moving around all day and keeping themselves warm, unlike chickens who are packed in together tightly, keeping each other warm and unable to move.
The chickens with their chicken house, one of five houses. The enclosure is an electric fence, turned on at night to keep out the coyotes. The chickens seem to have no problem flying over it when they like the looks of the neighboring pasture!
Altogether, it was amazing to be at the farm. It’s sad how disconnected I have been my whole life, and still mostly am, from my food and its origins, but this was a small and meaningful step in bridging that gap. I didn’t walk away with entirely fuzzy feelings, however. At the end of the day i found myself sitting at a picnic table with Nigel. Most everyone had gone home, and Farmer B was out in the field gathering one last bucket of berries. Nigel, who has a kind of reserve and brusqueness, didn’t seem like the kind of person to whom I could give a real soul-baring expressing of gratitude, so I started with, “You guys are a big part of my life. I write a blog based on my box and what I do with the food you grow.” His response was, “Oh yeah. A lot of [Eatwell customers] have blogs.”
Oh, okay. So much for my conversational opener. That was too bad, but a good reminder that this isn’t all a fantasy farm fairytale. What’s a food blog, in comparison to twelve hour days of actually growing the food? I mean, I want the people who grow my food to see what I create with it and how much it touches my life, but maybe that’s not why they grow it or what gives the work meaning for them. I can sense a kind of forced resolution in my desire for things to come “full circle,” an uneven equation in which I want my end of things – the consumer end – to have the same weight as the producer end. I’m not really sure what I’m trying to express here, just the sense that this may be one of those situations where the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I still feel essentially naive about the origins of food, and the little bit of knowledge and understanding that I’m acquiring is like lifting the lid off a deep well and peering inside, totally unable to fathom the bottom.
For what it’s worth, I’ll say it here, and hopefully find a way to say it more personally some day. Anna, Agustin, Arturo, Daisy, Fernando, Jesus, Jose, Molly, Nigel, Nikko, Ricardo, Roberto, Sadie (RIP), Yvette, and anyone else whose name I don’t know, Thank You. Every time I open a new, thrilling box, I thank you. Every time my body gets that tingly “healthy!” feeling from eating a whole bunch of kale in one sitting, I thank you. Every time I smile with delight to see another stranger has found my blog by googling “spinach for breakfast,” I thank you. When I read Omnivore’s Dilemma or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and, instead of feeling panicked and overwhelmed, I feel secure and even slightly smug, knowing the majority of my food comes from my local, sustainable foodshed, I thank you. Even when I’m finding out I don’t like turnips, or having a strange allergic reaction to radish greens, I thank you, because this is what it means to eat what’s local and in season and not live in a bubble of banana-scented safety and routine. For all your work, for the tremendous investments of time and energy and money you make and the risk you assume so that I can have safe, healthy, delicious food delivered to me week after week, I thank you, and I cannot thank you enough.