Thursday, December 17, 2009

From the ground up

Eddie's worked on organic farms for many years. He's a darn good farmer (and a good cook, which always wins brownie points in my book) and I am indebted to my friend April for putting us in touch: I learned a lot working with him last week. He's a thoughtful observer, a meticulous record-keeper, and has a reputation for being a tireless worker. As I worked (and cooked) alongside Eddie for a few days on my way through northwestern California, I came to understand that for this inspired (and inspiring) grower, urban farming is as much about building community as it is providing fresh, healthy food to that community.

Prior to starting his own operation, Eddie had managed the nearby POTAWOT organic farm -- a local garden that provides fresh fruits and veggies to the Native American health clinic in Arcata. (Yes, a program directly linking healthcare and healthy food -- what a concept. Are you listening, Senators?) One morning when the ground was too frozen to harvest, and after we'd weeded the greenhouses, Eddie suggested that Ollie and I cycle over to check out the garden, health center, and hiking trails on the POTAWOT property. We did and I must say that it was pretty rad. Over the years, Eddie has continued to be an active member of the Arcata community and has fostered longstanding relationships with many in the small college town. So much so that when he decided to start his own farm, many of his CSA members were referred from the waiting list of another CSA farmer friend in town. (Farmers as collaborators rather than competitors -- not quite the conventional model, is it?)

When he started Deep Seeded Community Farm a year ago, Eddie explained, he could have found land further out of town for less money, an existing farm with developed soil and structures in place. But the most important element of the year-round CSA was for it to be accessible to its members -- who live and work in town -- so he's built it right in the thick of things, starting quite literally from the ground up. To Eddie, it is critical for families and friends to be able to connect with their food and each other. On CSA pickup days, Eddie chats easily with each of the 93 winter share members and their kiddos, exchanging recipe ideas, getting feedback on the quantity and variety of veggies, commenting on the unusually cold weather. They come by the urban farm each week to pick up their produce, sometimes also cutting fresh flowers in the spring or picking juicy strawberries in the summer. I overheard a few folks commenting on how they had finally gotten the hang of planning meals around the weekly boxes to use up all the produce, how they enjoyed the freshness and flavor of the new varieties available each week, and how glad they are that Eddie decided to offer a winter share (which, incidentally, was oversubscribed, but the farmer managed to produce enough to accommodate a few more people, as was the case with the popular regular season shares.) The farm and the food had become a part of their weekly routine.

I must say that the work itself seemed more manageable than some farms I've been to -- more sustainable in terms of human energy. At the end of the day, I was tired but not wiped out. Granted, it is the beginning of winter, so things slow down on farms everywhere. Eddie also confessed that he needed to maybe tone down the intensity a little in the farm's second year, that he'd put in ridiculous time and energy up until now. (I'm no slouch, but I was glad not to be banging on the frozen ground and sloshing around in rain as I had done at other farms prior to this one.) Still, he and the others I met while there seemed content and proud of their work. I enjoyed my time with the farmer and his part-time staff -- Jess, Scott, Rachel, and Will -- as we weeded, harvested, and washed produce. They were thoughtful and engaging conversationalists, passionate about food, energetic. At least two of them spoke of having their own farms in the not-too-distant future, I learned as we dug up carrots and snapped leaves of chard for the CSA. (Seriously, Will, I am going to look you up on my way through Mississippi.) During the slower cold months, in addition to evaluating the year's production and planning for the spring planting, Eddie is tinkering with the internship requirements for next season -- field work paired with an hour-long weekly seminar on a variety of topics. There is a lot of interest in local, sustainable food in Arcata, I would say (and not only because of the well-established and impressively stocked local co-op). The demand is here, the groundwork is being laid... Eddie is not only growing good food and a community of conscientious eaters. He's also helping to cultivate new farmers. Right on.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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