We left Arcata and headed into the mountains which, while stunning and immense, are not as large as I thought (barely 1000 feet!). We visited three farms before stopping to spend the night at Sandy Bar Nursery, an organic fruit tree nursery and cabin rental ranch—all in one!
First we saw George Stevens, who runs Synergy Seeds from his 4 acre holding, along with his two kids. George was a curious character, and (from what I have heard) has been around the sustainable/organic ag scene for a while. He told me that it was he, in fact, that introduced Paul Muller and Dru Rivers to the site that they later turned into Full Belly Farm (one of the success stories/heroes of the movement). There are lots of claims and rumors like this running around the movement, so maybe it’s ill-advised to spread them, but let’s just say that this guy has been around.
George showed us an UC-Davis developed low-tech seed winnowing device, which spit out chaff in a great flurry with the seemingly simple labored turning of a crank. George also spoke of the importance of saving seed, and gave us a simple explanation of the process he uses to save seed, which he then sells through the Seed Savers’ Exchange.
Then came Willow Creek. It was a large-for-the-area 15 acres of cover cropped straight tractor rows on fine alluvial soils near the river. Michael Peterson walked us up and down the main path holding his baby (who kept grabbing for the microphone placed on Michael’s shirt), trying not to squint too much in the sun. I think he interpreted a couple of my questions as accusations. Like when I asked if he foresaw any problems with the price of his manure (trucked in from a chicken farm down the coast) going up with fuel costs, he responded defensively, as if I were trying to criticize him for not being “sustainable enough”. Or when I tried to gauge whether there was potential to expand the local market for his produce (as currently he sells about half to distributors and half to the local Arcata/Eureka market). I’m not sure if these were bad questions, or he just didn’t appreciate some punks showing up on short notice asking these questions, but either way, thanks Michael for giving us the time! I wasn’t trying to be a jerk, I swear!
Last was Green Fire Farm, a joy to visit, albeit briefly and during the waning hours of the day. Linda talked to us about her life’s dream—to own and work a small piece of land with great soil and access to water, to participate in a local community—and how she’s living that dream at Green Fire. She may not have had all the answers to the world’s problems (find the answers to the world’s problems was not quite what I was setting out to do with this project, but somehow ambitious questions about “sustainable food systems” bring out reflection on a general concern for all those other elements of injustice and unsustainability in our society…and so our interview subjects sometimes feel pressed to try to figure it all out: a hefty task to say the least), but she sure knew how to run a farm. At this small scale, GFF revels in “gardening the farm” or “farming the garden”, and they do it very well from what I heard and saw. GFF is one of Food for People’s largest donors of produce.
We ended up that night at Sandy Bar Nursery, hoping to get the scoop on running a fruit tree nursery. Unfortunately, we got there pretty late, and with very little advance notice (my bad—I had forgotten to call them earlier), the couple who ran it (Mark and Blyth) could only offer us a place to stay…which was, obviously, appreciated and used to its fullest extent. We even made some oatmeal in the morning on the propane stove. We resolved to come back during the summer and see what the place looks like in full bloom.