Sunday, January 27, 2008

ECO-FARM, a wrap up.

We just spent a wild three days in the company of the best, brightest, oldest, youngest, weirdest, loveliest, hungriest, and most experienced members of the sustainable food scene from across the country (and the world!). And we loved it.

Eco-Farm, a conference put on annually by the Ecological Farming Association, brings together farmers and food activists for worthwhile conversations, various farm-related songs (talent show!), and sessions on topics from organic orchard pest control to the threat of evil LBAM and LBAM sprays. Jesse and I performed "Satan Gave Me a Taco", by Beck, at the talent show, hoping to end up with the $500 dinner for four, but alas, the guy with the cutesy song about worms won instead. We did make it to the finals due to the very drunk persuasion of the judges by an anonymous audience member, who came up to the stage and insisted that we were "amazing". No, what was really amazing was the lanky ecological landscaper playing his congas/voice arrangment, "Mouse in the House". And our new friend, Dan Sullivan, from the Rodale Institute, did his rendition of a classic Neil Young song with new lyrics, titled "Keep On Rockin' in the Label-Free World". I will post the video of that when I can.

The rest of the conference:
As is normal for these types of events (in my experience), the scheduled sessions ended up being the least exciting part. I did attend a couple that rocked my world, though, including:

1) Water Conservation Leadership in Sustainable Ag,
where Brock Dolman of the OAEC (who we'll be interviewing in February) conducted his usual fantabulous powerpoint presentation. His rap included some of my favorite Brock-isms. Brock-isms are language altered for a better reflection of reality and for humorous effect--replacing "global weirding" for global warming, "fossil fools" for fossil fuels, and "bi-pedal sacks of saline solution" for human beings. Brock gives me hope that if more people in the sustainable agriculture movement were lucid, eloquent, funny, and hopeful, we'd have no problem getting other people excited about watershed activism!
2) Indigenous Wisdom,
featuring Diana Almeadariz, "the Tule Lady", who carries on traditions of her people by teaching the history, importance, and uses of native plants, especially the native tule reeds of the central valley. She used great stories and photos to illustrate the connection between her family and the resources they relied on. Also presenting was Chuck Striplen, an academic working to answering the question: if we are going to "restore" the landscape of our protected state and federal lands, what are we trying to restore it to? He defines "restored" by investigating the relationships indigenous Californians had with their environment. Through ethno-botanical research, Chuck has learned how natives supported and selected for the survival of certain plants and animals, and how this management created the landscape early settlers saw when they arrived. His research has added ammo to the case that far from being an Eden-like paradise untouched by human hands, pre-colonial California was effectively a huge garden that provided food and sustenence for large numbers of native Californians while maintaining thriving biodiversity. Surely a model to look to for a sustainable food system!
3) The closing Plenary speech by Andrew Kimbrell. I met this guy the night before, at the CAFF mixer, and he told me that he "didn't know" what he was going to talk about. He sure knows how to fool a guy. His speech was hopeful, funny, inspiring, and obviously well thought out. Best of all, it ended with the word "love". There was nothing to argue with; he just laid down why we fight for sustainable agriculture in such human terms that I almost forgot that he is a lawyer.

Really, though, the reason to go to Eco-Farm is for the people and the connections made.
I met many heroes, many peers, and more than a few of the subject interviewed or to-be interviewed for In Search of Good Food. I was having so much fun talking to everyone, swapping seeds, and checking out nametags, that I nearly forgot to get any footage!

We did interview Bob Scowcroft, the Executive Director of Organic Farming Research Foundation. Let me say that the best thing I've found about the "old guard" of the sustainable food movement--those that started institutions which have formed the foundation for the immense success and growth of the organic food industry--is that they actually appreciate the younger people in the movement. They seem more excited about interns coming in to take the reins than getting recognized for their years of hard work! Bob also talked about the obvious need for more federal funding of organic and sustainable production research, and the joys of bringing music into sustainability efforts. That's another thing: organic farmers and their supporters seem to be a very musical bunch!

However, that does not mean that the band the EFA booked to play the big dance, Blue Turtle Seduction, was any good. They describe theirselves on their website thusly:
Well its jam-newgrass?, how about gypsy rock?, no its Duran  
Duran meets String Cheese Incident, meets the Clash.
Not exactly my cup o' tea. I danced, mostly because I was there with friends and it seemed like the right thing to do. And then it dawned on me: I haven't danced to a jam band like this since, hmmm...the Horde Festival in 1996. Wow. Bringin it back.

Regardless, I will definitely be back to Eco-Farm. And big thanks to all the wonderful people who make it happen!

The Work Ranch

A brief description of our all-day visit with George Work, patriarch of the Work Ranch in San Miguel, CA, in haiku form:

They use pigs and cows
to restore native grasses
oaks, wildlife, and more.

Twelve thousand acres
holistic management works!
At the Work Fam Ranch.

Check out their website, and an explanation of holistic management here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kickin' it with Grandma


We are currently taking a day-long break in Oceano, CA, visiting with my grandma. We did go up to San Luis Obispo to meet with Charles Myers, who recorded our conversation for a monthly radio program he hosts on food and the environment.

Since the last time we wrote, we:

1) Got the skinny on the coolest parts of San Diego: Ocean Beach, which has its long-time organic food co-op, and Golden Hills, where we were hosted by some nice activist-types. Both areas are cool, as far as I can see, because the rents have held low over the years because of their proximity to airports. Even the beach-side resort potential of OB (as the locals call it) has been avoided because planes fly low overhead all day, keeping rich people at bay. Or so it seems.

2) Checked out two San Diego area farms: Tierra Miguel and San Pasqual Academy. The first is a biodynamic-ish farm and education center in an area of Indian Reservations, managed by a wise, soft-spoken man named Mil. The second is a rural school environment for foster teens which has an organic farm program run by one of the nicest people we've ever met, permaculturalist and conservationist Scott Murray. We also met with Mel Lions of the San Diego Sustainable Foot Roots organization, which is working to start an urban farm a la Alemany Farm. The nice people we met and the views we saw from the farms (desert hills, avocado and citrus orchards) convinced me that my nicknaming of San Diego ("Sandy Crap-hole") based on past visits as a child and while touring with bands was incorrect and un-founded. Sandy Crap-hole, you have been redeemed. (LA and SO-CAL drivers, however, remain jerks.)

3) Drove, stupidly, the scenic route from San Diego to our next destination, Thermal (in the Coachella valley near the Salton Sea). 'Stupid' because, while the route is no doubt scenic, replete with views of majestic hills and desert plant life, we couldn't see a darn thing because we started the trip at 5pm and it quickly got dark. Plus, we ended up (largely due to the darkness factor) taking an even MORE scenic route of curvy roads, but were kindly directed back on track by a friendly (if not overly inquisitive) Highway Patrolman.

4) Arrived at Flying Disc Ranch in Thermal. Long-time date farmer Robert Lower and newly inspired date farmer Christina Kelso (an intern turned full-time farmer and self-proclaimed "value-added farmer's wife") welcomed us with warm beds and hot tea. Our time at Flying Disc was half relaxation, half date farming school, half date tasting experience, and the remaining half (it was quite the stay) interrupt-athon conversations with Christina--there's just so much to say! Obviously, we had a fantastic time. Robert showed us around the farm, including a couple of conveniently early-flowering male and female palms (convenient for our cameras, since we aren't visiting at the normal pollination period for dates). Robert showed us what the pollination process might look like, which is like a punishment/whipping of the female flower with the male inflorescence.
I love dates so much that I'm tempted to return for the harvest time, to work from 5am to early afternoon--before the sun turns the landscape to a baking oven. Average temperatures during the summer are over 100, often hitting 110-120 degrees. You might see Robert or Christina at one of the many farmers markets they sell at, and if you do, tell 'em the hot tub was delightful in the winter, and that I look forward to a summertime dip in the pool!

5) Later, we went to another date farm, Pato's Dream Dates, run by Doug Adair, an old time farm worker who keeps his workers well paid, his land well tended, and his dates well flavored. Doug was a UFW (United Farm Worker's) union member and organizer since the early days, and shared a lot of the history and frustrations of long time efforts to achieve social justice for farm workers in California. As he reminded us: Cesar Chavez, always considered as an advocate for "non-violence", was actually an advocate for "non-violent struggle for social justice". Although he was a little pessimistic about the prospects of ongoing sustainable agriculture in the Coachella valley, considering issues of encroaching development, depleting water availability, and the entrenched exploitation of labor, Doug was a great guy with a great farm. And he gave us some dates for the road, which have been essential to our happiness. Thanks, Doug!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

At Last

The first video post of the trip.
We've been trying to keep up with editing new exciting videos of our various excursions, but it takes a lot more time than you'd think!
For now, listen to Tom Willey, who we interviewed about a week ago, speak his mind about organic farming in the "heart of the beast", the central valley.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

the LA experience

We're about to head out tomorrow,
into the sunset, past Orange County and beautiful San Juan Capistrano (swallows apparently think it's quite nice), after visiting with a rancher and a farmer.

Today, we met the Dervaes family, who rock the most productive urban homestead I have EVER seen. And I've seen, well, at least a couple in my day.

Check all of their amazingness (all 6,000 pounds of food a Year!) at and be prepared to be blown away by how much one family on 1/5th of an acre can do to be self-sufficient, food-wise. And in Pasadena, to boot!

We also went to the Stanford Avalon Community Garden in Watts. Also hugely productive, tended by mostly immigrant Central Americans who were kicked off of the South Central Community Farm. We talked to an old-timer LA garden activist, and some cute kids chewin' radishes straight from the ground, whose dream jobs were:

1) Soccer Player
2) Work in a theater (to get to watch free movies)
3) Video Game Designer

They were down with healthy foods and hangin' out in gardens, and would've loved to be on camera if their parents had let them. Sorry kids, maybe next time!

Friday, January 11, 2008



I realized, after receiving worries from a future-hopeful-interview subject that we were out to portray farmers negatively, that our blog posts thus-far have not represented the great people we've met so far.

It's been hard to keep up with tasks like creating video blogs of our visits (like we were planning to do with the T.D. Willey farm visit), and starting off through the central valley skewed our output, and we might have ended up portraying farming as a wasteland of huge agribusiness with no care for anything but the bottom line.

Let me be clear: this is not the case!

So far, we have been happy to meet:

Shawn Harrison, Executive Director of Soil Born Farms in Sacramento. He told us all about their educational programming, current expansion into a larger parcel of land on the American River, and collaborations with immigrant Hmong and Laotian communities to create a thriving farmers market in a predominantly low income area. You go, Sacto!

Christine Turner, Dan Macon, Joanne Neft, and many many others in the Placer County area, who have been working for years to promote local agriculture in Placer County, promoting ag tourism which has increased the amount of land in mandarin production (even with major development pressures). You can check out some of their work at and

Mark MacAfee, of Organic Pastures Raw Dairy, who shows that growing food through tending cattle doesn't have to be extractive and polluting. He creates healthful products while increasing soil quality and respecting the animals he cares for. He also has a lovely family and graciously hosted our visit for multiple days. Thanks Mark and Blaine! I think other dairies in the area should tour Mark's operation and see that one can turn out a great product, and be ecological, socially responsible, AND PROFITABLE all at once!

Tom Willey gave us a great run-down of his year-round vegetable growing operation in Madera. The best two things, I thought, that Tom brought up:
1) Even he, using organic processes and no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, does not claim to be completely "sustainable". He says that "agriculture is a 10,000 year old experiment" and that it hasn't yet been proven to be able to exist in perpetuity...interesting thing to ponder, especially when coming from one of the most productive organic farms we've seen so far!
2) Regardless of the "sustainability" factor, Tom can claim that his labor practices are more equitable and righteous. He plans what veggies he grows in order to have as many year-round, full time employees as possible. He wants to have dedicated, connected employees who are payed well enough to contribute to their local community. As he wisely pointed out, the more part-time, itinerant labor a farm uses, no matter how cheap the produce comes out costing, the more expensive it is in total when one considers all the externalized costs of welfare, crime, publicly-funded healthcare, and other outcomes of poverty that occur in the communities of these laborers. The costs to society are such that, to Tom, it makes more sense just to treat 'em right from the get-go!

Tom Mulholland, citrus grower extraordinaire, has a whole beneficial insect breeding operation (two whole buildings full of banana squash and laboratories!), in order to minimize his use of pesticides. Here is a great example of a totally-conventional grower who loves to promote a better way! And he makes money selling these insects to other growers (which come out cheaper than the alternative: chemical pesticides)!

So you see, not all is bad in the world of Ag, but there is a ways to go if we all want to eat with a clean consciousness!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Irony in the Land of Plenty

Yesterday we drove out to the small towns of Cutler and Orosi, where mostly farm workers (working grapes, olives, oranges, pomegranates and more) live.

Besides being exposed to toxic pesticides in the fields, workers are increasingly frustrated by their water situation. What water situation?

Well, all the clean water that comes into the valley via aqueducts and canals gets used on fields covered in pesticides and chemical nitrogen fertilizers. It then seeps into the groundwater, which is the only source of drinking and cooking water for many of these small towns, which lack civic infrastructure or political voice in the area. Also a major part of the problem are the mega-dairies in the area, which concentrate high amounts of toxic manure (well, toxic mainly because it is in such concentrations) in pools, "poo soup" as we call them. This also seeps into the water.

So these communities, mostly poor and Latino, must pay a local water district up to $52 a month for water they cannot safely use, and must travel (sometimes miles) to buy bottled water to drink, adding to their economic burden. Their children get rashes, babies are born blue-faced and die, and cancers are well known to result from high nitrate ingestion.

There is much more to this story, which you can learn more about from the good folks over at Community Water Center.

To me, this is the ultimate irony of the food system we rely on: the folks who work the land don't have access to a basic human right like water, while the large acreage mega-farms they work at receive a majority of the clean fresh water in the state (something like 80%), and then polluted with their toxic practices.


Monday, January 7, 2008

The "Real" Farmer Toms

No time this time to go into details, but the next blog should cover our time with

Tom Willey at T.D. Willey farms


Tom Mulholland at Mulholland Citrus.

Gotta go right now to chat with Lloyd Carter, water issues expert. He worked many years as a journalist on this issue, so you know he's got muck to rake!

Blog soon!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The "Real" Farmer John(s, and Chris)

So far, so good.

Thanks to Holly King, over at the Great Valley Center, we were hooked up with a few central valley farmers, but not the ones that most would think of as epitomizing "sustainable". I feel that the purpose of this project, of making a documentary film, and of life itself, is to learn. And without exposing yourself to views you don't already agree with, you're not really going to get anywhere with that. So thank you Holly for an interesting start to the tour!

First was a phone conversation with Chris Woolf, of Woolf Enterprises. Woolf Enterprises is a family-owned farm and processing operation. They farm, according to one Internet source (I can't find a Woolf Enterprises website), almonds, cotton, tomatoes, and more on 20,000 acres. Not exactly what one thinks of when one is talking about a "family farm". They grow conventionally (not organic certified or otherwise), and Chris insists they are "sustainable" in that they have been growing food on the same land for over 30 years. Plus, he says, they have doubled their production since the 70s, using less water (because of drip irrigation and proper timing of applications).

I tried to be open minded, listening to Chris defensively explain their sustainability efforts: efficiencies from using GPS navigated tractors to make "the straightest" rows possible; converting their processing arrangements over to their own local facilities instead of having to truck tomatoes up to the Sacramento area. But I can't help but think: this is what sustainability means to you? 30 years might be longer than I've been alive, but surely it is not longer than we've had the energy from fossil fuels (about 200 years). Those same fossil fuels that run that GPS system, that GPS tractor, that tomato processing facility, those big trucks all farmers seem to own, not to mention the nitrogen fertilizer that Chris admits he must use. So how can a large scale operation like his survive an energy descent scenario?

I asked Chris, straight up, where the costs would go, assuming the price of oil (currently around $100/barrel, compared with $11/barrel during the Clinton years) doesn't let up? I couldn't get him to admit, there is nowhere for the price to go but to the consumer! So, I know we all think almonds are too expensive as they are. But just wait a couple years and they'll truly be a "yuppies only" item. Unfortunately, Chris did not want to be interviewed on camera or in person, so you have to take my word when I say he seemed like a nice enough guy, but perhaps a little reticent to see the long term physical realities of his business.

Second was John Duarte, of Duarte Nursery. Duarte claims on its website to be "the largest permanent crops nursery in the United States". What would it take to state that claim? How about over 12 million grapevines sold in one year? Now you know how Charles Shaw can be so cheap...economies of scale, working to keep us winos happy!

Seriously, John let us record (just audio) of our talk, and for that he deserves some respect. John was a realist, and (like the other fellows of his ilk) a pretty staunch capitalist. Well why not? Everyone has to make a living, right? And, as John pointed out, without making enough money, a farmer would likely sell his land to developers, and that's not too "sustainable". Plus, he thinks that the growing, dynamic companies in CA ag are those that pay their workers decent wages and care about the sustainability of their land.

He also mentioned that a failure of CA ag is that of marketing itself to the consumer. The "CA GROWN" label is not given the respect that it could be. To John, conventional ag must create more stories to tell its consumers, so that those stories can engage the consumer to ask important questions and create pressure to adopt more sustainable practices. Since he didn't sign a waiver, wanting to wait to see what we would use of the interview, I can't just post the audio. But there were many interesting points, and at least one good joke, regarding the story- telling and value-building role of marketing:

"I tell my wife, an entree is gonna cost us $15, plus another dollar for every adjective on the menu."

My favorite of the three, possibly, was John Diener. We met up with this John at his local Denny's, at the confluence of the I-5 and Highway 198. It was a great meal, great conversation, and even better napkin drawings (John has an ag science and economics background, and it came across in his incessant doodling of numbers, diagrams, and figures while we spoke). John farms an unknown (but no doubt substantial) acreage in the central valley, growing tree crops, vegetables, and cotton. The most interesting part of our conversation was probably about the global economic realities of cotton, which are most grim. Even with the government subsidies of local (U.S) cotton production, a large scale cotton grower has a hard time making serious money in the industry, when competing with growers paying their pickers cents a day in other parts of the world. This brought up an interesting issue, relevant in all aspects of production, food-related or otherwise:

Is the replacement of human labor by machines a good thing? What if those machines were powered by some source of "green" energy? A cotton harvesting machine can harvest the equivalent of 1,000 people, according to John Diener. In demanding "sustainability", are we effectively advocating for the tough hand picking of cotton by poor people in the third world?

John was very interested in sustaining ground water, quality and quantity. He has been researching various methods to remove salts from the soil, along with planting certain crops that can grow in more or less salty environments. He says that without the forward thinking engineers who created the Central Valley Water Project, the groundwater table would have sunk to un-usable levels long ago. It is only through his (in his mind, modest) water allocation from the CVWP that he can maintain the "sustainability" of his water usage. I understand what he means; if all the area's farmers took water from the ground, it wouldn't be long before farming would be untenable on the land.

But how does importing water from hundreds of miles (and entirely different and dependent ecosystems) qualify as "sustainable"? I can't site the exact facts, but a survey of historically irrigation-based civilizations (as in, large movements of water for purposes of agriculture) shows that it doesn't often turn out well. Dams silt up; land becomes salinated; production leads to desert. Egypt, I have heard, is the only example to escape this fate, and that was largely due to a lack of dams on the Nile. California, by contrast, has 1,427 dams.

Water, even admittedly on the part of the large scale farmers who most benefit from it (some would say they are cheating the state by getting it too cheaply, but we must eat, no?), is the elephant in sustainability's room. Read Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert" for a brief--well, as brief as you can for such as subject--background into CA's water wars. And then think: 20 years later, and not much has changed.

Can it?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Short

This is the Short Trailer that we produced to get people excited about the In Search of Good Food movie project. It's about 12 minutes long, and follows Antonio (me!) through a sort of "day in the life" of trying to eat good food...

The short features music by the Slow Motion Cowboys, Snowman Plan and The Sunward Spike. Thanks to them!