Our Whirlwind California Tour
Our whirlwind California tour brought us to the heart of communities that were early adopters of Organic farming. We interviewed Warren Weber, Javier Zamora and more…
Read on below about our conversations with California organic farmers, eaters, chefs, and more in our letter below:
Linley and I had an intense time in California last week. Much like a Revival meeting, we traveled from town to town, meeting with supporters and seekers. At every evening meeting, we were provided with feasts of vegetables and fruits donated by the local farms and lovingly prepared by chefs in California’s Farm To Table movement.
Our California tour brought us to the heart of communities that were early adopters of Organic
We met with pioneers who started early farms and who organized CCOF. This was the organic farming that much of the rest of the country was inspired by. And it wasn’t just the farming that inspired us.
As David Weinstein has said, it is not enough to celebrate your local organic farmer. We must also celebrate our local organic distributors, local organic restaurants, and local organic stores. Organic is not just a product. It is a community, and it can only work as a community. Farmers don’t exist in a vacuum.
The Organic California tour visits were our chance to meet new friends and to talk with old friends.
Some of the farms that hosted us were not certified by the Real Organic Project, but…
All were concerned about protecting organic from dissolving into an ocean of greenwashing.
In conversations with a hundred people, I didn’t hear one person who said that hydroponic should be certified as organic. Most snorted at the absurdity of the idea. The only question was what to do about a failing USDA system.
One interview excerpt
With Warren Weber, founder of the oldest California organic farm, Star Route Farms:
Dave: Has your definition, in your head, how you feel about organic, real organic, I’m not talking about whatever the USDA certifies, but what you think of as organic, has it changed in the last 40 years?
Warren: No. It hasn't changed at all.
Dave: So, could you tell me what that word, real organic, means to you?
Warren: Well, it means building your soil to the place it will sustain good crops for you. And that can mean things like companion planting, it means building your soil in the most natural way you can with cover crops and compost.
Organic Is About Healthy Soil
It is important to remember that there are many thousands of organic farmers in America who know that organic is based on healthy soil. The Organic Farmers Association has polled the certified farmers in the US, and the answer is crystal clear. Organic is about healthy soil.
Only a handful of hydroponic operators and their lobbyists think otherwise.
It is said that California is the birthplace of Big Ag in America. The model of plantation agriculture built around cotton and slavery in the South was transferred to growing the fruits and vegetables in California.
There has been a struggle in the last 100 years for the heart and soul of California Agriculture.
This struggle was spelled out by Walter Goldschmidt in his famous book, “As You Sow.”
- He suggested that farm scale will dictate the health or dysfunction of an agricultural community.
- He based his thesis on his study of two towns in California: Arvin and Dinuba.
- The study revealed that industrial-scale farming led to a community that was an unhappy place to live, and that small-scale farming led to a vibrant community, rich in social engagement and economic health.
- Known as the Goldschmidt Thesis, this government research was squashed by the very forces being investigated.
Reality is not so simple as to be spelled out in a book, but the notion that we have choices about the kind of world that we will build is important.
So many of our California conversations reported efforts at deep change.
Water Access for Small California Farms
In the cold consequences of a system sculpted by large economic entities, smaller farms become “uncompetitive.” But the truth is that the large farms in California profited by twisting the laws guiding the allocation of the water coming from publicly funded projects like the Central Valley Project.
- The CVP was designed to provide irrigation to farms smaller than 160 acres and whose owners lived on the farms.
- It worked out very differently, with taxpayers’ water going to enormous farms.
- That made the landowners a fortune overnight with the water paid for by all.
You can’t visit California farms today without talking about water. With dwindling water reserves, California agriculture faces enormous changes.
Every farm we visited was concerned about water, about fire, about economic viability. They face an apocalyptic present in which their future is very uncertain. In the Central Valley, the land is literally sinking as the aquifer is pumped dry.
Tillage and Other Lessons From Farmers
We talked with some of the most skilled farmers in the country. Three of them are working on experiments on reduced tillage in organic vegetable production. This research is being conducted with Chico State and UC Davis.
There are no easy answers as new problems arise. Concerns surrounding weeds, new pests, locked up nutrients, and compaction were discussed. So far, it is clear that tillage can be reduced, but not eliminated. But it is also clear that the minimal-till has reduced yields.
In the coming weeks, we will try to share some of the lessons we learned from those farmers.
We give our gratitude to the farmers who taught us, who fed us, and who set such strong examples of skillful soil management and social justice for their teams. We visited farms that pay a living wage, and give medical insurance for their workers. That is not an easy thing to accomplish while making a living growing food. They are competing with farms that treat soil and workers terribly.
They demonstrate that a different way is possible. Let us build on their example.
Those interviews will form the core of this Winter’s symposium. Keep reading these letters for updates.
Imagine having hope in these trying times!
Our gratitude to the farmers, authors, and chefs who hosted, taught, challenged, and fed us during our Organic California tour:
Full Belly Farm, Live Earth Farm, Park Farming Organics, Pinnacle Organic Produce, JSM Organics, Little Paradise Farm, Chefs Jesse Cool, Bryan Thuerk, and Jonathan Miller, Larry and Sandy Jacobs, Ken Kimes and Sandra Ward, Tom & Denesse Willey, Fruitilicious Farm, Bad Dog Farms, Prema Farm, TomKat Ranch, Jim Durst, Warren Weber, Liz Carlisle, Carol Presley, Cindy Daley, Susan Clark, Paul Underhill, Blue Heron Farm, and Paul Hawken. We learned from all of these, and many more. Thank you to all for sharing your energy, thoughts, questions, and concerns. And for your amazing food that sustained us.
Dave and Linley
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