Successful winemakers win gold medals and blue ribbons. Outstanding chefs get Michelin stars and James Beard awards. But what do farmers and ranchers get for their efforts? If they’re lucky, they earn enough from their labor to cover their narrow margins.
In this year’s annual food and wine issue, we shine the spotlight on a few of the many small-scale farmers and ranchers in the North Bay who supply the raw materials that make our local food scene taste so good. —Stett Holbrook
MEADOWOOD MEALS BEGIN IN THE GROUND
If you’re lucky enough to snag a reservation at the Michelin-three-star Meadowood restaurant in
St. Helena, a host will inquire as to your culinary preferences. It will undoubtedly be one of the finest meals of your life, but there’s a good chance you may have never even heard of many of the plants on your plate. That’s because many of them aren’t available outside Meadowood’s private garden, which supplies about 80 percent of the restaurant’s produce.
“This entire garden is 100 percent driven and directed by chef [Christopher] Kostow and his team,” says garden manager Christine Kim. “The way we set up our beds, the way we harvest, the way we irrigate is all set up based on what they want for the crop.”
And those crops include mind-blowing plants like oyster leaf, with a fresh, briny ocean taste; day lilies, which have crunchy petals that increase in sweetness toward their base; and ice lettuce, which looks like it’s covered in dew drops but has a crisp, saltwater-infused bite.
The day lilies are Kostow’s favorite plant to cook with at the moment. “They’re extremely versatile and floral, yet vegetal,” he says via email.”We stuff them with spot prawns and lightly grill them.”
On a recent tour, Kim responds to an inquiry about a curious-looking eggplant. “Oh, those are just a variety of blue tomatoes that we’re trying out this year.”
You know—just your everyday, average, normal blue tomatoes.
“We’re still working on developing the flavor of them,” says Kim.
This garden is beginning to feel like it was created by Willy Wonka.
“We want to create a microclimate in each bed, which is why we plant so intensively,” she says. And everything is grown from seed. “It takes a lot of planning,” says Kim, “but it allows us the opportunity to choose from any thousands of varieties rather than just, say, the five basil plants that a nursery might carry.”
The greenhouse full of microgreens is a testament to that extra labor. Being able to pick the garnish and flowers mere hours before they are served ensures maximum flavor and beauty. “A “At this point so much of their menu comes from here that they wouldn’t be able to get over half the products that they get,” says Kim.
The farm is not certified organic, but Kim says they keep to the standards anyway.
The garden is located behind the St. Helena Montessori School, and chef Kostow includes students in the farm-to-table process. A class of 15–20 students plants, harvests, plans, cooks and serves a meal for their parents and teachers at the restaurant.
“The main relationship between the school and Meadowood is actually through the kitchen,” says Kim. “Chef Kostow designs, plans and executes a lunch with the kids that happens once a quarter up at Meadowood. So they get to see that farm-to-table process start to finish. They’re literally seeding what they’re going to use on the menu and they come out and walk through the gardens together and taste things and talk about menus.”
The garden rotates with different plants throughout the seasons. “The first year was very experimental, just kind of getting a feel for what the kitchen tended to like, what they found interesting, how much they could do R&D with,” says Kim. “And now in our third year, I think we’ve really got it down.”—Nicolas Grizzle
STEWARDS OF THE LAND
Twelve years ago, Tamara Hicks and her husband David Jablons decided to start a dairy farm. Never mind the fact that neither had prior experience in the field, and that they were both employed already in the medical field in San Francisco. And that the 160 acres they bought in Tomales had about 10,000 discarded tires on it. And that they would still be working their day jobs. And they weren’t even planning on making cheese for some time. Toluma Farms was going to happen, come hell or high water.
They were welcomed by the farming community, says Hicks. Though Toluma is still primarily a dairy farm, they started making cheese last year under the label Tomales Farmstead Creamery.
The three goat cheeses, named after Miwok words meaning “water,” “woman” and “one,” respectively, are Liwa, a fresh cheese great in salads; Assa, a hard aged cheese that is fabulous on a cracker by itself but even better with peach jam; and Kenne, a delightfully stinky soft ripened cheese with a unique and addicting nuance of flavors.
About 200 goats, all of whom are known by name (“It makes it easier to keep track of them,” says Hicks) and a hundred sheep roam mostly free on the property, which is now tire-free and has gorgeous views of the surrounding area. The farm has a conservation easement with the Marin Area Land Trust, which means it will always remain in agriculture. The nonprofit’s ideals lined up perfectly with those of the first-time farmers.
“We think we’re more stewarding the land than owning it,” says Hicks.—Nicolas Grizzle
APPLE OF HIS EYE
The apple once reigned in Sebastopol, but now the grape is king, as one orchard after another has fallen to the bulldozer for yet another vineyard.
But farmer Brooke Hazen didn’t get the message. Fourteen years ago, he planted 15 acres of heirloom apples in the Blucher Valley south of Sebastopol. He grows 70 kinds of apples, mostly Fuji and Honeycrisp but also heirloom varietals like strawberry parfait, Ashmead’s Kernel, Hudson’s Golden Gem and Nonesuch. He sells exclusively to Whole Foods Market, and right now his strawberry parfait apples are in stores. He also grows 20 kinds of Asian and European pears. All the fruit is sold under his Gold Ridge Farms label.
Hazen further distanced himself from the grape-growing mainstream when he planted 11,000 olive trees for his estate-pressed Olive Leaf Hills olive oil (see the Bohemian, “Turn Another Leaf,” July 11, 2012).
“This is not your typical apple grove in Sebastopol,” he says.
He uses training techniques and rootstocks that keep the trees small but loaded with fruit.
“Obviously, grapes possibly could have been a higher value crop, but at the time I thought there are just too many grapes already,” he says. “I need creativity to flourish.”
While he loves the gnarled trunks of his olive trees, Hazen has a particular fondness for his apples.
“I enjoy the huge diversity of apple varieties, the amazing colors, fragrances, textures and tastes,” he says. “I enjoy the amazement from consumers when their entire world opens up after confirming the diversity that exists. I enjoy showing people the wonder of the plant world, our world.”—Stett Holbrook
RICHNESS ON THE MARGINS
It’s a windy day up on the vast Bolinas Big Mesa—it’s always a windy day up on the Bolinas Big Mesa—as Caymin Ackerman picks dill and collard greens from the five-acre farm she runs with her boyfriend, Joseph Walker. They met at Green Gulch Farm near Muir Beach.
Along with the chard and cilantro, they’re growing four kinds of kale to feed the current kale craze: Dino, Red Russian, Curly Green and Redbor. The farm provides produce to several Whole Foods in the Bay Area.
There’s a sort of complementary quietude between Ackerman and Walker, the latter of whom specializes in high-demand strawberries, which fly off the shelf at the nearby Gospel Flat farm-stand.
“They’re gone in half a day,” says Walker.
The margins are thin and the drought isn’t helping. “Water is an issue up here,” says Ackerman, with quiet understatement. “Water is part of the overhead.
“But,” she adds, “there is a richness in the marginality that beats all.”—Tom Gogola.
Three years ago, Mindful Meats cofounder and CEO Claire Herminjard worked in the San Francisco tech industry. Now she sells organic cuts to markets like Oliver’s, the Mill Valley Market and Osteria Stellina.
“In my free time, I was researching clean sources of meat,” says the former marketing executive, who specialized in so-called remnant inventories and how to sell them.
Herminjard now uses a “remnant inventory of meat”—cattle from organic dairy farms.
“I thought, all those cows are available. What’s happening to them?” Many, she says, were sent through conventional, large-scale slaughterhouses or were shipped out of the region to be slaughtered elsewhere. Now they are slaughtered and consumed in the North Bay.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, dairy cows comprise about 15 percent of beef consumed by Americans.
“I wanted to feel a part of finding healthy sources of protein for people in this region,” says Herminjard, a 31-year-old native of North Carolina who moved to the Bay Area in 2005. “I wanted to do something I loved and cared about. And I didn’t want to eat meat that supported a pesticide system.”
Herminjard has quickly made a mark in the organic beef industry. She worked with chicken farmers to push the USDA to accept a voluntary non-GMO labeling program. Despite its 18 months in business, Mindful Meats became the first non-GMO-certified beef company in the country.—Tom Gogola
THE GOSPEL OF GREENS
Gospel Flat Farm in Bolinas, named for the chapels that once sat upon the delta nearby, is a multi-generational and multi-faceted farm, art space, and mobile kitchen workshop. Founded by Don Murch and Sarah Hake 32 years ago, Gospel Flat is known for its organic vegetable farm and educational community services.
Gospel Flat is unique, even for Bolinas: a 24-hour self-serve honor system that sits open along the road. A scale, calculators and a mailbox-style slot offer residents the freshest possible produce, eggs and even fresh baked rolls on some weekends.
Taking over many facets of farm life from his parents since graduating from Reed College in Portland, Ore., Mickey Murch is the face of Gospel Flat, an artist and educator dedicated to providing hands-on education. Murch offers tours of the farm, and leads school groups through the varied steps of growing organic produce.
Next to the farm stand there’s an intimate art space, hosting original shows and live music. Lastly, the kitchen may be the most intriguing aspect of Gospel Flat, “built from the scraps” of what turned out to be a WWII lifeboat pulled from the silt that now acts as a one-of-a-kind mobile culinary classroom popular with students and professional chefs alike.—Charlie Swanson
Star Route Farm celebrates 40 years in operation this year, a milestone for the pioneering and pesticide-free farm; the Bolinas organic operation was the first of its kind in California when Warren Weber started in 1974.
Weber farms about 40 acres in Bolinas and another 20 in the desert near Coachella—beets and oregano, radishes and celery, all measure of lettuce and numerous other offerings. The farm’s focus, he says, is “fundamentally greens and cool-weather vegetables.”
The business has shifted over the years. In the late 1990s, Weber says, “the big shippers got wind of organics and the money to be made. In early 2000, we had shrunk quite a bit and decided to go just with restaurants. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 15 years.”
Weber also runs a few Star Route farm stands around Marin County and sells to local Whole Foods Markets.
“The public has come around in a pretty big way on organic produce,” he says, even if sales in the United States are only around 3 or 4 percent of total fruit and vegetable purchases.
But the pioneering farmer says the number might tick up with an infusion of new organic blood: “There are a lot of young people coming into it now,” he says. “That’s very exciting. We started Marin Organic in 2000, and in last 10 years, there has been quite an upswing in young people who’ve wanted to get into farming.”
Meanwhile, he is ready to hang up his shovel and put his farm up for sale.—Tom Gogola
When he was a boy, Guido Frosini visited his great uncle’s 1,000-acre cattle ranch in foggy Valley Ford in northern-most Marin County. His uncle was castrating bulls and he playfully tossed a testicle his way to freak him out. It worked, but it didn’t scare him away.
Frosini lived in Florence, Italy, until he was 19 when he came to the U.S. to attend the University of San Francisco. After graduating he became increasingly interested in food, where it came from and how to produce it. His great uncle had passed away, but he contacted his great aunt, Ione Conlan, to ask if he might help out on the ranch, which had been in the family since 1867. He worked as a ranch hand for a year and then left to work on a large ranch in Hawaii before coming back again. His first year he lived on the ranch alone.
“That was really hard. No one should do that.”
Once, when he was trying to examine a calf’s hoof, it kicked and stripped the flesh off his hand. The loneliness was hard too.
But he kept at it and grew more knowledgeable about ranching and managing what he says is the property’s most prized asset: the grass. Hence his operation’s name, True Grass.
“It has to start with the grass,” he says.
Together with his partner, Alissa Donovan, he tends a herd of trim, black Wagyu cattle he brought in from Washington five years ago. Wagyu is the breed used in the production of Kobe beef in Japan. Today, he has one of the largest Wagyu herds in California and sells the 100 percent grass-fed beef to subscribers and at Berkeley and Oakland farmers markets. He also raises about 70 heritage breed pigs and unbelievably juicy blueberries.
But the cattle, and their role in rejuvenating grasslands, are his real passion. Thanks to rotational grazing and other practices that tread lightly on the land, he says he’s already seeing more native grasses and more wildlife attracted to those grasses.
“I want to demonstrate that food production and wilderness go hand in hand,” he says.
He’s thinking long-term and says it will take at least 15 years to see if his work pays off.
“I can’t wait to pass that information on.”—Stett Holbrook
SINGING THE SONOMA SWAMP BLUES
Now in its fourth season, Sonoma Swamp Blues blueberry and strawberry farm lies along the Laguna de Santa Rosa, where Occidental Road meets High School Road. A swamp. Founded by Andy Landerman, whose dream was to open a blueberry farm, and his wife, Mamta, Sonoma Swamp Blues offers certified organic, vine-ripened, hand-picked berries.
Though the laguna floods typically in rainy weather, the hearty plants that make up the 20-acre farm survive each winter’s soaking. There are 12 varieties of blueberries on the farm, and each ripens in its own time during the season, which typically runs from June through August.
In addition to the seven-day-a-week farm stand, Sonoma Swamp Blues can be found in local grocers like Oliver’s Markets and Whole Foods. They also appear weekly at farmers markets through Sonoma County. Andy Landerman sadly passed away earlier this year, but his dream endures.—Charlie Swanson