Harvest Season

: Tierra Farms in Healdsburg specializes in fiery chipotles. –>

Fall foods from Harvest Fair to harvest table

By Heather Irwin

Tiny ants swarm the stage in waves. Unconcerned by yellow caution tape, they march straight for titanic cinnamon buns, boldly carrying off bits of buttery frosting and yeasty crumbs. There is every reason to believe that they may soon attack the chocolate chip cookies and leave no bit of fudge un-nibbled. Regardless of blue-ribbon status or Best of Show trophies, the sweets succumb one by one to the insect soldiers. Toothily carved pumpkins sit idly by, pondering their own fate.

Wandering around the Food and Crafts building at the recent Sonoma County Harvest Fair, there is no mistaking this event as the official opening to the season of bounty in the North Bay–for both man and, er, insect. The air is suddenly crisp; fruits and vegetables arrive in truckloads from the field, making their way into award-winning preserves and the slightly droopy food displays that the ants are now ravaging. Carmel apples and pumpkins are suddenly everywhere, and suckling pigs, it seems, really have learned how to fly. Or at least run around a sawdust track really, really fast. And honestly, who wouldn’t shake a haunch at the prospect of a plate full of melted frozen yogurt and Oreos at the end of a hard run?

But with a borrowed John Deere baseball cap on my head and a Willie Bird turkey leg firmly in my hand, I can’t help but notice how October’s Fair is a vastly more sober creature than its summer-time cousin. The rides are fewer, the music less thumping and the animals (most notably the turkeys) are all looking a little more nervous. Scarecrows, pumpkins and dried cornstalks bode finality instead of the boundless cotton-candy optimism of July.

The crush is nearly over and children, now in jackets and long sleeves, take turns savagely stomping grapes under purple-stained toes to a pulpy demise. Pumpkins weighing 600 pounds or more brutishly upstage summer’s fading tomatoes and zucchinis, though admittedly, the preponderance of bad Chinese food and garlic fries adds an air of continuity.

A wide-eyed newcomer to Sonoma County at harvest time, I’m thrilled by this season of plenty. I love the truckloads of grapes nearly running me off Highway 101 every morning. I love getting box after box of figs from our friends (no, I really do). And of course, I adore the sweet smell of manure on a fall day. Ahhhhh . . . This newly-minted country girl with her newly-minted cowboy hat and unbroken-in boots is finally going to be at one with the land from which fall’s bounty comes–and leave the damned kitten heels at home.

I’ll note, however, that the concept of appropriate farmwear hadn’t yet occurred to me when attending a recent harvest dinner at the popular Tierra Farms stand (Highway 101 and Airport Road, Santa Rosa, 707.573.1700). The outdoor dinner celebrated the season’s bounty and served as a regional confab for the local chapters of the slow food movement to discuss the currently abysmal state of agribusiness (among other things). Agribusiness, eco-activism, whatever–if Dry Creek Kitchen’s Mateo Granados is cooking, I’m there. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get the memo that the dinner was, well, literally in the field, as in sitting among the veggies on straw bales–jeans, T-shirts and comfortable shoes strongly suggested.

Sweating it out in my heels and black slacks, however, it took exactly five minutes for me to become one of the night’s most enthusiastic converts of the back-to-the-land, sustainable-farming philosophy of Tierra’s brother-and-sister team Lee and Wayne James.

It becomes apparent very quickly that the James’ little farm stand off Airport Road isn’t about being cute or organically hip. It is about walking the walk and talking the talk of creating fruits and vegetables that are delicious, ecological, regional and socially conscious, no matter what. And, as it turns out, that’s a mighty tall order.

Their farm is only a few acres on land rented from the county. Surrounded by housing developments and the nearby freeway to the west, the farm’s staff comprises the Jameses, an earnest young intern who gave up life in the city to live on their farm and a small handful of seasonal farm workers who help Wayne with the really gritty day-to-day laboring.

On a blazing hot evening, standing barefoot amid the rows of chiles and beans, Wayne explains to a virtual who’s who of slow foodies his unique farming philosophy and practices. Nodding and listening intently in their wide-brimmed straw hats and eco-friendly shoes, the members of his audience arre made up of ferocious advocates of preserving local and regional foods; supporting farmers like Wayne and educating the public about things like genetic modification and the perils of agribusiness and fast food. You don’t want to be caught packing a Burger King wrapper around these folks.

This makes them champions, while at the same time, a little off-putting to those of us who shop at, ahem, Safeway. Not to mention, cough, Costco. Because while natural, sustainable, socially conscious food is, without any argument, better for both humans and the earth, it can get damned pricey. We’ve all had sticker shock at buying $5 organic salad greens or wondering why exactly a plate of free-range, organic, local food at the now-defunct Popina cost something like three times as much as dinner at the Olive Garden.

Realistically, $5 salad greens and $25 entrées aren’t something a lot of the general public can afford day-to-day. In fairness, big farms (without getting into a deep political argument about the admitted dangers of pesticides, animal cruelty, fertilizers and unfair labor practices) do bring down the price of food to a level most of us can afford. Never mind what it tastes like, I want my 99 cent carrots!

But looking at the cracked and weather-worn hands and feet of Wayne as he talks with such absolute passion and earnestness about his quest for his regional, eco-friendly, sustainable, socially conscious produce leaves me wondering if maybe I’m not being a little unreasonable about all of this.

Consider his plight. Every day he and hundreds of other small farmers struggle with things as simple as how to properly market themselves and as complex as water rights and land ownership. He and his sister Lee have taught themselves nearly everything they know about the best ways to fertilize (not always organically) or keep pests away from their crops. And, frankly, they’re barely breaking even. This isn’t a money-making quest, they’re quick to point out. It is a labor of love.

Additionally, the siblings have put thousands of dollars into the rented land
in the form of irrigation, fertilization and other necessary improvements needed to operate their farm. And at this point, Wayne says he may soon lose his water rights and have to negotiate a higher price for water, a price he may not be able to afford. This is the daily stuff that he and so many other farmers have to overcome. And frankly, many of them are just tired of the fight.

Fortunately, Wayne and his sister aren’t giving up that easily. At least not yet. The pair have made a nationally known business selling their Tierra Farms dried chiles and chile products (jams, moles, chipotles) and operate their farm stand five days a week to the delight of their neighbors and local fans. A number of restaurants swear by their produce, despite having to pay higher prices than they would for less conscientious fruits and veggies.

As we line up with our plates in front of Mateo’s home-style cooking, the love and passion put into this food–from seed to table–becomes crystal clear. Each bean, tomato and piece of corn came right from this land. You can see the pride in Wayne’s face as he holds each vegetable tenderly and Mateo’s pleasure at the richness of the produce. The bounty of this farm this fall is more delicious than you could imagine. This food is grown with thought toward the future and respect for agriculture’s past. And that, when you really think about it, is priceless.

From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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