A good small-scale farmer is hard to find. I’ve learned this the hard way. This is especially true in a place as expensive as the Central Coast of California, where people who farm probably can't afford to live. Now add to that challenge a personal fantasy—great-looking, beer-drinking buddies who are passionate about their work—and finding the right fit is near impossible. After several failures, it seemed hopeless to us; still, we didn't want to give up. Our property is perfect for Farmer's Market-type cultivation. Good sunlight, friable soil, lots of water, proximity to food-aware communities: in short, our property has everything a small-scale farmer could wish for.
Remarkably, just about everything can grow where we live except plants that need very hot or very cold periods to flourish. So good is our growing climate that the celebrated botanist Luther Burbank settled here in 1885 to pursue his agricultural experiments. During his career, Burbank developed over 800 varieties of fruits, flowers, grains, grasses and vegetables here in our little town. My backyard is in a landscape with few agriculture limits. Unwilling to let this opportunity go to waste, I plucked up my enthusiasm to try one more time. I went to search the Santa Rosa Farmer's Market for the right people, to make them an offer they couldn't refuse!
OFF TO THE MARKET
I love a good Farmers Market. At the same time, with so many people, and so much produce piled high, it can become an overwhelming blur. As I wandered the stalls hoping to find my fantasy, the people behind the veggies all looked the same to me. Young or old, scruffy or clean, bored or busy, I had a hard time telling one from another. I was about to give up and then I saw the party at the very end of a very long aisle.
Under a rainbow umbrella and a big Beet Generation Farm banner, a little love fest was underway. Hugging, kissing, howls of laughter, and big bags of produce passed hand-to-hand. These people were happy to be here, happy to be farmers. Better yet, they seemed happy just to be alive. "Hey, love, great to see you again. Here's that lettuce you love so much!" Oohs and ahhs filtered all the way to where I stood—fixated on their booth and nothing else.
They were having so much fun, customers and farmer-ladies alike; I couldn't help but want to join in. I wandered over, trying to be very nonchalant, not wanting to broadcast my excitement. "Could this be them?" I wondered. (They certainly were good looking!) I bought a few of those beautiful lettuce heads and went home. Now I had to curb my enthusiasm just a bit; I really didn't want to be disappointed one more time. Next week I went back to see if they were real.
THE SUN! THE WATER! THE SOIL!
When I went the next week, there they were. With all my enthusiasm, I told them about the potential of my beautiful land. The sun! The water! The soil! Of course, they would not be able to resist. But, all they did was smile, nod and get back to their happy customers... What? I guess they thought I was just some crazy old lady! "No really," I said. "We have endless water, good land, and it would all be yours to use."
At risk of being a real pest, it took me three or four visits to get their attention. "Remember me?" I'd say each week. "No, really, you should come and see the place." They finally did come look and, lucky me, Libby and Ali moved their Beet Generation Farm into my backyard. Better still, they came to live. And yes, they are indeed great-looking, beer-drinking buddies who are passionate about their work! What a fairytale ending to a frustrating journey. For the past four years Beet Generation Farm has been growing their beautiful food in my backyard.
But even now, with all the pieces in places—the right people, good land, a thriving economy, community support—my gals are becoming an endangered species, as small-scale farmers everywhere are. Most just can't make ends meet. Small-scale farmers work endless hours fighting blights, pests, and regulations, all the while resisting the temptation to murder pernicious weeds with a good dose of Roundup when no one is looking. It's often a frustrating, exhausting, profitless job. Few of those who try it last more than two to five years before dropping out of the industry. From what I can see, local farming is a job for the young and visionary, and they need all the help they can get from the people who care—help, that is, from all of us who want our food fresh, clean, alive, and local. Me! Me! Me!
HELP FOR A HAPPY ENDING
Are you one of those people that wants to eat beautiful, healthy food? What can you and I do to help small-scale farmers to succeed against staggering odds? It’s two things, actually, and they’re both pretty simple. First, buy and eat a lot more of their food. Don't buy your broccoli at the grocery store on the cheap! It's frustrating to hear famers say that customers aren't willing to pay more now for their produce than they did five years ago. Prices for everything—labor, land, gas, equipment, seed, water—have all gone up for farmers. And, small-scale farmers have no subsidies. If we go to a supermarket hunting a bargain, instead of paying a little more at a local farmers market, what can they do but become discouraged?
The simple fact is that it costs a lot more to make and use real compost, put each seedling in the ground one-by-one, tend a mixed planting, and harvest daily by hand, than it does to farm 100 acres of one crop with one worker sitting on a tractor who can spray seeds, pesticides and herbicides all in one. If you favor beautiful, fresh, delicious seasonal organic produce, then pay a little more for the good stuff. And thank your farmer while you’re at it. They certainly aren't at it just for the money, that you care makes all the difference.
Second, learn to cook (so you can buy) more of the unusual produce that small-scale farmers can grow as virtue of their human scale and local focus. Take home the Romanesque Broccoli rather than the standard green; try a Castlefranco Radicchio instead of a familiar green lettuce; let your hand pass over California White Garlic and pick up one of the dozens of other varieties you can find at a local stall and not at the supermarket. Instructions on how to cook just about anything is at our fingertips these days. There's no reason anymore to be stuck eating the same old thing every night.
To be fair to us hardworking consumers, farmers themselves contribute to this particular problem. Chatting with them about their vegetables, fruits, meats, and other market wares, I've found they know little about how to cook most of the products they sell. I guess this isn't too surprising. Farmers spend the bulk of their time weeding, not chopping in the kitchen. And like a lot of busy people, they rely on their trusted slow-cooker to make dinner while they work. If I was young again, I'd start a school where chefs and farmers could partner on solving this problem. What fun that would be, moving between kitchen and field sharing inspiration, ideas, flavors and skills. So sweet! In fact, a group called The Chef's Collaborative is taking a stab at this heavenly notion. There must be other efforts, it's too fun an idea to passover.
FAIRYTALES IN YOUR KITCHEN
During Libby's first season in my backyard, she introduced me to the great little Fairytale Eggplant. Even as an avid cook and cooking-school graduate, I'd simply never seen these vegetables before. They are kind of a culinary problem. Ripe at 3 to 4 inches long, they are really too small to slice for Parmegiano and too big to use whole like the tiny Pea Eggplant in a Thai-style coconut-milk stew. So, what's a cook to do? When in doubt, I say deep-fry! If I were a chef, these deep-fried wonders would a signature dish of my kitchen.
If you want to cook these little darlings, follow the pictorial guide below. The only recipe you'll need is for a batter. I mix together Rice and AP flour, in equal proportions, adding in a good measure of salt. To this dry mixture, add sparkling water to make a batter like thick cream. Dip each eggplant in batter, and deep-fry in sunflower or peanut oil, heated to 375˚, until they are crispy and brown. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt, and drizzle with any combination of spicy and creamy sauces you like. To add an extra portion of lusciousness to your dinner, you can also stuff them with a little spoonful of fresh goat cheese before you batter and fry. Now sit down and enjoy your own fairytale ending to a lovely day!