If you grow vegetables in your garden and are never sure what you’re going to get, you can sympathize with the guys at Terra Firma Farm. They’re the grandpappy of California organic farms, started in the late 1980s on land which had been pesticide-free for 20 years before that. One of their first customers was Chez Panisse, and they were the first to make a CSA (community supported agriculture) delivery in San Francisco.
And yet Terra Firma has to deal with unpredictability just like everyone else. It has barely rained in two years in Winters, CA where the farm is located, on the edge of the Central Valley between San Francisco and Sacramento. The water table has fallen from 50 to 80 feet during that time. Terra Firma is fortunate because 80% of its water comes from Putah Creek, a tributary of Lake Berryessa, a reservoir that does not connect to the larger state water system. But the declining water table might have been evidenced in a dying walnut grove just inside the main entrance.
We were there for the annual Farm Day, which welcomed friends who were mostly CSA members with a technical bent. Pablito, one of three partners, took us on a tour and explained where the vegetables and fruit come from. A recent success is the cross planting of cilantro rows among kale; the cilantro attracts a hover bee that lays its eggs in aphids, which attack the kale. But these measures work for a while, then stop working for unknown reasons.
The much dryer and warmer weather has created its own set of new problems. The Bagrada bug, a fast-reproducing stinkbug that recently emigrated from Africa, ruined 10% of the kale crop this fall. It thrives on warm, dry weather which is these days the only kind they currently have.
One flashpoint is the delicious strawberries: a CSA member asked why they are still growing these thirsty plants in light of the drought. The answer is that they’re the most popular crop along with tomatoes; in past years the CSA would lose 20% of its customers prior to the first tomato crop and they’ve ended that slide with strawberries. So economic reality trumps ecological concerns, at least this time.
I will tell you that these strawberries, gleaned at the peak of ripeness when they were far too tender to ship, were the sweetest and most delicious I have ever tasted. The endless rows of kale (we’re near San Francisco, remember) and ground crops like carrots and potatoes looked as fine and fat as they could be. The land is enriched with many generations of legumes which have been plowed under, organic compost from nearby wineries including the must of wine grapes, and the leavings of sheep who aerate the ground and chop up the ground cover while providing some delicious lamburger sliders. And yet farming here is a process of hope and discovery and keeping fingers crossed, much as it must have been for the ancient Babylonians.
Cherish your food. And for god’s sake, eat your vegetables.