When we step back and look at the literature about the organic/sustainable/local food movements that have surfaced around the country in the past couple of years, one would be forgiven for thinking that farmers are on the cusp of celebrity greatness. Somewhere along the way, the people who toil endlessly to feed us with fresh, nutritious, seasonally and politically-appropriate food, have gained an aura of glamor. As increasing numbers of self-conscious foodies embark on a Pollan-esque quest to get to the source of their food and the people who produce them (yours truly included), gratitude gives way to adulation, and caps and overalls start to replace chefs’ whites for badges of honor in the cult of foodie worship. I’m half-expecting the Food Network to launch a ‘Celebrity Farmer’ reality TV series in the coming year, a sad, but highly realistic probability.
It’s easy to get swept up in rhetoric and food ‘movements’, especially when you’re a food blogger, and forget that a lot of hard work is involved underneath the glamor and fame. No, I haven’t drunk the B.R. Myers Kool-Aid and am nowhere near denouncing these movements. It was a visit to Blue House Farm, a 30-acre operation in Pescadero by the Pacific Coast, that opened my eyes. Ryan Casey, the unassuming owner who started the venture six years ago with Ned Conwell (who has since left to pursue other interests) showed me that farming is so much more than just riding the popularity wave and having your name printed on coveted restaurant menus. It’s a lifestyle choice.
Ryan lives on the farm – in the Blue House that gives the farm its name. Armed with a degree in Natural History, and a few courses in agricultural studies, he started working at farms straight out of school and stayed ever since. Over the course of working around the country, including a year spent on farms in New Zealand’s South Island, he picked up the tools of the trade, becoming intimately familiar with climates, microclimates and soil conditions. Like a winemaker, Ryan became an alchemist of sorts, marshalling Nature to yield the best and most flavorful produce possible. Today, Blue House Farm is known for their strawberries and their dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes. After receiving a sample of their huge Albion strawberries in a CSA box, I can honestly say that this recognition is well-deserved, and cannot wait to try their tomatoes this summer.
For a young man (who can’t be more than 40 years old) to choose this life path – living on a farm, away from the glitz of the city – says a lot about his commitment to the work. You begin to realize that he’s not in it just because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, or to make a big profit, two motivations that undoubtedly factor in his decisions. No, it goes deeper – to live a life of a farmer, when you’ve got a college degree and other career alternatives to choose from, it has to be motivated by Passion.
“I love it,” Ryan said, when I asked about what his friends thought about his lifestyle choice. “It’s honest work, you know? And I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s just become…what I do.”
The farm is mostly run on land leased from the Peninsula Open Space Trust as well as a few private families.
“I chose Pescadero because I wanted to be close to the city (San Francisco), and also for its mild climate,” Ryan shared. “The coastal climate in this area means that we have a longer growing season as compared with other areas in the region, and allows us to cultivate a wider variety of produce.”
In addition to the acres at Home Ranch, Ryan and his team of seven farm three other plots nearby, producing a steady stream of organic Kale, Broccoli, Cucumber, Beets, Onions, Leeks, Herbs, Lettuce, Salad Mix, Strawberries, Chard and a host of summer crops (peppers, squashes and tomatoes) throughout the year for their CSA program.
Starting with a humble group of 30 from Half Moon Bay, the farm’s CSA has grown to 200 members in 2010, with bigger sights set on growing it to 300 this year (Bay Area folks: there are still spots available if you haven’t decided on a CSA yet).
Almost everything is started on the farm – in the greenhouse or sown directly in the soil – and left to grow until it’s time for one of their farmers’ markets or the CSA box.
The Blue House Farm production season gets into full swing by May and doesn’t stop until the last box is delivered and the last Farmers’ Market is attended to in mid-December. A typical day on the farm begins at 7am. From Tuesdays to Fridays, it’s a consistent flow of harvesting and packing for CSA deliveries and their markets; and Mondays are reserved for fieldwork, the routine tasks of tilling, weeding and fixing that are unable to be attended to the rest of the week.
As I followed the crew around on a recent morning harvest and CSA packing production line, including Evelyn and JJ, a young couple that moved out from Texas to work on the farm, I saw real work in action – in the same way I saw camaraderie and teamwork at Saint Benoit Yogurt. A truly inspiring sight. Whether they were there out of the necessity of having a job or by choice, one thing was clear – there was commitment and passion, and a definite belief in a honest day’s work. It’s people like these who, while thankful for your gratitude and appreciative of your politeness, will still be ploughing away, everyday, at 7am, whether or not they make it to the next big reality TV show. It’s these people that I want producing my food.
Beet & Arugula Salad
Blue House Farm generously gave me an extra CSA box that they had packed the day prior which we are still working through. There were leeks, green garlic, beautiful spring onions, two types of lettuce, carrots, kale, some turnips, strawberries, baby artichokes and a whole bunch of beets. What a haul! We used up the lettuce while camping over the weekend, polished off the sweet juicy strawberries in a flash and are whittling away at the green garlic, spring onions and kale. The leeks are destined for soups and this gratin, while I used the beets in this refreshing salad for a simple weeknight dinner. Dill adds an aromatic zing to the sweetness of the beets and crunchy arugula, balanced out by creamy goat cheese and chunks of walnut. Never disappoints.
- 1 pound/ 450 grams beets, stems removed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- A pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 ounces/ 85 grams arugula
- 11/2 ounces goat cheese
- 1 ounce/30 grams coarsely chopped walnut halves
- 2 stalks of dill, leaves plucked
- Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Wrap the beets in foil and roast, on a baking tray, for 30 minutes or until fork tender. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins and chop into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of your beets. Set aside.
- While the beets are roasting, prepare the vinaigrette by whisking together the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Top with the arugula, goat cheese, walnuts and dill.
- Add the beet cubes and toss just before serving.