T & D Willey Farm Tour, Part 2

I managed to resist diving headlong into the basil, thank goodness, and had my wits about me again by the time we got to the tomatoes.

(One thing I forgot to mention yesterday – my father-in-law took these shots, as my camera batteries died within the first five minutes after our arrival.)

These were slicers, big tomatoes that we’ll see later in the summer for just a little while, Tom noted, but we’ll be getting cherry tomatoes for much longer. Those were down further, he said, along the edge of the property. On the other side of the road at that moment was the strawberry patch.

“What you’re looking at there,” he noted, “is probably the only organic strawberry patch in the Valley.” They’re a hard crop to grow without pesticides, and there are quite a few organic growers along the coast, but none of the patches in the Valley are organic. Tom described a number of learning experiences at this point in the tour. Part of the problem, he said, is that they grow so many crops, and so much of the local agriculture is comprised of just a few, that he doesn’t have a potato or strawberry or onion grower whose shoulder he can look over or who he can call up to ask advice about varieties or practices.

Lots more after the jump…

We came to the edge of the property, where the cherry tomatoes were.

“Those stakes are as tall as we could get ‘em,” Tom said. “If we could have put in something four feet taller, I think those tomatoes would go right up. They never stop growing. When those start producing, we’ll have cherry tomatoes through December.”

The cherry tomato plants formed a thicket along the last row of the farm, but there’s also a planting of flowers in the foreground of that shot. That’s a native hedgerow that they started last year, Tom explained. The white stuff – alyssum – might not be native, but it’s there to help provide shade for some of the other seedlings so they can get a good start. There are a variety of California plants in that row, which runs right along the road. The idea is that over the years, the hedgerow will grow to about ten feet tall, and will help provide dust control (obviously an issue, as you can see from the soil around the hedgerow in that picture) for the farm.

We headed down the next road, past dill, lettuces and root vegetables gone to seed, “We don’t gather the seed but we just let it happen – encourages insects to visit,” said Tom, and past the compost piles, which for some reason my father-in-law didn’t take a picture of, even though my mother-in-law the avid gardener said, “This is the best part of the whole tour.” Tom told us they add 10 tons of compost per acre to the soil before planting. As with the number of workers they employ, this is an incredible number. After the several compost piles (no pictures of any of them!) we were headed on down past a neat patch of small tomato plants, still covered.

At some point in the tour – it might have been here, it might have been somewhere else – Tom talked a little bit about the plastic soil covers. You see them quite a bit in the Valley in row crops, especially in strawberries. They prevent weeds from emerging almost at all, eliminating the need for herbicide sprays, and can help reflect different amounts of sunlight to the plant, depending on the type of cover and how it’s applied. It was clear that he had some misgivings about using plastic this way, and out near the hedgerow, near the end of the tour, he showed us a no-till cover cropping experiment that he was doing to see if some of the same sorts of benefits the plastic sheeting provides could be achieved naturally.

But for now, it was on to the beans.

“These are an multi-purpose bean,” Tom told us. “They can be harvested fresh, or allowed to grow until they’re fully mature, and then cooked outside the pod, or removed from the pod and dried.” I don’t remember the name, and I didn’t get it written down – he may have said it was a French type, which reminded me of the Confrerie du Coco de Paimpol website (anthropomorphized bean! Hooray! It’s been a while since we had an anthropomorphized foodstuff) that my friend Karen sent me recently.

The remainder of them – I think – were a Blue Lake type of green bean. I’m sure looking forward to those.

Finally, we rolled on up to the potatoes. Francisco climbed off the tractor and headed into the field. This was after we’d gotten the red potatoes in our box (the ones that ended up in the Roasted Potatoes with Chili-Roasted Garlic-Pepita Sauce) and Tom said, “Those red potatoes you got this week – those are good for frying, because they’ve been stored. We harvested those over the winter, and they’ve been sitting long enough that they’ll fry…good for hash browns. New potatoes you can’t do that with; you’ll just end up frustrated. They taste different too.”

Francisco had dug up a clutch of potatoes and the kids waiting in anticipation at the end of the row rushed him as he came out. Tom said, as the kids gleefully examined the dirt-covered tubers, “Now, if you end up with one of those potatoes – those are what’s called new potatoes – take it home and cook it, and cook one of the ones you got in your box this week and compare them. You’ll find that they’re really different.”

“Also,” he continued, “if you look out there at the blossoms, you can see that some of the plants have blossoms on them now – the ones that have white blossoms are white potatoes, and the ones that have pink blossoms are red potatoes. Makes sense, huh?”

The wind was starting to kick up out in the far corner of the farm’s open field, and some of the small kids were getting cold. We piled back on the trailers and headed back to the shed, getting a good look at the hedgerow flowers along the way.

Back at the shed, the tractor puttered to a halt. A group of the farm’s workers were taking a break, gathered around a picnic table; a game of poker was being both intensely played and watched. “Anybody play cards?” Tom said. It looked like a pretty good way to lose your shirt. Tom shook a lot of hands and received many thanks graciously. We did the same.

We stood there for a few minutes, not really wanting to leave, I think, and then wandered back toward the car, poking into the squash patch along the way. I, honestly, was totally overwhelmed by the whole thing. During the tour, Tom likened running the farm to conducting a symphony, and that was exactly what had occurred to me as well, as he had described the confluence of workers, machinery, irrigation and crops. Managing the vagaries of 50 different kinds of plants, assembling and distributing several hundred boxes of produce to a dozen different places a week, on top of running a farm and a regular produce sales business, sounded like more than I could even get my head around. And Tom had more ideas, more things he was interested in doing. It was amazing, and it wasn’t hard to understand why he and denesse might be the only place in the area doing what they’re doing. It certainly sounded like it would take a remarkable breed of person to pull it all off.

I’m really grateful that they do – it’s admirable, laudatory work. Getting these boxes feels so good – not just that I’m supporting an organic family farm, not only that I’m getting really fresh seasonal food, not just that it’s coming from my community, and not just that I’ve gotten to meet the people doing it. All of that is tied in together with the monumental undertaking that their farm is – and that I get to support it, to say, yes, I want to give this sort of effort my money – and in return, I get a box with my name on it every week that contains the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor on my behalf.

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