News from the Farm | January 17, 2022

The Capay Valley, looking southeast from just north of Rumsey

This week on the farm, talk is once again turning to planning: what varieties of tomatoes, onions, and melons to be dropped as seed in greenhouses. Green bean, corn, and potato varieties are being evaluated. Okra? Eggplant? How many pepper varieties? We begin our annual cycle once again. This week we try to hone quantities to plant, project market changes that include CSA numbers, and determine the balance between sales to wholesalers, restaurant and local stores and direct to customers.

We will grapple with projecting demand for heirloom tomatoes given the new dominance of hydroponic and container-grown greenhouse heirlooms coming from Mexico and far flung regions. We ponder whether favorite Galia and Canary specialty melons going mainstream will result in lower prices from oversupply. And of course flowers are central to any good Full Belly crop plan so that bulbs are pushing, weeding is demanded, mulches and trellises are being added and the first calendulas and anemones are finding their way to market.

We will meet this week as a planning partnership for collective crystal ball gazing and we will go over each crop for a thumbs-up or down, mapping a strategy for this year’s production. Plans are also being mulled over for cover crops, soil improvements, new biological fertility amendments and strategies to enhance our farm’s resilience.

We must balance that prognostication with the anticipation of crew size. We realize that our 80 or so core workers are all are a year older with changing capacities to be physically able to plant, tend, harvest and pack. There are new labor laws increasing minimum wage and rules changing overtime for farm workers that need to fit into both plans and budgets. These laws are just and past due, but they certainly complicate the budgeting for a farm where labor is near 40 % of our annual expenses. We always add workers returning here in the busier summer months, yet there are fewer farm workers to do the jobs of harvest and stewarding California’s fields, making competition for field workers a critical unknown.

Full Belly has been in business as an organic farm for nearly 40 years. When we first moved to the Capay Valley, many of the old timers were fond of calling the place “No-Pay” Valley. The decline in the viability of farming here was evidenced by the shuttering of the hardware store, bank, auto-parts store, and markets in the small community of Esparto at the mouth of the Valley. Many farmers quit the farm and worked out of the Valley because few were making a living here as farmers.

In 1984 when Dru and I moved with our infant son Amon here to rent this 106 acre parcel, there was one other organic farm in the Capay Valley. The larger farming community had been living through the deconstruction of its very fabric, like so many rural places in this country. Most farmers were whupped physically and mentally. To start a farm and buy that farm seemed out of the question given the history of rural decline and the realities of farm economics. “How to make a small fortune in farming?- start with a large one” was the joking advice many next- generation farmers received. Full of the heady vision of self-reliance and the idea of growing food with out a dependence on the treadmill of off farm purchases, we felt there had to be a better way….

In the ensuing years, there was a renewal of sorts here- the re-birth of a community of landed, dedicated, new farmers. Most found some sanctuary in the organic marketplace. All became part of regenerating what had been lost over time. It has become clear that farming is a community activity and to farm on one’s own is dead-end thinking. The Earl Butz proclamation of ‘Get big or get out!’ was rethought locally here as “get small and get in!”

And many did get in. The Valley now has more than 50 organic farms of various sizes and with various mixes of crops. Most support one another with advice, a shared food hub, the Capay Valley Farm Shop, to serve as a marketplace and trucking facility, equipment sharing, volunteering our time and skills, and the will created by association with those sharing the same vision and values. Organic farming has been a part of the regeneration and rebuilding of our community. Many on the local volunteer fire department are organic farmers.

Full Belly grew with ‘sister’ farms, farms of the same size and similar designs. We grew diverse crops, approached the marketplace with a plan to shorten the distance between farms and our customers; to get our crops there fresher and more flavorful; to create healthy places to grow children and now grandchildren; and to create stable, healthy lives for those who worked the fields with us.

Farms like Riverdog, Durst Organic Growers, Good Humus, Terra Firma and Capay Organic all started about the same time. The knowledge shared was critical and the inspiration gained from one another served as a social bond that supported each farm. Each farm grew differently, yet the vision of a more interdependent community of farmers was central to their success. Most of these farms also grew their markets to depend upon a community of patrons who knew and supported the farm with their CSAs (community supported agriculture) and through farmers markets where produce and information were exchanged each week.

So it is difficult when any one of our core farms suffers a loss. Last Sunday night, at about 1 in the morning, Dru and I were awakened by a phone call from our son Amon who is now a volunteer fire captain, to report that Tim Mueller’s house was on fire. The blaze ended up consuming the house and all of the possessions of Tim, his wife Roxanne and their 3 children. They were lucky to escape unharmed. Tim is the owner of Riverdog Farm; they are a sister farm, growing many of the same crops that we do, and with whom we engage in a good deal of ‘cooperatition’. We help each other a great deal and we both sell to many of the same markets.

Farming is challenging enough to not be challenged with the loss of everything one owns. Full Belly is committed to keeping Tim, Roxanne and children here in the Valley and to helping them rebuild their home. Their presence here is critical for this community. Tim dedicated years as a volunteer fireman responding at all hours to any call for help, becoming a captain and respected leader. Roxanne is the school nurse for the Winters school district. Their children ages 3, 5, and 17, escaped with only clothes they wore. We will be offering help and funding to rebuild their home and if you would like to do the same, there is a GoFundMe campaign that you can contribute to here.

Farming is a process of renewal each year and each season. It embodies a cycle of growth, decay, planning and rebuilding- and responding when the unexpected strikes. As Riverdog has been a stalwart producer for Berkeley Bowl and at the Berkeley Farmers markets, they have for years looked to nourish their customers with healthy, organically grown food. They now are beginning their year again as we are, with the added task of rebuilding a home. Please contribute if you can.

A wise, strong and resilient community has its very nourishment fed by its roots in local food. Thank you for your continued support!

– Paul Muller