Farming In The Fog, San Mateo County’s Fertile Ground

By Coco Morante / Photography By Coco Morante | January 12, 2016
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On a cool Saturday afternoon in August, hosts Christine Pielenz and Bill Laven welcomed 39 guests to Potrero Nuevo Farm for the eighth annual Feast at the Farm. A charity event organized by Sustainable San Mateo County, the day featured a tour by farm managers Jay and Suzie Trexler, followed by a farm-to-table feast.

Wood-fired pizza from Christine and Bill’s cob oven, passed appetizers and a four-course meal were served with produce from Potrero Nuevo, goat cheese from Harley Farms, beef from Markegard Family Grass-Fed and poultry from Early Bird Ranch. Chef Dan Peterson prepared the meal, and Bill Schulte curated a selection of local wines including one made by the chef himself. The dinner was as local as it gets—some of San Mateo County’s best food and wine served in view of the fields.

And there’s more where that came from, thanks to San Mateo County’s sustainable and fertile foodshed.

A Philanthropic Mission at Potrero Nuevo Farm

Potrero Nuevo is one of many farms in San Mateo County seeking to ensure sustainable food production for the region. What sets them apart is their philanthropic mission: The farm is host to various nonprofit and educational programs and they donate about 80% of the food they grow. While you won’t find Potrero Nuevo produce at the local farmers market, they do have a U-pick club with weekly harvests—though the waiting list is about 30 names long.

Twice weekly, the Half Moon Bay chapter of Catholic Worker comes to the farm and harvests a truckload of produce, to be distributed to low-income members of the community. Puente, the region’s only community resource center, is another recipient of the farm’s produce (Blue House Farm and Fifth Crow Farm, mentioned below, contribute produce to Puente as well). In all, Potrero Nuevo will donate 30,000 pounds of food in 2015, grown on three acres.

In addition to donating food, the farm also coordinates with Pilarcitos High School. Four days a week, students visit the farm to harvest, clean and pack produce for donation. They learn about organic farming and what goes into growing food. Christine and Bill had long wanted to form a relationship with a school and the program is thriving thanks to the efforts of their farm managers.

Another benefit to the local community: Potrero Nuevo is home to the Bike Hut, a beloved rest stop for cyclists in Half Moon Bay. It’s unstaffed and run entirely on the honor system—tired bikers can purchase hot coffee and cold beverages, salty and sweet snacks and even jars of Suzie’s homemade jam and preserves.

Sustainable Practices, Land Stewardship

“No spray” signs are visible along the road as you drive past the Bike Hut and approach Potrero Nuevo Farm. While they do not have organic certification, managers Jay and Suzie farm the land with organic practices. Both are graduates of the UCSC Farm and Garden program, and Suzie completed an internship at Spannocchia in Tuscany before attending the UCSC program. Suffice it to say, they are well versed in sustainable farming methods.

Thanks to an easement executed with Peninsula Open Space Trust in October 2015, the 300-acre farm now has permanently protected status. This ensures that whoever owns the land will produce at least two acres of crops, and graze at least 100 acres of the farm (grazing the land helps to protect the soil and restore native perennial grasses, and TomKat Ranch cattle currently graze 200 acres at Potrero Nuevo). Further protecting the land, Christine and Bill have willed the farm to POST in their estate. This kind of foresight ensures that sustainable farming will continue in San Mateo County for generations to come.

If you’d like to volunteer at Potrero Nuevo Farm, you can register at PotreroNuevoFarm.org. You can also visit the farm for Suzie’s workshops on fermentation and preservation, as well as farm-to-table dinners prepared by Chef Amy Glaze. For more information on those events, visit TCKitchen.net.

An Intensive Organic Harvest at Fifth Crow Farm

Pescadero’s Fifth Crow Farm is a much larger operation—they grow crops on 30 acres of their land in Pescadero. Founded seven years ago, Teresa Kurtak, Mike Irving and John Vars leased an initial 10 acres from private landowners and Silicon Valley stalwarts Gene and Donna Richeson. Like Jay and Suzie of Potrero Nuevo, the founders met while in the UCSC Farm and Garden program.

Things have changed a lot since their early bootstrapping years, when 14- to 16-hour workdays were the norm. The farm has grown—it now employs a team of farm workers and leases 80 acres, and all of the founders are new parents: Teresa and Mike’s son Charlie was born on March 1 of 2015, as was Naima, daughter of John and his wife, Maggi.

By implementing sustainable, organic farming practices, Teresa and the Fifth Crow crew have transformed the land completely. Before they began farming this land in the fall of 2008, it was used for conventional crops of artichokes and Brussels sprouts. Now in its seventh sustainably planted season, the farm is home to over 40 varieties of vegetables, a flower program, a flock of 700 laying hens and 28 varieties of heirloom apples.

Working together with Anthony Chang of Kitchen Table Advisors, Teresa, Mike and John developed their vision for an organic farm that also provides reliable, permanent employment for its farm team. They employ 18 full-time workers, supporting them through the winter with profits from the growing season. Even when the harvest is done, there are still fences to build and infrastructure to maintain. Crops may be seasonal but the farm work continues year-round.

Life on an organic farm is exciting, stimulating and dynamic. As Teresa says, “Every month is different. Every year is different. Farmers are systems managers. People, nature, and machinery have to work together.” Whether they’re planning next year’s crops (a three-day process, as the partners pore over maps of the farm) or dealing with day-to-day concerns like last-minute restaurant orders, there is always a new problem to solve.

But the hard work and passion are evident— from the crisp, colorful and bountiful produce to the tall and sturdy flowers. To check it out for yourself, find Fifth Crow Farm at numerous farmers markets throughout the San Francisco Bay Area or through their CSA program with pickup sites from San Francisco to San Jose. See FifthCrowFarm.com for more information.

A Personal Touch at Blue House Farm

Pursuing his interest in land conservation and environmental sustainability, Ryan Casey founded Blue House Farm in 2005, and now owns and manages the farm with the help of 12 year-round staff members (plus additional help in the summers). As featured on this issue’s cover, Blue House Farm is tucked into a small but bountiful agricultural valley on 40 acres in Pescadero, and offers a vibrant, seasonal and certified organic diversity of over 50 vegetable crops, fruits (strawberries, apples and pears) and fresh cut flowers.

Loyal fans throughout the Bay Area appreciate and savor the impeccable quality of Blue House produce, and, when seeking it out, fans get to interact with the farmers themselves as dedicated resident staff attends the markets and the deliveries—ensuring top quality and personal experience. “Some of my most rewarding moments as a farmer are at the farmers markets, watching shoppers return week after week to fill their bags with veggies. Some of our customers have been buying from us every week for almost ten years,” says Ryan.

Passionate about sustainable agriculture and rural living, the team at Blue House Farm understands and sustains the connection between good food, the macrocosm and our community as a whole. This kind of care and foresight not only ensures we have access to healthy and real food today, but continues to nourish our foodshed—keeping it productive and strong for the future.

And making these extra efforts is not always easy. “One of the ongoing challenges of farming is in educating and convincing consumers that they should be paying more for their fresh produce. Right now, most of the general public is accustomed to buying inexpensive food that does not reflect the true cost of growing that food. This is especially true in organic farming which tends to require higher input costs and more hand-labor,” says Ryan.

A balancing act between economic and ecological sustainability, farming is a business and a lifestyle. According to Ryan, “Life on the farm is full of long, satisfying days of planting and tending to crops, hustling to pick, wash, pack and load veggies onto trucks and send them off … The farm ebbs and flows with the seasons. We have busy times, slow times, and every once in awhile actually feel caught up with things.”

You can find Blue House Farm produce and flowers at various San Francisco and San Mateo County farmers markets and retail stores and through their CSA program with pickup sites from San Francisco to San Jose. See BlueHouseOrganicFarm.com for more information. 

Article from Edible Silicon Valley at http://ediblesiliconvalley.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/farming-fog-san-mateo-county-s-fertile-ground
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