Poco Farm in Meiners Oaks
This story was a finalist for a 2015 Eddy Award, in the category of Best Feature - Farmer, Rancher, Fisher and Grower.
Something like love seems to be the main source of abundance at Poco Farm in Meiners Oaks, where Grace and Dan Malloy live. The place is green with care, vital with people, sown with projects and fervent ideas. But accumulating capital is obviously not the passion here. If you want to make money while working this hard, do something other than growing Swiss chard.
All the evident effort can’t be blamed on ambition, but some emotional motive presides, because there’s neither product piled up nor signs of surplus wealth, just a mannerly goat pen full of trusting goats, a generous flock of chickens grooming the dirt and earnest young people creating lots of art and experimental horticulture. Poco Farm is an academy of the natural life.
They sort of host a lot of parties in the middle of the day that come with a curriculum. Go for the ice cream, stay for the illumination. Making a purchase at one of their seasonal Makers Markets, with tables laden with beans, bread, aprons and dinnerware, becomes a special contract with solidly authentic value.
Unconditional acts of generosity at Poco, universal and specific benevolence, celebratory process within improvement, are all a measure of the condition. The husband-wife team loves a lot of things and the people who make them.
They adore earth, air, water and whatever holds it all together. But don’t go and call this spiritual, because you’ll probably ruin it. Grace and Dan like honey, music, fruit pies, handmade furniture, land covered with crops, farm animals, history, the future and the people they will share it with.
The result may make people sing, but let’s not paste a mystical bumper sticker on Poco Farm as if that’s the cause, because soulfulness is just one result, like cheese, watermelon, weeds and well water.
Dan and Grace sense it is best to talk less and do more. But thus it has always been, that for some, functioning within a firm set of principles is no hardship but a beloved compass. As they teach, gather, guide and endow their coworkers, they haven’t much time for cynicism or doubt. There is some kind of rosy something out there, right around the bend. What’s it look like?
If their partnership were a boat, one would always be at the wheel while the other checks the charts. Both do their fair share of steering. Grace operates with an abundance of emotional resolve as she multitasks through her ambitious list of desires, building relationships within community, providing joy and fulfillment to strangers, empowering her cohorts and peers, a good port always within her sights.
Dan is keen to assure that the good ship Poco doesn’t heave up onto the rocks. Ownership within community can send up a fitful squall when least expected. He, therefore, keeps the decks tidy, with hoses nicely coiled, machinery well oiled, plenty of water under the keel, bills stacked and paid, and will have no pleasure with riffraff and brigands, because he must revere his neighbors. As a captain plying these bays and inlets of the Organic Ocean, I can tell you I too have seen my share of fair-weather sailors, clowns, cons and loafers. Food always is bound to attract the roaches because there’s always crumbs.
One winter day in 2008, Grace came home from Wesleyan University and never went back. I looked down at her, eager as a pup but never pesty, asking me all about my farm and when could she go visit.
I think within 15 minutes she was walking around in the carrots and chard at Mano Farm, the blessed place Jake and Kim made at the end of Rice Road in Meiners Oaks where I farmed in the blissful past. At the time, I mistook Grace for a tourist, but I vaguely remember her observing every bed and pathway, gathering every nuance and filling up like a thirsty sponge tossed in the sink.
Grace shoehorned her way into our lives and schedules, becoming rather indispensable in another 15 minutes or so.
We had a meager buying club known as a CSA back then, which a few of us exclusively harvested until Grace started hauling in the club members to work with us, building up work days and farm tours in an educational effort that Poco now performs far beyond what we accomplished then.
Dan would best be characterized as wise. Humility becomes him, despite his iconic athleticism.
Perchance you too have heard of Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay? Dan walked away from professional surfing because competition was ruining his passion for the sport. An altruistic, intuitive pioneer, who honors his relationship with the fabled Patagonia label, Dan’s an enviro-marketing scout, on the trail of what feels good as it saves us.
Now, horse-drawn farm implements and electromagnetic safety zones may not be entirely feasible, but Dan’s sure that the possibility of such notions can at least inspire a few steps in an alternative direction. Dan is honestly modest, balanced with a surety of imagination that respectfully guides Poco projects, by virtue of facilitation and shared commitment.
Somehow their moments continually encapsulate the grand goals of an entire lifetime as the bloom opens. A mundane barbecue easily can morph into a rally for mulch and Ventura River stewardship. You can observe in the Malloys’ small steps the charmed destination. The fruit in their recently planted mixed-tree orchard is flavorful, but the trees have not borne yet.
The farm name, Poco, was borrowed from Dan’s occasional effort to slow down Grace’s enthusiasm for piling on the projects, suggesting that poco a poco might Rome be rebuilt. I don’t think she was paying strict attention. According to Grace, they are three years ahead on their five-year plan. Grace is running quite a clipboard.
When they bought the farm three years ago, they planted a young farmer on it to stir the soil. Wiley Connell came and went, growing a ton of organic vegetables and harvesting a lot of good will with the neighbors.
The land had been largely abandoned for many years, except for three lines of Valencia oranges and some tawdry pomegranates within the virgin black bottom that corresponds to the Besant Wetlands to the east, where once flowed a rainstorm stream down Highway 33, damming up before it trickled down to the Ventura River.
Wiley went to Brazil to have a baby with his girlfriend and grow sprouts in Rio between surf sessions. Nitana Buczek-Calfee dropped anchor in the east cove, and now is rowing to the west with a hoe, one bed of cucumbers at a time.
Grace partnered with her friend Megan Hooker on the chicken and egg project and they share goat chores with Quinn Bouma and Brittany Smith. They are running 15 goats, including four in milk. This summer, horticultural interns Jacob Whyte, Remington Martin, Max Metlen and Dominic McLeod worked with Nitana as they prepared for their seed-to-plate partnership growing vegetables for the Ojai Unified School District.
Food For Thought has at long-last arrived at the Promised Land, within walking distance of Nordhoff High School. Fourth graders from Meiners Oaks Elementary School and the high schoolers cooperate at Poco growing a future feast. These gratifying connections were secured by educator David White, PhD, affiliated generously with the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, the Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Food For Thought.
These Poco people are all making bread and pies and pottery and wearable art, brewing compost tea and salvaging a slippery past we’re not quite done with in this age of phony global village takeovers and door-to-door lip service.
The Poco Clan won’t settle for that. The national re-investment in the Grange took hold here, inspired by national new-farmer-evangelist and now Ojai resident Severine Fleming. The Ojai Grange building was just over the hill from Poco by a quarter mile. Young’uns Grace, Brittany and Megan were just old enough to recognize they needed to respect the Grange community when they joined and wore their ceremonial sashes with deference and youthful élan. Old Grangers were generally glad to be put back on the map to the future, and there’s reason to think old and new will mesh quite freshly.
The Grange building is really a schoolhouse ready for new chalk.
The Pocos held a charming girls’ camp on the farm and, naturally, some parents want a farm school, where math is taught by the gallon and linear foot of seed, with the literature of Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder and Barbara Kingsolver, and an astronomy that proves the waxing moon brings forth sprouting seed as surely as the highest tides in the ocean.
Together Grace and Dan are building the future, doing so with hearts and hands firmly rooted in today’s tasks.
Steve Sprinkel is a regular contributor to Edible Ojai & Ventura County. A longtime commercial organic farmer, he co-owns Farmer and the Cook with his wife, Olivia Chase, in Meiners Oaks.