Gozo University: Accidental Wisdom and a Renewable Crop of Farmers
By Steve Sprinkel
Ten years ago I was writing for ACRES, USA. For some reason, one month I found myself writing about training up the next generation of organic farmers. I called for a broad formal effort. It couldn’t have been an original idea. The USDA had been reporting data on the aging farm-operator population for a long time. We were dying off and being replaced by specialists, farming’s equivalent of assembly line fabricators, the tool and die operators and forklift drivers in the factories. The Renaissance craft of Thomas Jefferson’s middle-class yeomen, crushed ’neath the boot of progress.
I had grown older with the ag statistics service reporting my age as the average year after year. Wendell Berry, the iconic farmer/poet who lives in Kentucky, has for decades argued for us in agriculture to make it possible for young people to learn to love farming. Berry most famously condemned the shift to industrial agriculture and the loss of humanity in our food production in the seminal Unsettling of America in 1977. He may have captured the essential attribute required for new farmers to find themselves on the land in a recent address before the Louis Bromfield Society, where he said:
“We seem now to be coming to a time when we will have to recognize the love of farming not as a quaint souvenir of an outdated past but as an economic necessity.”
One thing is certain: Love alone must make a farmer continue because reason offers an opportunity every day to find work that is more predictable and less arduous. People have asked me why I farm and I haven’t any easy answers. I can’t explain why I write, either. Farming organically keeps my hands clean in a dirty world. There is consistency in providing a product that people need three times a day. I’m good at it. I thought farming would give me freedom to go surfing when I wanted to. That last one especially has turned out to be pretty ludicrous, but lately I am turning that possibility into truth. Time is your most valuable possession. Promise it to another and you will shoulder the shield of the weekend warrior.
I want 10am Tuesday to belong to me.
The people who have farmed with me in Ojai, on their knees weeding carrots and cutting salad, have shared some of that yearning. Many have remained on the land because they discovered they loved it. John Fonteyn was made to be farmer. Sturdy, tireless, willing. He is a good cook so his affinity for vegetables began with the pan, which he flourished at the Farmer and the Cook when first we started. But a cook’s payday is limited. Off he went in search of a career in the cubicles. I would visit him at his desks, as he roved from job to job, answering telephones distractedly like a raccoon treed by a big mean dog. When he couldn’t stand the torture any longer, he went back outside, breaking July rocks in MatilijaCanyon. When he quit pipe laying he came to work at Mano when I was up there and later moved down to Gozo at HELP of Ojai’s West Campus. He was too big for Mano and eventually too big for Gozo. Big meaning too old to work for me (he was 32), too big because he had all the capabilities to work on his own but was boxed in again by the restraints of hourly labor. Too big to not be free. When I cut him loose I knew he would succeed because he had dreams that only someone who was in love with something can have. He was fully invested, from his boots to his big cowboy hat.
After Fonteyn, along came Quin Shakra. Quin had rolled into town years earlier with purple hair and a backpack full of anarchy. He’d been to Eugene and had stalked freedom with a pocket full of wild berries he found in the woods. He could cook too, after a fashion, with some training. Quin’s greatest accomplishment was being willing to subjugate his wild self to the peculiarities of creating commerce with our distinctively demanding clientele. How brave is that.
When he worked on the farm at Gozo, Quin seemed so unselfish that I had no idea how his endless interrogations would serve him until he and Justin Huhn started farming at Mano, once I was gone from there. I was always growing seeds, sort of like a cross between a hobby and a religion. It was the seeds that Quin seemed to love. He became so proficient at seed science he eventually taught me that all the beet seed I grew one season would be worthless because my flowering chard was too close to it and he was right.
Fonteyn taught me about Phish and Wilco and My Morning Jacket. Quin was Socratic and confrontational in an oddly kind way. We aspired to theater in the open air. He would scold me for being ignorant and self-satisfied. He thought I was somebody I wasn’t but I had to decide whether or not what he said was true.
The latest graduate is the Gromus, the best goofy-foot surfer not under contract to Patagonia. Wiley Connell started punching the register at the store four years ago, dripping wet and fresh from New Zealand. To qualify him then as feral would be a severe understatement, and he remains so, but better cloaked. Wiley was good at retail because he likes people, but I could tell the grind was giving his soul some bad blisters. Like a lot of folks who have flowed through our tributary of DollarRiver, the Gromus started farming as a volunteer, harvesting for the CSA. He was instantly good at it and nearly as quick as an average Mexican. I gave him a couple of days, then he went full time, which was really only part-time, because I had to offer him the Epic Barrel Exemption. Waves. It’s hard to weed when there are barrels, dude. I have found that if I provide myself an EPE on a routine basis the saltwater infusion washes off not just the sweat and dust of the farm but also dark memories of crops crowded by weeds and boxes of fennel that failed to find a buyer. When in doubt, barrel.
One can easily tell if someone’s in love because they obsessively talk about little else than the object of their affection. All these young men have been distracted by other, more personal desires, but the wondrous concentric details of Chioggia beets, the charmingly erotic intertwining of carrots grown too close together, the flowering cilantro filled with excited bees, have held these farmers’ imagination well enough to make the hours fly by. Despite major socio-glandular eruptions, Wiley has plenty of room to spare in his heart for tying up tomatoes and ripping cloddy hardpan.
I tend to accommodate the horticultural musings of the neophytes because I am reluctant to tamp down the flame of curiosity. When once your own employment application was rejected because you were overqualified, did you feel frustrated and curiously gratified at the same time? I trust in employing people who have much better to do than punch clocks in food service. If we only have them for a year, they’ll contribute more than a downtrodden loser. We need people with the courage and the aptitude to say, “Hey, what if?”
Herbs always held Fonteyn’s imagination, so herbs we did. Quin’s seeder ranged far and wide in the catalogue and he had me growing things I had never eaten, like rutabagas, once, and that was enough. After he had waded through a sea of unsold broccoli one spring, Quin’s frustration with super-abundance overwhelmed my denial. I had to agree that 2,000 plants was better than 4,000. I tend to go small these days because of Quin, who enjoyed equating my lack of discipline with the infamous trumpetings of one-time Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz, who said “Get big or get out.” It was that kind of talk that made Wendell Berry upset back in the day.
Fonteyn and Quin were more diplomatic in their requests, but the Gromus was on fire. Wiley was unstoppable, proving brazen in his many clever proposals. I found it difficult to dismiss his mushroom dreams, his cover cropping schemes, the myriad compost tea brewings and spray experiments. I warned him that he was not in Monterey, and that shiitakes loved the humid fogs of coast and mountain, but drill the spores he did … on my bank account. Yet these investments were for a market that was then barely embryonic, and the crop would be another new farmer. Thus did we pile high the manure for Wiley’s button shroomin’, and made brave early plantings of pest-resistant crops that turned out so well I should expand on that success.
The youth free me from my hesitant codgerly fears. I am preserved by their surging pursuit of destiny. Naivete can be so redeeming. I can still make the drop on that ’macker. Sure we can grow strawberries! The bigger the wave the deeper the water.
Amid all this goodwill and accidental wisdom arose a problem. Replacing these charismatic young farm gods is not easy. During volunteer harvest days on the farm I am aware that a certain loud and entertaining presence is missing. These guys entertain by making normal the absurd.
When Grace and Dan Malloy bought a nifty parcel in Meiners, they asked me if I wanted to tame it for a spell before they set down some serious roots. Grace is another Gozo graduate, who has gone on to work on a master’s in goatherding.
I said “No” to Grace and Dan. But, I knew someone who did. Wiley was beginning to bust some serious britches. That’s how the Stockbridge Miracle came to pass. A couple of turns with the old green tractor, set down a two-inch water line, throw in some left over transplants and drop seed in the virgin dirt. Wiley was soon so deep in the green no one knew when or if he would have time to go to the beach. Who knew there would be barrels in Meiners Oaks? After a harrowing search involving nearly 400 potential names, Wiley and his farm posse decided they’d better name the farm Stoke Grove, just as Mr. Berry intended.
Note: Gozo Farm is now elsewhere, gone in search of its lost N. Steve now calls the farm Rancho Del Pueblo.
Steve Sprinkel has been a commercial organic farmer since 1975 and currently serves as the board president of the Cornucopia Institute.