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"Thank God you're here! I thought no one was going to show up," said the sunburned man sitting at the rear of Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco, in a faintly English accent. "We have all these bloody tomatoes!"
The man was Nigel Walker, also known as Our Farmer, the person growing the food that we pick up in a box every other week. In his low-key way, he was welcoming the Potato Non Grata and me to Eatwell Farm's Tomato Tasting. It was Eatwell's thank-you for the more than 500-plus "subscribers" to its Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Although the Potato and I were running late, we were the first of the 60 or so guests expected to arrive. Nigel and Michelle (pictured), the new CSA manager, had been anxious that they'd gotten the date wrong on the Evite or something. I was secretly elated: Not only would I have first crack at the 10 varieties of heirloom tomatoes laid out amongst the cornucopia of amazing produce, but I would have a chance to talk to Nigel. I was almost as excited as the time I lurked by the back door after a Leonard Cohen concert, although this time I did not settle for just shyly shaking hands. (Nor did I score a couple of "I'm Your Man" temporary tattoos from the drummer.)
Nigel started farming organically in America in 1993, having done so for over 10 years previously in England. He and his then-partner Frances bought 65 acres north of Dixon, near Sacramento, in 1998 and later added five more. He studied farming with chemicals, but did his independent study at an organic farm and later studied in Israel. Eatwell is a paragon of organic virtue. The truck and the tractor both run on biodiesel, and Nigel gets organic compost from restaurants in San Francisco.
Although we only joined in May, I knew from the newsletters that Eatwell Farm has been through a lot of changes this year. Well, changes is what Nigel called them. I think "calamities" would be a more descriptive term.
Labor and love
Martin, his foreman for 13 years, was deported in the spring, even though he had hired a lawyer and spent thousands of dollars trying to get his immigration papers. The spring rains had drowned and rotted most of the farm's berries. The tractor had broken down and a new one had to be bought. Tom, the CSA manager, had decided to move on. And Arturo, a valuable member of the farm team for 12 years despite having a deformed hand, was just last week bitten badly by a neighbor's Rottweiler/pit bull cross that broke its leash.
One of my favorite things about reading Eatwell's newsletters is how prominently Nigel's Mexican workers figure in the accounts and the photos. They really seem appreciated, like members of the family, and he writes a lot about, say, Roberto's attachment to the new tractor.
The Nation's recent food issue had several articles that touched on disturbing labor practices on organic farms. Basically, when consumers think about these workers, it tends to be from the "well they must be happy that they're not exposed to all those pesticides." Perhaps so, but they are not paid any more than industrial farmworkers, and are less likely to have unions. Most cannot even afford to buy the food they are helping to grow. Their labor is much more backbreaking: the level of joint injuries is very high. One exception is Swanton Berry Farm, considered the leader in organic labor practices. I was thrilled to learn this, as I've already given them quite a few dollars, preferring their berries of all the ones on offer at the Berkeley farmers market. (The local Whole Foods also sells Swanton's berries.)
Some day I want to ask Nigel about his labor philosophy, but given the number of er, changes, he's been facing, the tomato tasting didn't seem like the right time. Instead I asked him about eggs. Nigel is a "reluctant chicken farmer," having taken on the chicken operation started by another, because he didn't want to disappoint subscribers who had signed up for eggs.
"The main thing I'm getting out of the egg operation is chickenshit," he laughed, surprisingly cheerfully. "The fields that the chickens were in last winter are producing the best crops of squash and sweet potatoes I've ever had. So chickenshit is something, anyway. I hope I can make it work."
At that point, alas, more people arrived, and it was time for me to move on to the tomatoes. My favorite varieties were all there, the rich berrylike Black Brandywine and the tart Lemon Boy, the mild Zebra Stripe. As I proceeded to move down the row of plates like a tomato Shop-Vac, Nigel asked if I had had the New Zealand Pink before. The name was unfamiliar.
"That's one promiscuous tomato there," he said, and chuckled dirtily. "It's been having quite a party out in the fields."
Apparently the New Zealand likes to cross-pollinate madly with other tomato varieties. Nigel said he's found it dozens of yards away from where he plants it, and that its firm fleshy traits have shown up in other, weaker-gened tomatoes, even in some of his cherry tomatoes. Fortunately it's a tasty slut, so he doesn't mind.
"Short of segregating it in a greenhouse with no insects, there's not much I can do about it anyway," he shrugged.
Conflicted Support of Agriculture
The little back room was getting full. I was surprised to see how many of the Eatwell subscribers were, well, typical San Franciscans — hip, black-clad or baseball capped, gay and straight, mostly couples with one or two baby-toting families. After I ate so many tomatoes that my tongue began to hurt, and checked out the most excellent cheese array, followed by some Eatwell figs and melons for dessert, the Potato and I finally mingled a bit. We met Matt and Marnie, who grew up on a farm and has been a member of CSAs since she was a student. Matt extolled the virtues of buffalo meat, which thanks to him I now really want to try, and Marnie and I discussed a share of a grass-fed cow that another member might be undertaking on our behalf.
It was great. I was sorry that Nigel had had to cancel the farm's open-house weekend last month due to all the "changes," because I liked looking around the room and thinking, "Look how many people he feeds," and talking to fellow ethicureans, whether they know they are or not.
Mostly, I was feeling a renewed sense of commitment to Eatwell Farm. Since this is my first season, I had been feeling just a little disappointed by the boxes — I thought they would have more fruit, berries, and greens/salad materials, and fewer potatoes, cabbage, turnips, and mutant not-quite-ripe carrots. I wasn't so sure I didn't want to switch to Full Belly or Riverdog's CSA box; both farms have stands at the Berkeley market and were tempting me with more of the produce I tend to gravitate toward.
But you know what? It's not as easy, emotionally, to switch CSAs as it is, for example, to switch grocery stores. I had been feeling guilty for even thinking about it. Kind of like when I stopped going to the hairdresser that I'd been using for several years, deciding I needed a change. I didn't officially tell her, so when I ran into her I was completely embarrassed even though she was nice enough to compliment me on my new haircut. And anyway we'd written a big check to Eatwell that was going to carry us through the winter.
As I said goodbye to Nigel and Michelle, who insisted we take home some tomatoes and figs, I was really happy that I would be able to put faces and voices to the accounts of the weather and the various plantings that would be coming in my newsletter this very week. I was also really looking forward to more of those fabulous tomatoes, which themselves had gotten off to a bit of a rocky start this summer. Last month several members had complained about them being skimpy in number — and slightly overripe to boot — on the CSA's e-mail list-serv.
A woman named Lynn T. had replied with this, which I think sums it all up rather well:
I don't think this has been a lucky year for Eatwell tomatoes. I've been a member for about 5-6 years, and usually by this time of the summer I'm actually getting a little weary of all the tomatoes, but I think I've only made one caprese salad this summer! I think this is what it means to be a member of a CSA — sharing in the bounty, sharing in the leaner times! I'll keep my fingers crossed for milder weather next year.
In the spring, I too will be loyally keeping my fingers crossed for milder weather at Eatwell Farm.