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The American Riviera…
I’m unbelievably lucky to be from one of the most bountiful places on earth when it comes to fruit, vegetables, and even flowers. The idea of eating week-old bell peppers that have been sitting in the back of a refrigerated truck for days before I could get my hands on them was a foreign concept my entire childhood. Now that I have traveled this country and seen with my own eyes the areas of the U.S. that have sadly earned the description of “food deserts”, I am that much more grateful for the plethora of fresh produce I maybe once took for granted. More so, I am thankful to stand face to face with the men and women that used their own hands, hearts, and homes to grow those treats and treasures that act as medicine on my nightly dinner plate.
The new generation of farmers…
While home in Santa Barbara, I was lucky enough to have my friend and high school classmate (Go Cardinals!) take my husband and I for a tour of one of the very first organic fruit and vegetable producers in Santa Barbara County, John Givens Farms. Back in the early 1980’s going organic from soil to fruit was not the norm. But Givens lead the way that many since have followed.
Most people think that organic produce is solely about being pesticide free. It is true that being free of chemicals and poisons is what makes a piece of produce certifiable as organic, however there is so much more to what these farms create. They model for the rest of us a way of life that respects the environment by encouraging the earth to bear fruit without it being exploited. They see that in order for the planet to provide for us we must do our part to respect that we are its caretakers, not owners. So, they do things like use well water, have an entire field for mulching so nothing is discarded or unused, and set out bugs to fight other bugs, rather than use chemicals unnatural to the very ground they grow from. When organic growing is done right, produce tastes a full head and shoulders better than conventional or mass produced foods.
My friend, Erik Sergott is a hard working farmer on this 70+ acre farm less than 3 miles from the beach in my hometown, Santa Barbara. The team of men and women, of which he is humbly only one, work together to do the noble work of coaxing mother nature into sharing her bounty with the rest of us. On the Central Coast of California, we are blessed with an abundance of quality fruits and vegetables due to our mild climate, ocean air, and quality soil. But there are still so many things that can turn all those advantages into non-factors.
And therein lays the importance of the instinct of a good farmer.
Erik takes notes, marking down a priority list of what absolutely must be accomplished on any given day in order to get the most production from his plants, as well as a list of things “that would also be nice to get done”. He has learned to prioritize based on the upcoming weather, unexpected bug infestations, and under-performing plants, a job made more complicated given he can’t just soak down the plants with pesticides and other quick-fix chemicals. (Thank goodness.) I imagine when he started out, having a natural intuition for what his plants craved was a far-fetched idea. But it’s quite clear that after 3 years of daily attention and symbiosis with the rows of tomatoes, kale, eggplants etc., he’s developed the ability to anticipate the needs of these living things. He has a mad scientist mind that allows him to think outside the greenhouse!
If you think this is just a means to a pay check, then you don’t know the love he has for creating America’s food with his own two hands. When one works 6-7 days a week, there is obvious enjoyment and pride that comes from creating something from seed to table.
While walking us through the seemingly endless rows of tomatoes, each greenhouse nestling in a different variety, Erik told us how he focuses “on the tops of the plants, because that is the future.” Helping the vines to grow upward and stay strong guarantees that more fruit will spring up. He can do this by giving them nitrogen, and then separately injecting their water with pot ash to specifically help them fruit. He’ll mark a plant, then come back to it a few days later and see if any progress was made. If so, then he’ll continue on. If not, he “goes back to the lab” and tinkers around with ideas to make his precious plants produce, all while keeping them 100% organic. He never forces them to do anything. He listens, pays attention to how they respond, and respects that he has to work on their schedule, not the other way around.
As I looked down the rows, I saw plants standing at attention in lines so straight they’d make a drill sergeant feel satisfied. The varietals range from Romas, Cherries, Sweet Peach (my absolute favorite), Mountain Magic Compari, and the ever coveted Geronimo. Each has a different flavor, unique growing temperament, and a yield that is more up to them than the farmer. But each provides endless culinary possibilities, and for that I can’t help but feel deeply thankful to Erik and all of our farmers and farm hands.
So, give thanks!
The agricultural industry is often seen as something akin to “Big Pharma”. But in some places, like our American Riviera of Santa Barbara, there is a true display of the word “artisanal”. The hours that these highly skilled tradesmen/women put into the fruits and vegetables that bring me unlimited options, pleasure, and health benefits should not go without thanks. So, the next time you are at your local farmers market, walk up to the farmers and talk to them. Ask them how they recommend cooking their products. If you enjoyed their produce, TELL THEM! Thank them. Respect them and the work they put in to make us a healthier, happier, more well-fed country.
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