I never cared much for nature as a child, or so I thought at the time. Trips with my great-uncle Arthur around the Deep South, to visit the nurseries to whom he sold seeds, were punctuated with great displays of yawning and the petulant boredom of a suburban brat. I was so out of touch with the natural world that I was probably in high school before I realized the moon's phases were sequential, and not some random moon that had been thrown up into the sky. I didn't garden, I didn't have houseplants. I once killed an air fern.
As I grew older, I always envied people who grew things, as I knew nothing about planting or caring for houseplants.
And then I met Bob. He loved to garden, he said, but no longer did any planting when I met him. I begged him to grow things for me: it was a miracle to me that he could garden.
We moved into in a house with a deck, and he bought a tomato plant and a rose bush, a pink Floribunda called "Sexy Rexy." Soon our weekends were filled with trips to nurseries, and the deck was covered in rows of pots. Begonias, ranunculas, and his favorite, the iris, soon crowded the steps. He was so happy to make me happy that we kind of went nuts.
Then we had to move, and left many of the plants behind. We brought the six big redwood planters with us, though, and wound up a year later on three acres in the heart of Santa Cruz county. This house, too, has a deck, and we filled the planters with herbs, and punctuated them with large potted roses. Joy of joys, I no longer killed every plant I touched. My roses thrived, and the herbs were wonderful in the kitchen. Still, I told people, "Bob gardens. I point."
He planted a vegetable garden, which was infiltrated with gophers within weeks. He began planting in wire baskets, and we got a kitty. The next plague took form in the deer who marauded, and he got so angry I thought he'd buy a gun. Instead, he built a fence, and the deer couldn't get in.
All this served to increase my interest and amazement in the natural world, and the world of making things grow. My own love of cooking was soon to take a turn for the better when I hooked up with woman who herself grew over 200 tomato plants. She was also a web designer, and was working with Mariquita Farm. She told me about something called Outstanding in the Field, and I went to their web site.
Whatever it was that they were doing was not immediately apparent, but chefs and farms were involved. I e-mailed for clarification, and asked a couple of questions. "Our web master is getting married and he doesn't have time to update the site," I was told. But then I grew to understand what it was they were hoping to do: take groups of people out to farms and cook for them there. The chefs were Tom King and Jim Denevan. Tom had owned a place revered in Santa Cruz, Papa's Church, but it had recently closed. Jim was then the chef at Gabriella Cafe in downtown Santa Cruz. At the time I encountered OitF, Jim was out of town. Tom and I talked, wrote (he was a fine writer) back and forth, and awaited Jim's return.
We all met, appropriately enough, at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market. I told them I had a digital camera, and would take pictures of the farms and the dinners in exchange for $100 and two seats at the table. The next thing I knew, we were piling in Jim's jalopy and headed out to the countryside.
Several dirt roads and wrong turns and hairpin turnarounds later, and we found ourselves at Happy Boy Farm. We climbed a big flattop hill that turned out to be covered in cow pies, and decided not to set up a long table with white linens there. Tom, who speaks Spanish, could converse with the workers easily, and he also turned out to be a walking lexicon of plant names and facts. He said that knowing the names of everything growing around him made him feel like he was visiting with old friends. And there I was in a roomful of strangers. But I started learning things, and it was lovely.
I was hooked. For five years, I visited and photographed farms, farm tours, farm dinners, growing farms, and fallow farms. One of my favorite parts of photographing farm dinners was that the farmers got to see their place dressed up, so to speak. Decked out, spruced up, and the setting for a glorious celebration of their own hard work. It was very moving to see them take it all in. Talk about your thankless work.
UPDATE: April, 2007. I gave one more year of my life last year to photographing farm dinners with Outstanding in the Field. But I came to the conclusion that it is not a sustainable business model—too expensive, too elite, and more—and I have separated myself from the organization. The women in it are GREAT, though.
I go to the farmers market whenever I can, usually once a week, but twice a week in the summer. I like to spread the love around: I'll pick up things from four or five farmers in a visit. They're not all Certified Organic. Andy Griffin of Mariquita, for example, doesn't believe in paying a board of strangers to tell him that he's farming honorably (sustainably, and consciously), and that's fine with me. That is the thing about these farmers: I really trust them. I can't speak for big farmers, or "conventional" (pesticide-using) farmers, but the farmers I've met on the small farms around here are all really smart people. They bear a multitude of degrees and have broad educations. They're good to their workers, as near as I can tell--some of the kids who run the farmers market stands have amazing light in their eyes. They're so enthusiastic about what they're doing.
This blog has grown out of my love for these farms, and my appreciation for the hard-working people who choose that life. I can't think of more important work on the planet, and I hope that my appreciation, and yours, somehow rewards them. Get to know your local farmers. They're raising the food you love.
P.S. I still have no houseplants. I'm surrounded by nature and have big windows overlooking a hundred acres of open space—the only plants in my house are the tomato seedlings awaiting their planting in the garden. Here is a summer sunrise looking east from our deck.
© 2007 Tana Anderson Butler, all rights reserved, period.