By the time Monday rolled around, I could only remember the name of the farm I had asked to visit, and little else. Contacting Seabreeze Organic Farm had been my first cold call to a farm. I had found Seabreeze on the LocalHarvest.org web site, simply by plugging in the zip code of my San Diego hostess. I'd also located a few farmers markets, hoping to persuade Monique (Nikki) to indulge my new obsession.
I'd e-mailed Seabreeze from their web site, introducing myself and explaining why I was going to as many farms as I could. I said I loved farms, and was getting a good reception from the farmers I knew. I soon got a response from Stephenie Caughlin, saying that Monday afternoon would work. I barely gave it a second thought during the week, but had a little nervousness: she had no idea who I was, and I just hoped my blog and photos would speak for me.
Seabreeze Farm is one of the most amazing farms I've ever seen: on two rugged acres, clinging to an arroyo, Stephenie has carved out terrace after terrace for the biggest assortment of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers (and chickens) that I've ever witnessed. Those two acres currently support 65 families in her CSA: some of her plantings are vertical. I mean it. Every inch of space is brimming with something alive. If she wants to keep the bunnies and gophers out, she plants in a crate above the ground, or a galvanized steel drum that would normally sit in a pasture and hold water for horses. The flowers that crowd the landscape are insanely prolific: this is not a prim English garden but a voluptuous canvas for the vibrant spirit who traded manicures for manure.
She'd started the farm in 1988, when she walked out of a lucrative career as a commodities trader with offices in the World Trade Center, San Francisco, and elsewhere.
As Stephenie pointed out towards the hills to the west, she spoke of her years on Arroyo Sorrento Road. When she first moved there, she could not see another building between herself and the ocean. Now, Torrey Pines is its own little megalopolis, and she is surrounded by the garish houses that bespeak too much money with little taste and even less sensitivity. I was surprised that the garish statues in the yard nearest hers weren't adorned in the fashion of those denizens of Beverly Hills who'd painted their lawn ornaments, complete with flesh tones and pubic hair. Nouveau riche and clueless: "I wouldn't mind if any of them were my customers," Stephenie harumphed.
Her "customers" are the 65 families in the CSA she's been doing for years. "I got so tired of the farmers markets. If I had to tell one more person how to cook a beet, I think I was going to scream." [Note to San Diegans: she's got a handful of spots left in her CSA. If I were down there, I'd sign up in a heartbeat. The growing things were beautiful.)
Seabreeze is hard to depict in photographs, as it's one winding path after another, and everything crawls on the hills. Less a maze than a treasure hunt, it is abundantly plain that Stephenie's hands contain magic, and that she's one of the sort who throws a peach pit out the window and has a tree the next morning. Things are orderly but happenstance. As we wandered slowly and purposefully, I realized that Stephenie reminded me a bit of Shirley MacLaine and Colleen Dewhurst: the sparkle in the eye, and the grit in her soul--and the very deliberately red red hair. A Leo (yes, I asked), she said, "And yes, I'm in charge of everything. I told my sister, 'Well, who else are they going to put in charge?!' "
We stopped in front of a long row of lettuces that were glistening with health. Stephenie said, "With the threats to our national food security, who on earth can you trust more than a farmer?" These are exactly my sentiments: having grown up with a grandfather who embodied the word "integrity" as few I've ever known, I know the farmers possess it in abundance. She said, "I don't follow the rules of some government agency. I have more integrity than any of them: I have to answer to myself." This is something I've heard echoed in other farmers I know like Andy Griffin and Rick Knoll. Especially now, with big business seeking a toehold into the organic market, and likewise seeking ways to corrupt the application of its twin principals of health and sustainability, I have a soaring admiration for these farmers. I know so many who don't seek the "Certified Organic" label, considering it a waste of money because their customers know that they've been farming sustainably for decades.
Other random notes: there isn't a single rose growing at Seabreeze that isn't fragrant, though most have names that are long since forgotten. "They're mostly 'Don't Knows,' I'm afraid," she told me. The only growing thing I heard Stephenie complain about was a flowering vine that "just stinks; it doesn't have a smell at all." Well, and she pulled a tiny weed and expressed intolerance: "Why should this be here when I could growing food?"
She led us into her "lounge": a white-fabric greenhouse that she'd cleared out except for some plants around the periphery. Two blue armchairs and a table laden with art supplies were the chief furnishings that I remember, but it was clearly a haven. "No men are allowed here," she told us (not even her husband of three years, Kendall Cook, a good companion she'd happened to meet when he was working on the farm). "My girlfriends come over and we just hang out. I had to find some place for myself, and this is it. And I don't have to worry about spilling anything, because it's a dirt floor."
Later, when we went into her house, I spotted a copy of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write. I have my own copy, inscribed by the author, Gayle Brandeis, who is one of the many authors who hangs out at Readerville.com, and whom I consider my friend. Like many books on creativity, Fruitflesh is a cross-pollinating tome. I imagine that Stephenie's found a kindred spirit in Gayle, and hope they will meet one day.
As I stepped up and down paths that had been cleared, thinking about the sheer work it took to carve Seabreeze Farm staggered me. I started wondering how the tractor could even manage to work on some of the steep inclines. Terraces had been formed with the rubble of demolished sidewalks and buildings: urban detritus has a new life in Arroyo Sorrento. When I further considered that she had done a great deal of the work herself (currently only she, her husband, and one worker manage everything), it's dumbfounding. I sighed, "Can I come live here?" She laughed and said, "This wonderful contractor was out here, and he was fixing things for us. He was from the South, and he appreciated good food. One day he said, 'Can I be a citizen here, please?' "
A bed and breakfast is in the works. More on that in another report: I want to focus on the growing things, though I eagerly await the art that will manifest in the straw bale structure under construction.
Finally, she has the most beautiful chickens I've ever seen. She even has Silkies! Nearly a hundred hens occupy a pen that runs downhill, with their nests sitting at the top. When we were inside, she brought out grain for Nikki to feed the chickens, and she brought out eggs and nectarines for us to take home. (We paid her!) I was probably sighing and exclaiming, as I'd been doing for two hours. She told me that she had to turn down all the requests from schools and anyone else who wanted to visit, "because I'm just too busy. Who else can do all this work?" [Yes, Gentle Reader, I realized at this point that not only was I tremendously blessed to be there, but honored as well. She'd taken two hours out of her day to show this paradise to Nikki and me. She said that whatever good I did for one farmer was doing good for all of them. I remain grateful, in a very sensual and solid way, for this knowledge: because I think farms are beautiful, it's easy to share that.]
In the days since I left Seabreeze, so many images and feelings have returned to me, like warm waves to the shore of my mind. "You are the first people I've seen who didn't just glaze over in the first five minutes," she told us. "This place has so much to see, and you seem like you're seeing it. I think that's because you're artists."
Stephenie is the embodiment of the Goddess that every single card-totin', tree-huggin', goddess-worshipping feminist I know would give her left tata to be. She might laugh at that (and I hope she does), because I doubt she needs to hug trees with her hands full of roses and lettuce. Her place is filled, overflowing, singing, with heart and soul.
I'll return in a few months to see how things are coming along. Meanwhile, I wish many long and happy years to Stephenie and Kendall, that their vision can grow, and that they can inspire others to carve out a little piece of heaven of their own. Do the math: two acres divided by 65 families...and the answer seems to be infinite.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "There is no greater joy than that of feeling oneself a creator. The triumph of life is expressed by creation." — Henri Bergson
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