First of all, warmest welcome to readers of Megnut, and many kind thanks to Michael Ruhlman for the kind words on his introductory guest blog piece over there. I felt compelled to get a new post up here, though I am slammed with work for a restaurant. Which leads me to Reno, where I traveled last week.
I was visiting 4th Street Bistro, with chef Natalie Sellers and her front-of-the-house partner, Carol Wilson. Natalie was amazing, and (God bless her forever and ever) took me to two farms, one of which grows exclusively for her. The other, about 45 minutes to the west, was located near Beckwourth, in the heart of the highest alpine valley (once a lakebed) in the Northern hemisphere. This is Sierra Valley Farms, owned by the Romano family since 1936.
I'd met farmer Gary Romano in January at the Eco-Farm Conference. His operation fascinated me: he is clearly the New Farmer whose job description far outstrips last century's farmer's. No longer are brute strength, frugality, and good organization enough to succeed in farming. No, now you have to be a networker and more. Gary and his wife, Kim, have a diverse and visionary operation, which began back in 1989, when he bought the 65 acres that remained from his grandparents' original 900-acre ranch.
Since it's nearly 5000 feet in elevation, the farm is limited in what it can reliably produce: a mere sixty frost-free days a year put quite a damper on your hopes for tomatoes and peppers and other heat-loving crops. On the other hand, the custom mixed greens that Gary grows enchant both the eye and the tongue, and it's no wonder that a chef would drive almost an hour to get them, fresh-picked that day, for her customers. (And no wonder, with that kind of dedication to her ingredients, Sellers' restaurant celebrated its sixth anniversary earlier this month, with a steadily growing business and enviable customer loyalty.)
To achieve this beautiful crop, Gary hand-mixes the seeds himself, and fills saltshakers (into which he's custom-drilled larger holes). He shakes the seeds down a row, and the next week, starts another row. Thus the greens are harvested each week, and he can grow these through the entire summer, when anyone at lower elevations could not manage them in the heat.
Gary's first business at the site was a native plant nursery, and they presently propogate and sell over 150 kinds of native trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses. Experiments with vegetable gardens came straight from Gary's childhood memories of his grandmother's garden. He'd seen her grow a garden for so many summers, he could close his eyes and point to where things were: carrots here, broccoli there.
He led Natalie and me into "the doghouse" and showed us a few artifacts, including this photograph of his grandparents with their seven children. The oldest, a girl named Dina, was eighteen years older than the youngest, Gary's mother. In between were five boys, only one of whom remains alive, and Gary referred to "the uncles" a dozen times during our visit. They ran the ranch, and built the buildings that now house the Romano's farmers market and roadside stand.
The windows in this building, Gary told us, each held a different kind of grain. They were workplace and playgrounds both to the children and grandchildren growing up on the ranch. Gary also made frequent references to his father, who is in the cut flower business in San Francisco. "These crooked fingers I got as a child, pulling weeds," he laughed. "I told my mother that was child abuse."
A short career at a desk job made Gary crazy, though, and when the opportunity arose to buy the family farm, he jumped at it. He's a man who likes to be outdoors. With an enterprising spirit and a lot of research, Gary and Kim have grown the business, which includes the nursery (conventional) and a certified organic farm. Their brochure says: "As we learned more about the climactic conditions of the high country, short and unpredictable seasons, soil types, and the unique water quality of the aquifers, we carefully master planned the farm to be self-sustaining. Since 1995, we have been 100% self-sustaining."
They presently grow, on 56 acres: "four acres of microgreens, baby spinach, arugular, broccoli, watercress, beets, radishes, carrots, swiss chard, herbs, potatoes, romaine, and cabbage." But it is the horseradish that brings them fame and fortune (well, if you can call a farmer's income a fortune): their "Romano's Fresh Ground Horseradish" and Horseradish Mustard, sold in 8-ounce jars and one-gallon totes flies off of the shelves of the farmstand.
It was a little cold and even sprinkling when we visited: Gary told us that it had gone down to 29 degrees the previous night. (In June, folks.) I leaped at the chance to go into the greenhouse, where my camera lens fogged up for five minutes before we could both warm up. In the greenhouse were all the starts for the beds outdoors: here beautiful shiso is growing.
I was most intrigued by the wasabi Gary is cultivating, as the origins of wasabi growing in America are filled with treachery and a labyrithine maze of puzzle pieces.
I'd heard this story from our friend, Steven Lisberger (he wrote and directed the classic film, Tron) some years ago...an entrepreneur, trying to learn how to grow wasabi, had found that the Japanese kept this knowledge, like a national treasure, completely hidden. Nowhere could be found the information like the depth of the gravel, for example: everything was under lock and key, and in pieces here and there. The entrepreneur hired Japanese detectives to do his spying, and after two years of safe-cracking and subterfuge, he was able to piece together enough information to start his own operations in Oregon. (I've tried to be responsible and Google this, but I take Steven at his word because he's a freakin' genius with a mind like a steel trap, especially where plants are concerned. He's a bonsai enthusiast, and he knows the names of every tree he passes. He told me today, "And now that guy's on a 20-year plan to crack the truffle industry."
Gary offered this intriguing addition: he'd been calling the nursery for more plants, and five phone calls had gone unanswered. Hmmmm.
If all that's not enough to keep two people busy, there's also the brand-new certified farmers market that opened on June 9. It will run every Friday from 10AM until 4PM, and will include organic fruits, vegetables, and other offerings from 15 different local and Northern California farms.
Hanging out with Gary was wonderful: you can see in his face the forthright and open gaze, and the love for his work.
Sierra Valley is off the beaten path, though less and less so, alas, but it's worth a visit if you find yourself in Reno, wondering where one of the best chefs I've had the pleasure of meeting finds the ingredients for her amazing menu.
It's a beautiful spot, and you can feel the history and the love of a family that lives on through the farm.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." — Charles Mackay
Thanks for visiting. Coming up soon, a farm in Fallon.