When I first started this blog in 2005, it was because I wanted people to ask themselves, seeing my pictures and reading these stories, "Where's my pretty little farm? Where's my pretty little farmer?" (Er, handsome/tall, as the case may be.) Case in point: meet Leon Vehaba. (Rave.) [Note: please click all horizontally-oriented photos to enlarge. The life-force is strong in the details.]
I first met Leon in 2007, at the UCSC Farm. He was helping with the annual Harvest Fair, and went out of his way to be helpful to everyone, with enthusiasm, intelligence, and what I know now is his characteristic warmth. Leon impressed enough people at the farm that he was chosen to be one of a handful of apprentices asked to stay through the winter, and mentor the next year's first-year apprentices. This honor is bestowed upon a very committed group of young people, and after his tenure as a Second-Year (or "Seconds," as they're called), Leon decided to stay in the area instead of returning to New York, so that he could join the Board of Directors for the Friends of the UCSC Farm & Garden. New York's loss is very much our gain.
Being on the Board is not the predominant reason Leon stayed in Santa Cruz, I have to confess. He was hired to manage the farm by Rich and Laura Everett, owners of Everett Family Farm, who clearly recognize Leon's capacity to turn vision into reality. I'm overdue for an update on the goat-wrangling and other activities that are part of the Everett's farm—one of the prettiest little farms you'll ever see. But I am remiss on weeks of writing, so I'll catch this lightning in a bottle while I can. It feels good to write.
Pictured here: some of the beautiful hand-picked zucchini blossoms carefully tended by Leon, just a couple of miles from my house. Leon's specializing in these at the farmers markets—I don't think anyone else has them.
If you can't get to them at the local farmers markets (Felton on Tuesday; Westside Santa Cruz on Saturday; Live Oak on Sunday), visit the farm in Soquel at 2111 Old San Jose Road, where their farmstand is open daily.
These zucchini blossoms are a perfect example of how Leon thinks: knowing that Santa Cruz has a fairly adventuresome collective palate, and not noticing any other farmers offering the blossoms at markets, he decided to grow them. When he became enthralled with all the varieties and possibilities with heirloom tomatoes, I hooked Leon up with the very generous Cynthia Sandberg, whose brain he picked until he was satisfied that his offerings would be attractive and tasty. (Cynthia calls our ilk "tomato kooks." I'm fine with that.)
Leon brings to his work a culinary history (along with a Masters Degree in Sustainable Development), including a stint as a waiter/educator at Blue Hill Stone Barns in upstate New York. He cooks, cans, makes spice blends, and a whole lot of other stuff I can't even name: his skills in the kitchen are matched by his zest for life. Most of our conversations are food-centric: he's often asking me for my take on flavors, combinations, things to grow, and so on. "Value-added" is an understatement, when I view Leon's approach to farming.
Pictured here: Leon's custom salad blend: no limpid baby greens that wilt under a vinaigrette: these are a tad more mature and robust—though simultaneously retain their tenderness. My know-it-all-without-bragging-but-still-maintaining-opinions friend, Joe Cangelosi, loved this salad. (Joe, post in the comments, would ya? Thanks.)
Like every farmer I know, Leon can talk about food: like every farmer I know, he grows food because he loves to eat well. This is a fact that permeates my life, and the lives of all those people who are close to me. There is a depth of thought that attends most every meal, and it's one of the things I love best about living in a farming region. (Notice I did not say "California," or even "the Bay Area.")
Even my ex-husband, whose previous forays into the kitchen involved can openers and frozen entrées, has become an adept cook since his divorce. He's taking pleasure in learning how to shop for fresh produce. Well, more pleasure than he took before, let's say. I don't think he'll ever spend time pondering whether to buy peaches or blueberries, or to try the Ronde de Nice squash instead of plain (beautiful, dark green) zucchini.
So where's the rant, you may be wondering. I needed a good rant to get me out of the creative trepidation I've been experiencing, and a Media Relations employee for Whole Foods Market unwittingly handed it to me yesterday. Bless her heart: I won't name her, for she did nothing wrong. All she did was invite me to the opening of the second Whole Foods Market in Santa Cruz county. She had no idea she threw a lit firecracker into a pile of dry kindling. Bless her heart.
Mind you, I know that Everett Family Farm and other local farmer friends sell to Whole Foods. I don't have any kind of problem with that, of course: I want to them sell everything they grow. But if you read #6, below, you will see why I buy directly from the farmers, and encourage you to do so. And I won't care if you do want to shop at Whole Foods. (It's one place you can get the fabulous pastured eggs from TLC Ranch.) My daughter loves it. (I'm not through with her, though.)
And now, a miniature rant, not without heart or reason.
Why I Won't Shop at Whole Foods (except for duck eggs, purchased individually and rarely):
1. Santa Cruz is the last place on earth that needs a Whole Foods Market, much less two of them.
We have these resources:
- New Leaf Community Markets (five in the county, and one in Half Moon Bay…see that word "Community?" It means something. It has history and depth and connections.)
- Staff of Life Natural Foods Market
- The Food Bin & Herb Room (more natural foods)
- Shopper's Corner (not such a commitment to organics, but locally owned since 1937, and has a great selection of the things I might be looking for)
- Deluxe Foods of Aptos (ditto what I said about Shopper's Corner)
FiveSEVEN farmers markets weekly (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, three on Saturday, and one on Sunday)
- Public farmstands (UCSC Farm, twice a week; Everett Family Farm, Crystal Bay Farm, Love Apple Farm, and possibly others)
- Bakeries (that supply wonderful baked goods to local markets)
- VinoCruz; Soif Wine Bar & Store; K Wine & Liquors <--I edited this list, at the suggestion of Fran Grayson, who commented below)
- TUESDAY: Felton
- WEDNESDAY: Downtown Santa Cruz
- FRIDAY: Watsonville
- SATURDAY: Cabrillo College [one of the very first in California] in Aptos, Westside Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley
- SUNDAY: Live Oak
2. Whole Foods doesn't know Santa Cruz.
A recent radio ad mentions the store's location on "Soquel Boulevard." Locals know there is no such street: the store is located on Soquel Avenue. Soquel Avenue runs from downtown south, until it crosses Highway One, when it becomes Soquel Drive. A moot point? Simple fact checking. And yes, this is a very minor point, but the ad irks.
And where is the store located? One block away from Shopper's Corner, which naturally has to have a negative impact on that venerated business.
3. Of all the counties in California, only San Francisco is smaller in size (and has over three times our population) than this county.
Maybe San Francisco needs a Whole Foods—though I think there are better options, certainly with the farmers markets. With our county's population at roughly 250K, I don't see the need for a megamart like Whole Foods. Much less TWO, that are literally THREE miles apart.
As I noted after visiting Whole Foods in Monterey in 2006:
What was it like at Whole Foods (in Monterey)? I spent only $30, and part of that on medicine. My overall impression is that people are dazzled by all the choices—six artisanal bakeries with offerings up to your eyeballs!—but I don't need all the choices. My local natural foods stores (New Leaf Community Markets and Staff of Life) have ample variety in every regard, and what they don't have (a vast wine selection, e.g.), I can easily augment elsewhere. I wouldn't buy produce at Whole Foods, when it's so much cheaper at the farmers market, but if that's what people want to do, and are willing to do, and need to do, bully for them. For myself, I didn't have a single pang of envy or the feeling that I was missing something in never having been inside a Whole Foods, nor do I have any desire to return. I saw what all the fuss was about, and I don't need the fuss. Santa Cruz is covered.
Razzle dazzle isn't for me.
4. People don't call it "Whole Paycheck" for nothing.
This is a universal nickname that isn't even a cliché. I saw tomatoes (in season) for $6/pound, when they were at that time selling for $2/pound at local farmers markets and farmstands. Can you spell "mark-up"?
5. I love my farmers, and I love my farmers markets.
This is really the heart of it.
Going to the market is like going to church for me. The good kind of church, not the kind where they want you Scared Straight! I see so many of my friends, meet new ones, and love the wholesome vibe—kids, music, pretty and healthy food grown with love. I like knowing and talking to the people who grow my food.
Another case in point: not knowing the research or facts on pesticide use on avocados, I asked one farmer, the father of two young children, "Would you let your kids eat [this, that, or the other thing?" He said "yes" and explained his rationale. The "yes" would have been enough: I trust Josh Thomas, of Thomas Family Farm. They've been farming sustainably since 1971; his father, Jerry started it way back then.
6. When I buy from the farm, the farm gets all of the money.
Whole Foods doesn't pay the farmers what they would make from direct sales. One family farmer told me that their direct sales comprise more than 95% of their income, between the farmers markets and the farmstand.
• • • • • • • • • • •
You get the point(s). Yes, I realize that Whole Foods is providing jobs, but I doubt those jobs offset the loss of income that would otherwise go to our local economy. Now, if the CEO of Whole Foods wants to move to Santa Cruz, maybe I'd shop there. No, no can do. See reasons 4, 5, and 6, above. Sorry, Mr. Mackey!
Where I'm transparently hypocritical: I buy some things at Safeway (toilet paper, etc., only things on sale with my Club Card). I buy some things at Trader Joe's (knowing it is owned by German brazillionaires*). I buy a very few things a few times a year at Costco. I shop BevMo's 5-Cent seasonal sales (for California wines). I buy my work tools (computers, cameras, etc.) where I can get the best price, usually online.
Most of these things don't affect the money that I spend on locally farmed/ranched food.
I guess what I'm saying is I don't need another outlet to spend money that won't stay (mostly) in our local economy. My hypocrisy does know some boundaries, you know!
And so I conclude this with the simple thought that originated I Heart Farms.
Where is your pretty, little farm?
Who is your pretty little (big, hairy, short, young, old, rustic, etc.) farmer?
Mine are all around me, in the open air. And that is exactly as I like it.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing. Benjamin Franklin
Farmers: they do things worth writing.
Thanks for visiting.
An advisor comes up to George W. Bush during a meeting and whispers, "There has been a riot in Rio de Janeiro, and six Brazilians are dead." Bush asks, "How many are in a brazillion?"