On an overcast Friday morning near the end of spring, Juan Umaña rolled up his shirt sleeves and went to work in a newly ploughed field with rich black soil on an organic farm in Sonoma County, California, an hour or so North of the Golden Gate Bridge. Born and raised in Colombia, with a tattoo of Che Guevara on his right arm, Umaña would normally be at work at Chez Panisse—Alice Waters’ flagship Berkeley restaurant—where he prepared sumptuous meals for foodies who arrived from all over the world and wanted their taste buds to be delighted.
But these are not normal times. Umaña’s life has taken a turn he hadn’t expected a short while ago. Now he’s not working with kitchen utensils, but rather with farm implements. Yes, he’s laboring in the fields on a farm, but don’t call him a farm worker, at least not yet. Most of the Latino farm workers I have known and worked with have not spoken English as well as he, and none of them ever boasted a tattoo of Che Guevara, the Argentinian born guerrilla, who would approve of the guerrilla-style farming that’s taking place in an environment where grapes, vineyards and wine dictate many of the daily patterns of life and death in Sonoma.
Why is it guerrilla-style farming? Because it’s bucking big, corporate agriculture that relies on big machines, and that chews up and spits out workers all day long. Also because it builds soil rather than depletes it. You might call that revolutionary or at least radical.
With his hands on his hips and a smile on his face, Umaña tells me, “Che would be totally behind what we’re doing here. It’s not socialism, but it’s socialistic. We are connecting with the land and with agricultural labor. We’re seeing where the produce we cook with actually comes from.”
That’s new and different in the northern California foodie world that gets behind the slogan, “farm to table,” but where kitchen workers and farm workers rarely if ever connect except on rare occasions like July 4th and May 5th. Indeed, the men and women who toll in the sun rarely link up with the men and women who make sauces, salad dressings and pastries. Umaña is getting a crash course in agriculture, from the ground up, and he’s learning by doing.
He and his pals drop the “Panisse” part of the name and call the restaurant “Chez,” which rhymes with Che, who would enjoy the diversity of crops and the quality, too, on this small, organic farm on a rugged side of Sonoma Mountain where more than a century ago Jack London raised organic vegetables, reared pigs and horses and wanted to create a cooperative community. Alas, he died at the age of 40 in 1916 before he could translate his dream into reality.
Except for the sounds of the tractors, it’s quiet and calm, so quiet and calm that one might forget that the U.S. looks like it’s on the brink of civil war, or at least civil unrest the likes of which has rarely been seen.
If Che had wanted to launch guerrilla warfare in the U.S., Sonoma Mountain, with its steep hillsides, thick vegetation and running streams, would be as nifty a place as any. A guerrilla army would be able to live off the fat of the land for a good part of the year. In fact, the organic farm where Umaña is working boasts old fruit trees—apples, cherries, peaches, apricots, and plums— plus blackberries that are still producing abundant fruit. There are herds of deer and wild turkeys, too, that feed on the cultivated crops and can cause havoc. There are also wonderful plants that grow wild, such as amaranth, dandelions, purslane and chickweed.
For the last several months, COVID-19 has shuttered Chez Panisse. The kitchen and the dining rooms, both upstairs and downstairs, have been nearly as empty as Yankee Stadium has been during the pandemic. Never eager to be idle, Umaña, along with his pals from South America, have come to Sonoma to plant, cultivate and harvest and to enjoy being in the outdoors, not in the kitchen at Chez.
The farm that I’m visiting this morning probably has a name, though there is no sign at the entrance on Sobre Vista Road—with vineyards on all sides—or on any of the barns or structures which dot the landscape. Ross Cannard, the man who is in charge of the operation, is the son and grandson of farmers and teachers who changed the landscape of agriculture in Sonoma and beyond over the past fifty years. Ross has the weight of the past on his shoulders, though he wears it lightly, and he’s delighted that cooks and kitchen workers from “Chez” have come to lend helping hands. For a while it seemed like Ross would become an academic; then he saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to follow the path his father and grandfather carved out, albeit on his own terms.
Before COVID-19 struck, Ross sold his produce to Alice Waters. With the arrival of the pandemic, he had to change his marketing and do it fast or go broke. He created a CSA and now he provides consumers with boxes of fresh, organic produce. They’re happy to have it. Crops, like strawberries will arrive as spring moves into summer and then as fall arrives with a bang. September and October are usually the busiest months of the year for farming in these parts.
So far the CSA has been the salvation of the farm. “With COVID-19 the big food chains fell down,” Ross tells me. “In many cases, local food systems have filled the gaps. I think it’s good to have produce that’s grown a few miles from where you live.” Consumers like to know where their produce originates and the name and identity of the farmer who grows it.”
Ross has learned heaps from his father, Bob. Indeed, he relies on Bob’s advice almost everyday, but he’s not a slave to tradition. In many ways he’s overturning his father’s practices. Last year, his first year of farming on Sobre Vista, Ross used most of his father’s methods.
“It’s good to listen to the old fogies,” Ross told me. “But my dad has had some crazy ideas.” I’ve known Bob Cannard to grow acres of beets because he likes the way they look in a field, even though he doesn’t know where he’ll sell them. Ross appreciates the concept, though he wants to be able to sell what he grows, pay the workers and stay in business. His father didn’t and still doesn’t want to own any property. Ross wouldn’t mind owning the land on Sobre Vista. In fact, it would make him feel a tad more secure in these trying times.
Bob Cannard didn’t use a timer on his irrigation system. Ross put one in. Bob’s mantra was “simplicity.” Ross is embracing complexity. Bob didn’t trellis his tomatoes. Ross does. Bob didn’t aim to eliminate weeds. Ross wants to have more control over them. Bob was against refrigeration. Ross has instilled a “Coolbot,” a relatively simple method to keep vegetables fresh even on the hottest of days. He also keeps more thorough and detailed records than his dad.
Ross tells me, “Having a plan and sticking to it is the single most important thing. It’s the hardest part of farming.”
Dan Alterman—one of Juan Umañ’s co-workers from Chez—is also lending a hand at the farm. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, he worked as a chef at elite restaurants in Argentina before coming to the U.S. 18 months ago. At Chez, where the menu changed everyday, Alterman made salads and pastas and grilled meats. “It was sad for all of us when the restaurant had to close,” he tells me. “Here on the farm I’m learning how much work it takes to grow crops. I see the whole picture. We add compost, we plant and we harvest.”
After visiting with Ross and the laborers from South America, I stopped at “Paul’s Produce” and talked to Paul himself. Along with Bob Cannard, he’s one of the most respected farmers in northern California. Paul grows for the farmers’ markets in the town of Sonoma. When I suggested that small local farms were doing great, he told me, “Some are and some aren’t.” The CSA model is a step in the right direction, but it won’t end hunger in California or feed the poor.
Small local organic farms don’t produce enough food to feed hungry families in Sonoma County and beyond. The vegetables and fruits are too expensive for most working class and even middle class families. Still, Paul’s Produce and the farm on Sobre Vista are models that show what could be done if corporations didn’t control agriculture and the food industry.
You won’t hear anyone at Tyson Foods saying what Ross told a group of students in one of my classes at Sonoma State University: “If our civilization is going to endure we’re going to have to see ourselves as a part of nature, not separate from it. At the end of the growing season, we want the soil to be as rich and as healthy as it was when we started.”
I would eat well at the end of the day. Paul Wirtz waded into his lush fields, harvested beets, turnips and celery and sent me on my way. Che would approve of his generosity.