My Sonoma: Beyond the Wine

Driving seven plus hours north to Sonoma County seemed utterly daunting while passing dusty flat farmland as far as the eye can see in both directions off the Grapevine. The barrages of endless semi-trucks head to toe like train cars and slower drivers in the wrong lane make any trip seem like a bad idea. Breaking up the monotony at a rest stop bathroom, gas station, and a quick mart for a cold bottle of green tea helped urge me on to the 580 where a change of scenery begins and the light of looming destination emerges.- until I hit Berkeley traffic and wanted to scream. Settling my mind on the bay and the afternoon golden glow of rolling hills beyond, I eased into Santa Rosa and the Sonoma County Fairgrounds for my second annual trip to the National Heirloom Expo.

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Last year, I had such an amazing time at my first Expo, I planned another trip, but decided to do it differently. With so many takeaways from the knowledgeable speakers, demonstrators, vendors, and attendees, I was eager to have that experience again along with immersing myself in the surrounding area, the people outside of the expo, and the farms themselves. Since I don’t have a degree in agriculture, didn’t grow up on a farm or in a farming community, and seem a little late in the game (FYI- it’s never too late for anything!), I am constantly researching growing practices and seeking out people who can teach me firsthand, even if it means getting involved. Coming from a well-seasoned teacher and student, this is the best kind of learning there is!

I had two criteria for this second trip: Stay anywhere except a hotel and visit some small organic farms that don’t offer public farm tours. Even when I’m considered a tourist, I hate being around tourists. I found a hundred-year-old farmhouse bed and breakfast off the beaten wine tasting path, and just far enough away from the Sonoma Plaza, but close enough to Wholefoods to get my special morning cereal and alternative milk. I pulled up to the Hollyhock Country House just after sunset and realized I had chosen the perfect place to hang my hat for a couple of nights. The lit wooden plank porch was absolutely charming, especially with an inviting ginger cat perched on the top step purring for a pet. Although I couldn’t see too much, I noticed the colorfully painted quilt patterned doors on the detached garage and sheds, giving the place just enough funkiness to make me feel at home.

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When I entered through the wood framed screen door, onto the creaky original hardwood floor, I could here the soft sound of a television show down the hallway, and smell the fresh, sweet aroma of baked bread. I echoed “hello” through the short corridor and a bright-eyed hostess emerged with a welcoming smile. Accustomed to the weary traveler showing up at dark, she intuitively showed me my room, the bathroom, the wifi code, and then asked me my plans for the morning. One thing about the genteel homeowner and innkeeper, Lucille, is that she isn’t in the least sense nosy about her guests’ whereabouts, although receptive and interested when plans are shared. She genuinely wants to be prepared to serve a homemade breakfast to her guests in the morning. Unfortunately, to my regret, I had plans to leave at 5:30 AM and return after 11 before heading out again.

The next morning I was off to meet David, owner of County Line Harvest. David leases acreage in Petaluma where he grows organic produce to sell to distributors. As we were texting back and forth the night before setting up a time, he lured me into arriving early to join in the harvesting. He may have jokingly proposed the idea, perhaps not knowing I would eagerly jump at the opportunity to learn firsthand by getting involved. Having a cerebral sponge with questions swirling in my mind, I found my way through the winding valley, into a still, moonlit farm. The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills and wash the linear green crops, rickety red barns, and beautiful rustic two-story white farmhouse in vibrant, enhancing hues under a turquoise sky. This is what I envisioned a perfect farm should look like. It was alive with growth and movement from the emerging workers preparing for the day’s labor.

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Waiting for farmer David to roll up in an old, rusty, Ford pick-up truck, wearing overalls, a dusty cap, and a John Wayne strut, I perused the greenhouse, took inventory of the seedling types, and snapped some photos. In the distance I could see a vehicle approaching, but it wasn’t roaring or creating a cloud of dust like an old truck would. Instead, a clean-shaven, designer sunglass-wearing driver in a newer black BMW SUV pulled up. The stylish man in a James Dean jacket, fitted jeans and t-shirt, with a cool swagger, introduced himself and shook my hand. With his sly smile, one hand on hip, and pleasant matter-of-fact attitude, and me ready to harvest in my dark skinny jeans and Lululemon pullover, I had a feeling we had something in common. Yep, we’re both from L.A.!

As David showed me around the farm, he told me the story that led him to making a successful profit off mostly lettuce and chicories. Being from the city, without any background in agriculture, he started growing a variety of produce in Santa Barbara and sold to chefs. Through trial and error, learning by doing, specializing in certain produce rather than a large variety, and developing a solid business model, he expanded his production to hundreds of acreage in Sonoma and Riverside counties. At County Line Harvest, in Sonoma, David leases a chunk of land where his handful of workers resides.

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After falling into instant camaraderie with city suave, I was whisked off to harvest lettuce in the fields with a light hearted, hard working bunch. With a harvesting knife in hand, I proceeded to chop the lettuce heads at their bases, strip the lower leaves for a cleaner look, and toss them into a box- all wrong for the first twenty pounds. Apparently buyers don’t like dirt sprinkles on their lettuce, so I was shown over and over how to harvest the heads properly before calling them good to go. The workers I met, from Mexico and Guatemala, were ever so patient with my ineptitude by cordially correcting my lack of technique and smiling the entire time. I had the opportunity to practice my Spanish and talk about their time away from their native lands, what it was like there, and food. The one they called “Winnie the Pooh” was a bit of a jokester, with his side comments, and although I couldn’t understand every word he said, I giggled with the rest of them.

I learned quite a bit that morning, from how to be an efficient harvester to winning the weed battle. David’s background and knowledge were inspiring to me in the fact that maybe there’s a future for me in agriculture, if I can find my niche and stay focused. He spoke of a business model, which is something I never thought of before. I’ve been so busy just “doing” and trying to keep my head above basil and tomatoes, I haven’t spent much time thinking of actually formulating and writing up a business plan. Right now, on paper, my business model would resemble a lopsided teepee made up of uneven matchsticks! Most importantly that morning, I was turned on to the world of chicories. I had no idea they were so wonderful! I will be forever grateful to County Line Harvest for the pivotal seed they planted in my growing life.

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Back through the twenty plus miles of vineyards, white historic country homes, quaint cottages, and hordes of clunky pick up trucks loaded with farm equipment, I made my way to the rabbit’s hole driveway of the B&B. Lucille greeted me with a cup of warm tea and listened to my over-detailed morning’s jaunt, before I quieted on the porch with my laptop for an hour, then headed off to the Expo for a second time.

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I mainly looked forward to two things at the Expo: The plant-based food stand and attending Brad Gate’s speaker session. Chalk Hill Cookery is a small, unique catering company that creates delectable plant-based cuisine such as Thyme Scented Cashew Cheese Ravioli and ‘Pulled’ Maitake Mushrooms with Chickpea Misto BBQ Sauce.   The day before I indulged myself with a Sunflower Veggie Burger on onion chia flatbread with caramelized onion, miso mustard, and local greens. This time, on the fence over two entrees, I took Chef Matteo Silverman’s advice and ordered the Oyster Mushroom Ceviche, which did not disappoint. I enjoyed my avocado and fermented chile covered dish at a sunny picnic table facing the bluegrass musicians performing atop the decorative stage.

Belly full and a bag of some seed packets and raw cocoa niblets from vendors, I headed for the Wild Boar Tomatoes talk. Brad Gates is not only a leading expert in all things tomatoes, he also has a comical flair for public speaking that makes him fun and interesting to listen to. He gives tomato growers like me information and advice I can start using right away. For example, I was texting R during the session, telling him all the things he needed to do immediately out back after work. If you’re actually reading my blog, and curious, click on the link for a snapshot of Brad’s helpful pointers: Growing Tomatoes with Wild Boar Farms.

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The evening ended with a Russian River Brewery mission purchase of Pliny and Blind Pig cases for the SoCal deprived and a Pliny on tap at Hop Monk Tavern near Sonoma Plaza.

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Bed again early and sleeping soundly and comfortably amongst cushy pillows and fluffy bedding, I awoke to a light drizzle just before dawn. I quietly slipped into my running gear and headed out into the cool wet air for a jogging tour of the awakening town. My six mile loop made its way past interesting old barns and farms, many small luscious vineyards, museum-like plantation style homes surrounded by cemetery type wrought iron and brick walls, multiple wine-tasting rooms and overpriced boutiques, Mission San Francisco Solano, and a crowd of mustard yellow buses pulling up to Sonoma High School. Working up an appetite, I eagerly found my way back to Hollyhock’s potted plant lined wooden steps to the kitchen where I knew Lucille had prepared a homemade breakfast.

My last day in Sonoma’s Hollyhock Country House could not have ended more perfectly than with a table laid out with a colorful, eclectic display of linens and pottery from travels all over the world, a piping hot kettle and assorted teas to choose from, a basket of freshly homemade apple turnovers and bread slices, a saucer of berry preserves, and Lucille’s company. For hours, as I savored each bite, we discussed travels, gardening, weather patterns, changing times, and the crazy world we live in. Speaking to Lucille was easy. Not only is she intelligent, reasonable, and an interesting person, she is lively, expressive and extremely hospitable. Seeming somewhat of a kindred spirit, we were pretty much aligned on all subjects.

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After resisting the urge to stay another day, I reluctantly said my goodbyes to Lucille and the meowing kitty, and started my journey home with one more stop at the Expo, a pop in the busy First Light CSA warehouse, and a seed run at Petaluma’s Seed Bank. Another year, with a heart full of joy and a head full of information, I survived the monotony of the I-5 with the help of Ozzy blasting through the speakers.   I was already missing Sonoma, but my longing was instantly pacified when I opened Lomita Farm’s door to my happy, bouncing, and handsome ol’ guys.



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