Calfornia Farmin'

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The Classic Organic barn

I felt like a 16-year-old kid with a new driver’s license as I picked up the keys to my rental car and drove from Santa Barbara down the California coast to Los Angeles. Hertz gave me a new Jetta—wow, a rental car I actually like! I cranked KTYD on the stereo, and sang along—nay, hollered along—to the same playlist of classic 60s and 70s rock that KTYD had been playing when I was a student at UC Santa Barbara twenty years ago (when this stuff was already classic rock.)

The Pacific Ocean stretched out on my right, sparkling in the morning sun, as Jimi Hendrix kissed the sky and I rocked it with driver’s seat head bobbing and steering wheel drum solos. It had been almost a year since I’d driven a car outside of the 5-kilometers or so of residential compound where I live in Saudi Arabia—and that long since I had enjoyed properly engineered roads and reasonably skilled drivers. Americans can say what they want about crazy drivers, but at least in the U.S., you have to take a test to get your driver’s license. Also, you will eventually get pulled over if you always completely ignore all lane markings and speed limits à lathe typical Saudi driver.

So I was blissing out, driving south on the 101 after spending a bucolic week in Buellton, a small town in northern Santa Barbara County that is right in the middle of the Central Coast wine country. (If you’ve seen the movie Sideways, you know where I mean.) I spent most of my week volunteering at Classic Organic, a farm that grows vegetables, herbs, and berries for its own little farm shop as well as several local restaurants. This was a larger farm than the one where I volunteered in France earlier this summer—about 10 acres.

At La Collardiere, the farm where I worked in Normandy, I weeded each row slowly, painstakingly, teasing out every last shred of weed roots and carting them off to the compost pile in big pails. In Buellton, I used a utility knife to scratch weeds up and out of many more and much longer rows. Quick! Get them out and toss them into the middle of the aisle between the rows where they’ll shrivel in the sun. In France, I gently pinched off perfect salad leaves and delicate edible flowers, one careful specimen at a time. In California, I picked quart after quart of perfect strawberries, leaving as many good ones behind as I took, and also eating plenty.

La Collardiere was small, jewel-like, sparkling in the cool grey Normandy August. Classic Organic generously spread its bounty across the flat valley lands under a wide, California blue sky. Both were spectacular.

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Farmer Helmut Klauer of Classic Organic Farm

In 1969, the owner of Buellton’s Classic Organic Farm drove a VW bus across the country from Long Island to Venice Beach. Why? “California Dreamin’,” he said. He learned to farm a couple of years later, after he camped out in the Oregon wilderness. He realized that he would always have to hike back to civilization every couple of weeks for food, unless he learned how to grow his own. Most young guys with VW buses and groovy dreams of peace moved on to the duties of adult life and the go-go priorities of later eras—but Helmut Klauer learned about organic farming and has stuck to it for 40 years.

Eliberto, a farm worker who has been with Helmut for a dozen years, vacuums bugs off of the crop rows with what is essentially a leaf-blower that blows in reverse. Weeding is all done manually. Fields are fertilized with compost from the horse stables up the road, along with vegetable matter from the Classic Organic Farm itself. It is basic, physically demanding, never-ending work.

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Eliberto and Alex, weeding seedlings

It was really satisfying to lend a hand at Classic Organic, and interesting to see the differences between it and La Collardiere. There were more similarities than differences, though. Both farms are completely at the mercy of the weather, of whatever sun and rain, whatever drought or pest or other natural occurrence blows through. Life at both is governed by the passage of the sun across the sky and the month and week of the season, rather than by the clock. Neither uses any man-made chemicals to tinker with the natural realities out in their fields, and both accept the loss of some crops and the constant, never-ending schedule of manual labor as the cost of producing unadulterated food. Both farmers are highly educated; engaged in and committed to their local communities; and socially progressive. If Classic Organic’s Helmut Klauer and La Collardiere’s Mike Hewitt were invited to a dinner party, it would be a great evening of conversation. (It would also be a great meal, presuming the food on the table came from their farms.)

As I drove south after my farm week in Buellton for a week of visiting in Los Angeles, I thought about the fact that this trip, unlike all of my other travels, does not feel like an exotic vacation. It feels like a homecoming—which it is. My husband has family in the Santa Barbara area, and I have quite a few old friends scattered across southern California.

In my ongoing search for the definition of home, I have learned a few new things. First, I do not have any longing for the farm life. That was never particularly a goal, but I had the same idyllic notion that I imagine many people do, of having a small piece of land, maybe doing a little bit of farming. After my two volunteering experiences, I get it. No way: that work is hard! Instead, I am more firmly committed to the notion of living in an area like California’s central coast, where the food I want to eat (and the wine that I want to drink) is grown and produced. And I want to support those farmers and vintners by putting their food on my table and their wine in my glass.

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Raspberries in the pick-your-own field

The next stop on my whistle-stop world tour is Maryland. I will be returning to my hometown after nearly a year of expat life. I wonder, will it feel like home?