A little old man with a short, curved bladed paring knife came down to the farmers market one cold, wet, winter day and picked up a fat carrot with a broken tip that had fallen into a puddle. He stood in the middle of the wide aisle with shoppers streaming around him and with an economy of deft slices rapidly carved the carrot into a dramatic goldfish. Passersby gathered around in amazement to watch this spectacle of a fish being released from a stumpy root.
“Oooh, gorgeous” proclaimed a woman. The old gentleman bowed, replied in Chinese, and handed her the piscine carrot.
Another woman perceived her opportunity and handed the sculptor a watermelon radish from her shopping bag. No, a watermelon radish is not a genetically engineered cross between a melon and a radish but rather an antique Asian radish variety that can easily grow to the size of a grapefruit. The off-white skin of the watermelon radish is tinted green at the top where the root is exposed to the sun. Slice the vegetable open and the dull exterior is revealed to wrap up a core of brilliant ruby flesh, hence the name watermelon.
The old fellow held the radish up high by its tail and inspected it. He made his decision and began cutting in swift, short, strokes. Red chips of radish meat rained down onto the pavement as the root was turned in his hands. Three minutes passed and the radish blossomed into a most refined, delicate, scarlet dahlia cupped in his palm for all to see.
Agriculture can be a competitive business. As a young man trying to make my way in farming I was blessed with an employer who helped me immeasurably by answering my questions as completely and as honestly as possible. Later, when I had a farm of my own and gave my mentor stiff competition in the marketplace, he remained invariably gracious, supportive, and friendly to me. While I can’t ever repay my former employer in kind, I can express my gratitude by freely giving information and candid advice to any employees of my own that ever ask me for it. One day I got a chance.
Ryan was a fellow that worked for us selling our produce at farmers markets in the East Bay. Working at a farmers market is fun, and you meet a lot of people, but in the end farmers market work is retail work, not farm labor. Ryan decided that he wanted to farm. He applied for, and was accepted into, the U.C. Santa Cruz Organic Farm Apprenticeship Program. He payed his fees, moved into a tee-pee at the edge of their field, and went to work. When the time to enroll for the second session came around Ryan showed up at my house.
“I’m enjoying the garden program, but it costs a lot. I’m getting a macrocosmic perspective on how agriculture could be improved worldwide, but I don’t feel like I’m getting a whole lot of the practical experience that’s going to help me start my farm. What do you think I ought to do?”
I was blunt.
“I think you ought to get a job on a farm where you’re paid for your labor. Learn from experience. U.C. S.C. can teach you about practices which can theoretically be implemented on organic farms, but once you’re out of the ivory garden, the economic climate is going to be as important as the weather. Having a farm that fills a niche in the retail environment, and pays your bills, is as critical as maintaining the health and biological diversity of the natural environment. Spend a few seasons working for people who are doing the things you want to do, and you’ll see how idealistic visions of a nuclear-free, organic, sustainable world, with liberty, justice, and self fulfillment for all, are tempered with respect for short term cash flow. Plus, if you work on a ‘for profit’ farm, you’ll likely pick up some Spanish, which is as important a skill for a farmer as knowing how to make compost.”
“But I want to grow edible flowers. I want to grow pansies for dessert chefs, and borage blossoms, nasturtiums, lemon thyme flowers. Marigold confetti, Bachelor’s buttons, that kind of stuff. Where do you think I ought to work?”
“You want a pansy ranch?”
“Being clear about what it is you want is a good start,” I said . But I couldn’t think of any pansy ranchers Ryan could work for.
“Maybe the fact that aren’t many edible flower farmers is good news,” I suggested. “Maybe you should jump into the market and go for it— learn to grow pansies the hard way, before some corporate outfit starts growing them like cotton, and swamps the market.” That’s the beautiful thing about farming for guys like Ryan and I; to start farming you don’t need to complete a program, pass a test, earn a diploma, get a licence, or pay for a permit. All you have to do is be willing to work your ass off, take risks, and trust in Mother Nature.
So Ryan rented a small piece of ground, and bought a tractor, some irrigation pipes, and a Spanish/English dictionary. I introduced him to some guys that were looking for work and gave him the addresses of some packaging companies and trucking firms he’d need to know about in order to do air shipping. Ryan must have been busy, because I didn’t see him for a while. I heard that he picked up a partner, another drop-out from U.C.
One summer evening two years later Ryan stopped by the house. I was sitting in the yard.
“How do you do it?” he wanted to know. “I’m working like a slave. I’ve got customers, I’m getting by, but all I ever do is work. I’ve got no social life. I’m exhausted.”
“Well,” I replied,”You wanted a flower farm and you got one. No one ever promised you a rose garden. I worked like a slave for years too.”
“Yeah, but right now you’re sitting down, drinking a beer, and petting the cat at six thirty in the evening. How do you do it?”
I considered his question carefully.”.
“I married well.”
“You married well?”
“Seriously. I married well. I’m not saying that marriage works for everyone, but it worked for me. Julia’s not just my alpha chick, she’s my beta site, she’s my in-house focus group. Our farm depends on people just like her subscribing for our weekly boxes of produce or shopping at the farmers market. What I don’t know about the needs and expectations of the consumer would fill a book. Look at me. Almost all my friends grow food, and all I’ve ever done was work on farms. Before I got married a store was just someplace I went for beer, and toilet paper. Successful farming is about selling what you grow, and with Julia, I know that when she’s happy with what I’m growing, when she’s not outraged about the prices we charge, then we’re doing ok.
“I’ve got happy customers,” Ryan said. “I just can’t get the billing done on time, or keep up with the payroll taxes. What kind of software are you using for your accounting?”
“Are you kidding? I don’t even have decent mouse skills. I rely on Julia to solve all that stuff. When I met her Julia was a kindergarten teacher with benefits. She grew up in Venice Beach. Being a farm wife never crossed her mind. That’s key! Women with visions of a little house on the prairie with a pie in the oven and a horse in the yard ought to come with warning labels, because once they marry into farming they’re liable to measure the reality against their fantasies. Farming always comes up short, and then they leave, and you’re stuck with tractor payments, land lease payments, payroll, packaging costs, power bills, plus alimony.”
Ryan nodded. He’d started his farm with a friend named David who thought he wanted to be close to the earth but realized soon enough that there’s steadier money in construction. “Maybe it would pay to hire an administrative assistant.”
“Sure, but if you hire someone to be an administrative assistant that’s just more payroll out the door, and sometimes a small farm can’t generate enough money to justify all the expenses. Because Mariquita Farm is a family farm, with a farm wife, the administrative costs stay in the family. Plus, an administrative assistant might quit, but a farm wife is going to pay attention all the time, because she’s the C.E.O. the C.F.O and the B.F.D, all at once. I couldn’t do this without her.”
“Are you enjoying farming?
“Yeah. It’s got it’s stresses, but I like the people we work with, and I feel like Julia and I are building something positive together.
So did Ryan listen to me? Did he respect my counsel? Maybe, or maybe not. All I can say is that six months after our conversation he sold his tractor, his pipes, his land lease, and his list of clients to another young farmer, moved to San Francisco, and enrolled in cosmetology school. He is now a professional hairdresser. I’m sure that his farming background will help Ryan in his new profession. The focus and discipline that farming demands are good skills to cultivate for any business, and as Ryan styles his customers’ hair he can fix his whole attention on them, undistracted by dreams of going back to the land. All I can say is the citizens of San Francisco with hair better keep buying our vegetables, or I’ll quit farming and open a beauty salon.
copyright 2007 Andy Griffin
note: This is a true story, but the names have been changed a bit to protect the innocent.