On a foggy summer morning I pull off the side of Highway One and into Swanton Berry Farms. Complete with brightly hand painted signs and defiantly cheery sunflowers I watch as people step out of their cars and smile. Entering an old converted barn packed with nostalgic signs shouting the praises of strawberries on every available wall space I smiled and thought, this is the California that I hope the world imagines. This is the California of my childhood, funky, with blues blaring from the speakers, sweet berries, and a solid commitment to place and people.
Started in 1983, Jim Cochran was the first commercial organic strawberry grower. He saw farming not only as a production system but as a social one and his commitment has followed through the years. Swanton Berries has pushed forward what it means to take responsibility for its impact. It to the step of being the first organic farm in the nation to sign a contract for its workers with United Farm Workers and now has transitioned to being cooperatively owned. These steps take care of the people who work at Swanton providing a model for what it looks like to see farming as a skilled profession, one that can last.
I start with Swanton Berry Farm because of their inventive ways of looking at agriculture both in terms of natural and social production. As I begin a series looking into food on the coast between Santa Cruz and San Francisco I pull inspiration from a new article from one of my favorite writers about the role and purpose of community gardens. You can find it in the Summer 2012, Orion. Rebecca Solnit ends with these questions:
“You can imagine the whole world as a garden, in which case you might want to weed out corporations, compost old divides, and plant hope, subversion, and fierce commitments among the heirloom tomatoes and the chard. The main questions will always be: What are your principal crops? And who do they feed?”
This has been ringing in my head as I think about community gardens, the white house food lawn, young farmers seeking land, and in my own garden. This question is answered in one way at Swanton as long-term ongoing response that remains in conversation with what “feeds” people. As I looked into Swanton Berry I found that two farms on the coast are looking into a Food Justice certification, Pie Ranch and Swanton Berry. While I’ll be the first to say that another certification could bog down more than help small farms, I want to recognize here that staying in the conversation, allowing for innovation, and pushing forward healthy livelihoods means commitment to constant reflection and being open to new ways of thinking about things. These are the crops of a long-time conversation. These are the things that feed and will continue to feed people.
So on a Saturday morning as I sat down with my strawberry shortcake that I paid for on the honor system in a beautiful and foggy converted barn overlooking the stark coast, I looked around to see if it felt like a place where people felt fed. A group of techies trickled in with their young children in tow ready to go pick strawberries at the U-pick part of the farm. Bikers pulled up for coffee on their hogs. I savored each sweet bite and noticed what it was like to feel fed.