NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

The value--and the limits--of fantasy in any farming operation
For Andy Griffin, every season begins with a magic carpet ride through those glossy agricultural fantasies called seed catalogues. Then, the fantasy meets the customer.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

November 23, 2004: The first seed catalogue for 2005 has landed in my mail box. There will be more catalogues, of course, fluttering in like so many autumn leaves and ending up in a thick mulch on my bathroom floor. I think of these colorful, shiny seed catalogues as “farm porn” since they are cleverly engineered to stimulate agricultural fantasy. In fact, on page 15 of this first catalogue there’s even an impossibly white cauliflower called “White Passion”. I read every catalogue from cover to cover.

I enjoy the manner in which seed catalogues attempt to seduce customers with glossy pix of voluptuous veggies. What good is marketing if it fails to arouse an appetite in the potential consumer? I do object to blatant untruths. Page 31 of this catalogue that I am about to toss on the floor lists Russian Tarragon seed for $43.25 per ounce and states that it is used in vinegars, sauces and salads. The authors of this particular fantasy neglect to mention that Russian Tarragon is not used in GOOD sauces, vinegars and salads. As a farmer that does lots of restaurant business I know that professional cooks require aromatic French Tarragon. French Tarragon must be vegetatively propagated from root or stem cuttings. Russian Tarragon is a scentless, unappealing botanical fraud sold by sharks to suckers. If I was Supreme Dictator For Life I would realistically slap this seed company around for propagating a lie.

Fantasy plays a big role in the way I shape my planting calendar for the year to come, though I’ve learned to pay more attention to my customers’ fantasies than my own. When a restauranteur has enjoyed a certain vegetable during his travels overseas and he brings me seeds I’ll try to it grow for him. Who knows? Maybe his fantasy of authentic flavor will be a success.

It’s always hard to tell if what the cook likes about the crop in question was the way it was prepared, the way it was presented or the fond memory of the company shared during the meal, but if chefs want to try and recreate that experience for their patrons I’m willing to help them try. This year I have wads of obscure chicories brought back to me from Italy by A-16 Restaurant in San Francisco. I’ve never seen these varieties in an American seed catalogue. Have you ever tasted Scarola Cardoncella Barese or Indivia Romanesca Da Taglio? I’m looking forward to these experimental plantings because I’m certain that A-16 can use the vegetables.

In truth, there will be nothing experimental about my chicory plantings. I know how to grow chicories. The experiment and the fantasy is all in the selling. One year I listened attentively to my foreman’s agricultural fantasy about fresh garbanzo beans. "Why don’t Gringos eat fresh Garbanzos?”, Ramiro kept asking me.

Back in his home village outside La Barca, Jalisco, spring garbanzos were much appreciated. Not only did the people look forward to the mouth watering tenderness of the fresh garbanzo beans, they also used the foliage to make a wonderfully refreshing sun tea. If Ramiro could have written his impressions down in English for an entry in a catalogue, he would have sold more than a few seeds. As it was, Ramiro’s fantasy of high yield and happy customers sold me on the idea of an experimental planting.

We formed a partnership to bring his hopes to life. I provided a tractor, the land, the seeds, the water and a pick-up truck. Ramiro provided the labor, the growing expertise and the marketing plan. Our garbanzos were winter planted for an early crop and they thrived. Soon their lacy foliage greened the field. In time their tiny pods, each with two nascent beans, swelled into a crop.

Ramiro was right. The garbanzo plants exuded a flavorful, acidic dew which made for a wonderful sun tea when the leaves were steeped in a jar of water. Because garbanzos yield pods with only two beans per, the custom is to harvest in big bunches with green pods dangling. It’s the customers' burden to strip the plants of pods and shell them of their beans. We filled the pick-up with piles of garbanzos and drove to town where thousands of garbanzo-eating Jaliscan emigres live packed into apartment buildings, hungry for a taste of the rural ranch life they left behind.

Just as Ramiro predicted, Jaliscana women came swarming around our truck chattering about the fresh garbanzos with glee. Our bunches of fresh garbanzo were Mexican sized, that is to say, huge; maybe six inches in girth and tied with twine just like in the old country. Unfortunately, our prices were gringo sized, one dollar per bunch, calculated to accommodate our U.S. wage scales, rent costs, etc. The women objected.

“In Mexico we only pay centavos for such small bunches.”

Ramiro objected. “In California I pay the pickers seven dollars an hour, not seven dollars a day!”

Ramiro was frustrated with his clientele. To get a good price he suggested we sell the garbanzos to gringas. Once they tasted them the gringas would be instant converts to the flavor, the tenderness, and the utility of the fresh garbanzo. We went to San Francisco and tried to sell our crop in the farmers market but the gringas there looked at the monstrous bunches of beans as if they were bales of alfalfa and wanted to know if we could please shell the beans.

In the end we sold some bunches of garbanzo on street corners to the Mexicanas in Watsonville for break-even prices and had a big garbanzo party with the rest for our crew. Everybody profited. The crew enjoyed fresh garbanzos and ate them steamed in much the way that the Japanese eat fresh soy beans. I learned first hand about garbanzo beans and Mexican culture. Ramiro came to appreciate the role of sales and the limits of fantasy in any farming operation. I’m waiting to see a glossy picture of a spring garbanzo called “Green Romance” in some seed catalogue with a helpful sales hint, “popular eaten fresh and used in sun teas. Good for roadside sales!”

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