Me at Swanton Berry Farm - July 2011
The Food Chronicles turns 1-year old next Thursday, May 17th. Hard to believe this adventure started a year ago. I feel like I've just begun. I'm constantly rounding new corners, learning different things and getting spun down new paths. But the goal is the same...building a regional and sustainable food system that supports local economies!

When you write a blog, you can't help but geek out on the traffic stats. It's fun to see which posts get the most hits. And one post continues to be the most popular, "Where Do Strawberries Come From." Every month since it was published on July 12th, it continues to top the leader board. I was taking an agroecology course at UC Santa Cruz at the time and we visited a farm where the young owner shared this fun fact...

    "Strawberries are a hot crop where plastic tarps cover their raised beds to generate heat and cut down on weeds. It acts as a mulch. Back in the day, they didn't have plastic mulch so they used "straw" around the base of the plant to trap heat and reduce weeds. Get it?  Straw-berries!"

I apologize to all the people doing a Google search for "Where Do Strawberries Come From" and finding my measly post in the Top 10. It hardly gives the whole story. Now, if you want the real skinny on strawberries, check out the site Strawberries for Strawberry Lovers. It appears strawberries originated along the coastlines of North and South America as well as the Hawaiian Islands. Their notoriety hit the big time when a Chilean variety reached France in 1714. Some of strawberry's foremost authorities debunk the sweet story that was told to me about its moniker. The more widely accepted story for how the scrumptious fruit got its name is because it resembles straw when it is strewn about on the ground. Booooring! I'm going to stick with my story. Way better!

Interestingly enough...I have a couple more posts about strawberries. And each was written during my course in Santa Cruz. There are lots of strawberries grown in those parts. One post profiles Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm.  Jim pioneered the techniques to grow strawberries organically. He was ostracized in the 80's being told it was not possible and the only way to grow strawberries commercially was to follow conventional practices which rely on toxic fumigants to eradicate soil pathogens. Chemical fumigants like methyl iodide are still widely used today poisoning field workers and most likely those who consume the tainted strawberries. My second post about strawberries depicts a startling, photo commentary of our current agricultural system. Check out the link! And if you think it is just strawberries that we need to worry about being dosed with skulls-n-crossbones, think again!

Skull & Crossbones aren't what I really picture when I think of sweet strawberries or any happy field of green for that matter.

I snapped this photo last week while on my agroecology course at UCSC. We were passing a monocrop of conventioanly grown strawberries in Salinas, CA. We were laughing at the absurdity but really, there isn't anything funny at all about this picture. And it's not just strawberries that we need to be worried about when it comes the synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in conventional farming methods.

At no point in my food's life cycle should I be told that I can not touch it. Even if it could be proven safe by the time it reaches my plate, what about all the environmental impacts like soil degradation and water quality including the field workers, farmers and applicators who are are subjected to these chemicals. Not to mention the amount of fossil fuels used to create these pesticides and fertilizers. It's bad enough we put fossil fuels in car, it has no business being applied to my food. Ick!

After a robust morning discussing the four level "Conversion Process" for transforming conventional farms to organic, we took another field trip but this time to Swanton Berry Farm further north on Hwy 1 in the quaint, coastal town of Davenport, CA.

Photo: Here we are inside a 1940 barrack structure playing an old-fashioned game called Skittles. It provided a lot of fun and laughter as well as a great inter-cultural team building exercise for our ethnically diverse crew. Franciso from Mexico City (pictured here) was the high scorer with 125 points. He knocked down both 25 point pins and the 50 point pin. You would have thought we were in Las Vegas with the crowd that had gathered to watch the excitement as each player took their turn. Here's a peak at how the game works.

Swanton Berry was the 1st organic strawberry farm in California transitioning from conventional in 1983. There was a time when not even organic growers tried strawberries because it wasn't thought possible to grow organic strawberries for market - just too many pests and disease. Owner, Jim Cochran, proved them wrong. Much like Yvon Chouinard proved everyone wrong in the mid-90's when he switched all of Patagonia's cotton to organic. Now, organic strawberries represent 5% of the market in California going from 0 acres in 1982 to nearly 1700 acres in 2011 - Jim represents 1% of that (California produces 80% of the total strawberries in the US). Even now, conventional growers scratch their heads at how organic can be as successful as they are without using the ubiquitous methyl bromide to fumigate their crops. "How do they do it?" they ask. It's not simple but it isn't rocket science either....Jim worked with our course director, Steve Gliessman, back in 1983 on the 4-Step Conversion Process to transition his fields from conventional to organic. The basis is a 3-5 year crop rotation with crops like broccoli and cauliflower which can be harvested in those rotating years but their main job is to help reduce soil borne pathogens as well as cut down on the weed proliferation. Yes, broccoli is a magical weed killer. When the field is ready to be planted again, they use bio-mass as a from of natural fumigation simply by incorporating a complex mix of organic material into the soil, i.e. onion waste, grape pomace, rice bean, molasses and mustard oil. After the organic material, the soil is saturated with water and then covered with the black, plastic tarp which assimilates the anaerobic conditions of fumigation by suffocating, or cooking, the pathogens under the tarp and helping the organic matter to further decompose.Voila! You have organic strawberries!

We had a huge feast out on the front lawn for dinner. Here's the kitchen where they are making our Strawberry Shortcake desert. It looked like a scene out of Santa's workshop at the North Pole

This is Swanton's Honor Code system. Has to be the largest of its kind. Literally everything that is for sale in the store is by the honor code anything from the jams and t-shirts to the strawberries and pastries. There's one clerk keeps an eye on things but  otherwise, it's scout's honor!

The man behind it all, Jim Cochran. Let's give it up for Jim! Applause, standing ovation and more applause.

I don't know the exact birthplace of the strawberry but I did learn a fun fact today about where it gets its name...Strawberries are a hot crop where plastic tarps cover their raised beds to generate heat and cut down on weeds. It acts as a mulch. Back in the day, they didn't have plastic mulch so they used "straw" around the base of the plant to trap heat and reduce weeds. Get it?  Straw-berries :)

When we need to do field trips and group discussions, our group of 32 is broken down into smaller groups of four. Today we visited Toby Kline at Santa Cruz Farm along Hwy 1. He leases and farms 3.5 acres on a hillside with views of the ocean. Combined, it provides a comfortable lifestyle for one person allowing him to take winters in Baja where he volunteers and consults on other farms. During peak season, he'll have 4-6 full -time staff but otherwise, it is pretty much just him. Seeing a farm of this scale put into perspective the idea of farming a small plot of land. Which directly ties in with the Abraham Lincoln quote that Toby has emblazoned on the wall of his tool shed, "The greatest fine art of the future will be the making of a comfortable living from a small plot of land." For Toby, farming sustainably is not just about organic methods but also what is sustainable for himself, his budget and lifestyle. He's one guy, who isn't wealthy and still wants a life. He has struck that balance.

70 years ago, nearly 20% of the population made their living as farmers and over 50% worked the land in some way perhaps in the form of a subsistence farm. Today less than 1% of the population claim farming as their main occupation. It's not even listed on the census form. How far we've strayed! Toby is a great example of closing that gap not only providing for himself but others in his community. We need more farmers at this level like Toby. It demonstrates that you can carve an income from even a small-small scale farm. His food can be found in area restaurants, New Leaf Community Markets and three of Santa Cruz's Farmer's Markets. Toby is planning another phase to his sustainable farming practice by transitioning to primarily perennial crops meaning they will regrow each year unlike an annual which you have to plant new each year. It allows the soil to establish itself and get stronger over time versus always being tilled and replanted. He'll find himself more on the berry side of the patch than vegetables which are typically more annuals but he sees a growing market and one ripe for the picking.

Here's my group at Santa Cruz Farm. Toby is in the middle with the trucker hat. From L-R...Back Row: Christina, Lenora, Kristina, Toby, Franciso, Susie, ? Front Row:Tara, ara, Dongmei.