The small town farm stand. There may not be a means of shopping for food that brings me more joy. Saturday dawns and I begin plotting my day, which will inevitably revolve around an unhurried stop at one of Sonoma’s many delightful farm stands. We are so utterly blessed to have not one, but several stands to choose from. Each more lovely, more bursting with beauty than the next.
It is here at a farm stand, on a Saturday, preferably in the cool of a summer morning, latte in-hand after an early morning hike, that I will dreamily meander among the artfully arranged piles of lovingly grown vegetables, flowers, and herbs, selecting what will become that weekend’s simple, but sure-to-be spectacular, dinner.
It is here, amongst the veggies that I will linger and chat with the farmer who actually grew those very same veggies, dirt still under his nails and happy, smiley creases in the corners of his eyes from working under the bright Sonoma summer sun. We will surely swap ideas for how best to prepare that gnarly root of the celery plant — in a very French remoulade of course — or I might request a festive recommendation for using up that entire flat of tiny, super sweet strawberries I couldn’t resist, but cannot possibly eat all by myself. The farmer might even be the one who carefully places my goodies in the old-fashioned scale, which hangs from the timbers of the barn’s cobwebbed roof, adding an extra something to my bag…just because.
There is just something magical about reaching for an apple that may not look like a perfect, glossy, grocery store apple, which might even have a teeny spot or blemish, but was grown on that tree, right there, and actually tastes like an apple. Perfected. It tastes like honey and flowers, and possibly of the farmer’s love and hard work, and dedication. There is something about choosing a few tiny zucchini that are still damp from that morning’s dew, or when reaching for a massive bunch of just-picked herbs, the aroma altogether intoxicating. The flowers are always swoon-worthy. Each Saturday, I will surely pick up the most glorious bunch of flowers, so fresh they will last a lifetime and bring me joy than their eight-dollar price tag should allow.
One of the happiest parts of farm stand shopping is that with each visit the goods naturally will change. It is a beautiful, thoughtful way of noticing the seasons as they quietly come and go. A way of appreciating the tragic, short appearance of asparagus, or watching as the sweet peas are replaced by sunflowers, and the spring favas by summer corn. Visiting a farm stand not only helps support our small, local farmers, but most importantly reconnects us with our food. Two very delicious ideas indeed.
Watmaugh Berry Patch: The Mini automatically turns into the dusty gravel lot of this farm stand every time I happen to drive by. I pull in, thinking of grabbing a pint or two of the sweetest, juiciest, still warm from the vine, strawberries I have ever tasted. Ever. I somehow end up with an entire flat. Everytime. I devour an entire pint simply on the way home. In addition to these epic berries, find black-red cherries, fuzzy-sweet raspberries, golden skinned onions, and the occasional other homegrown goodies. Located on the corner of Watmaugh and Arnold Drive.
Oak Hill Farm’s Red Barn Store: There cannot possibly be a more ideal summer setting than the Red Barn Store at Oak Hill Farm. Simply walking into that rustic barn is sensory overload. Heirloom vegetables and fruits are whimsically displayed in antique wooden crates, snuggled next to the most fragrant herbs in shades of green, from faded to blindingly vibrant. The most massive, gorgeous flowers and magically scented eucalyptus are works of art merely plunked in oversized tin buckets. Apples and pears fill an old wooden wagon, while beautiful, handmade wreaths and other decor hang on the walls. The scene is movie set perfection. Oak Hill Farm is located at 15101 Sonoma Highway in Glen Ellen. Open Thursday thru Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call them at 996.6643 or visit their website at oakhillfarm.net for more information.
Garden Park Harvest Market: After a stroll through the many vegetable plots, though the towering stalks of cheery sunflowers, and a brief rest in the shade of the ancient fig tree, visit the Garden Park’s dusty barn where all sorts of goodies can be found for sale amongst the aromatic bunches of lavender and herbs hang drying from the rafters. The produce here is always lovely, but the area’s most beautiful eggs come from the many, doted on, fat hens that call the garden home. Open Saturdays. 19996 Seventh Street East.
The Patch: What this teeny stand on Second Street East, just north of Spain, lacks in atmosphere, it more than makes up for in the quality and variety of their goods. My Patch required items: juicy corn, gargantuan red onions, and without a doubt, Sonoma’s most amazing tomatoes.
Sweetwater Spectrum Farm Stand: This ‘sweet’ little farm offers a changing-with-the-seasons array of beautifully grown produce including zucchini, basil, little gem lettuce, romaine lettuce, kale, chard. Open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 730 West Spain Street, but visit sweetwatersprectrum.org for more information.
Paul’s Produce Stand: To find the county’s most beautiful salad greens head to Candi and Paul’s little hidden gem of a farm stand located on their farm, just off of Arnold Drive a bit north of Leveroni. One of Sonoma’s most beloved market vendors, Paul’s offers their spectacular greens, in addition to other pristine produce here on most summer Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 19655 Arnold Drive. Call 939.8706 for more information.
There isn’t much that screams summer more than ice cream. Childhood summer days of mine were often spent splashing around my grandparents’ swimming pool, and there was always a much-anticipated outing to the Carvel on the corner. My cousins and I always opted for the soft serve vanilla cone dipped into a liquid chocolate sauce, that much to our childhood amazement, turned into a hard, chocolatey shell. How us kids would freak out for that freezing cold treat on a hot Florida afternoon, which simply tasted of summer.
As teens, we spent many long, hot summer days at my family’s mosquito infested lake house. It was here that us cousins were more tormented by my grandmother’s excruciatingly slow, practically prehistoric, manual crank ice cream machine than we were by the biting insects. After what seemed like hours of turning the lever round and round, we were rewarded with Grandma’s perfect peach ice cream made with Georgia fruit from a scruffy roadside stand. Now, that is what summer tastes like. As an adult, I purchased an ice cream machine, which gather dust all year long, but works overtime come Memorial Day. Several times a week, all summer long, I whip up batch after batch of homemade, frozen goodies. It’s dangerously simple and unbelievably addictive. My favorite? Good old-fashioned peach, of course.
Although, here in Sonoma, it is my summer ‘paleta’ craving that is more like an obsession. Paletas are Latin-inspired popsicles that come in a million interesting, often tropical flavors. La Michoacana, the brilliant Mexican ice cream shop in the Springs, is a little Sonoma gem. I often head to this authentic, cheery parlor to cool down with pops made of fresh banana, creamy coconut, or the nutty, totally addictive walnut. I also love the fruit-filled flavors such as strawberry, lime, pineapple chile or a simple, sweet mango, which reminds me of my Cuban-influenced days spent living in Miami. Nothing makes you feel more like a kid then licking a popsicle poolside on a hot summer day. My summer barbecues always end with a pile of these paletas picked up from the shop earlier in the day, stowed in the freezer, and served piled high in an ice-lined bowl. 18495 Highway 12, Boyes Hot Springs.
The life of a farmer is not one I envy. For the exception of the joy of being surrounded by a bounty of über fresh, just-dug vegetables, a farmer’s life is a difficult endeavor, one certainly be fueled by mass quantities of passion. The small farm farmer has a ridiculous amount of difficulties to deal with on a daily basis that adds tedium to the already back-breaking labor. Irritating issues arise endlessly such as produce munching pests and the challenges of simply selling their wares, but a lack of water could be downright devastating. This year’s disastrous drought has forced most small Sonoma farmers to completely rethink their usual farming systems. I asked local organic farmer, Andrea Davis, to tell us how the drought has affected her small farm. Here is her story:
This past winter as I sat at my desk working on Quarter Acre Farm’s 2014 crop plan, I found myself looking out the window staring at the sky, searching for any signs of rain. But the clear sunny skies just looked back at me. I debated if I should change my normal planting schedule or seed order. I’m an optimist so I planned out the 2014 season as usual, expecting to grow a large diversity of crops and sell to restaurants, at the farmers’ market, and through our CSA. In early February, under sunny skies, my seeds arrived and I went into the greenhouse to start the seeds by placing each one in trays filled with potting soil. Following my normal crop plan I started hundreds of tomatoes, peppers, kale, basil, eggplant, celery, and more. Eventually rain storms did roll through Sonoma Valley but it provided small relief for our dry winter.
As spring arrived I had to make a hard decision: should I plant out the field as normal and gamble with the well going dry by the end of season? Or should I downsize the amount of crops and only grow what I can dry farm? Farming is a challenging business and I worried I’d have the field planted from fence to fence with thriving water hungry plants only to have to cut the water off before I could harvest the bounty.
With that thought on my mind I decided to cut back from 40 different crops to only four crops: tomatoes, potatoes, winter squash, and dried beans. These four crops have the ability to prosper under dry farming conditions. Dry farming is the practice of growing crops without regular irrigation, the crops receive water from the moisture already present in the soil and crops are irrigated deeply once or twice during planting and then grown without further irrigation. But I still had a greenhouse filled with seedlings that were not one of these four crops. I decided that I’d get into the transplant business and I potted up the seedlings and got them ready to make their debut at the farmers’ market.
I believe being sustainable is working with one’s resources. As a small farmer I currently don’t have the ability to drill a new well or haul water tanks on to the farm. With no other source of water on the farm other than the current well, I had to figure out a way to still be able to farm this season and produce food for my community.
So this year Quarter Acre Farm looks really different both in the field and at the market. In the field only tomatoes are ripening, potatoes are flowering, winter squash vines are stretching, and the dried beans are growing taller. At the farmers market I bring the greenhouse to public with a wide selection of vegetable and herb transplants that grow great in our Sonoma Valley climate. Even with these changes in my farming many things stay the same: everything grown by hand, everything certified organic, and everything delicious.