*This piece is an account of how I found my passion of gardening on a small-scale farm in San Diego, CA, and the lessons about life, community, resilience, and independence I learned there. It challenges our current economic, food, and societal systems that have left the majority of us dependent on those systems. But above all, this piece serves as a call arms to join the fight to gain our independence back by gardening, growing your own food, and by supporting your local food community.
Opening with a quote is so Freshman year, I know. But this quote is more than just a piece of gibberish found during a quick scramble of a Google search to appease a psychology professor’s term paper requirements. This is a quote I heard many moons after I began working the soil as a small-scale farmer, and when I heard it, I tilted my head, smiled, and said to myself…”yes.”
The quote is attributed to Bill Mollison, known as the ‘father of permaculture,’ and goes as follows: “We can teach philosophy while teaching gardening, but we can’t teach gardening while teaching philosophy.”
Gardening, or what we often refer to in the small-scale farming community as market gardening, is life. It’s also death. It’s difficult, beautiful, painful, unpredictable, rewarding, tiring, and perhaps most applicable to me: it’s extremely humbling.
On a curious whim, I arrived at Wild Willow Farm — a several-acre educational farm located near the Tijuana estuary in San Diego, California that teaches its community how to garden for hobby or profession — one Saturday afternoon during the summer of 2015, an experience that struck me to my core and changed me forever.
In a search to find ways to improve my own sustainability and resiliency under the ominous and approaching storm clouds of peak oil, global debt expansion, increasing job automation, plummeting food quality, inflating healthcare costs, and significantly dropping soil quality with farmers — whose average age is 60 years old — farming that lifeless soil.
At first, I just wanted to learn how to grow my own food — ya know, something that is barely even mentioned during a kid’s pathetic 13-year indoctrination we call a public school education. In fact, I had never even planted a single crop in my life before planting a green onion at Wild Willow under the guidance of their nurturing and masterful educational staff.
On that first day, I wandered into the gardens in search of something that I couldn’t yet define, and in turn was given a friendly ‘hello,’ a spaded shovel, and orders to chop down the crop residue on one of their permanently-raised beds after a recent harvest. I wasn’t dressed for the occasion (I was wearing soccer shorts, gym sneakers, a t-shirt, and no sun protection) and had no idea what I was doing, but Sarah Everett, a former Navy officer and, at the time, the volunteer coordinator, assured me I was doing a great job.
As I sliced and thrusted my shovel through the crop residue and weeds, I was immediately welcomed and dragged into a conversation by other volunteers about GMOs, permaculture, geopolitics, global warming, primitive skills, and…spirit rocks (it’s an inevitability to bump into a spirit rock guy on an organically-operated farm in Southern California). But in a brief ‘Walter Mitty’-like zone-out, I peered around the farm and saw a flash of another life. This flash actually reduced this burly shovel-wielder to tears when I began ponder the possibility that this vision was not, in fact, of another life — it was of what’s to come.
During the weeks and months that followed, I couldn’t get enough of farming. Between books, Youtube videos, podcasts, documentaries, and actually playing around in the soil, I began cultivating my farming knowledge base, skills, and passion. While bartending full-time and in doing so, trying to hide the black, soil-stained hands I would arrive to work with, I continued religiously attending Wild Willow’s community volunteer hours that they offer on Saturdays but that wasn’t enough. I wanted and knew that I needed more.
As proud and excited as I was to get this farming lifestyle going for myself, I felt apprehensive to tell those close to me what I was up to. I mean, who the hell goes into farming, right? Why would you want to work so hard to grow food when you can just buy food at the grocery store? I could hear the questions before they came: “Why don’t you use your degree?” “Can you even make money doing that?” “What about your 401k?!”
So when breaking the news to my girlfriend Kat who had just returned from a summer in Southeast Asia completing her Master’s of Social Work for SDSU, I did this ‘draw figure 8’s on the ground with your shoe / hand’s behind your back and your head down’ shame thing that 9 year-olds do when they explain to their parents how they got in trouble for the first time at school.
Going into farming isn’t normal anymore! But it used to be. Since our upright monkey selves began settling in small, agrarian communities, families had gardens and farms on which they lived, grew food for themselves, and from which they derived income. Three generations living on the same piece of property helping each other out — that was normal!
But queue the industrial revolution, fiat currency, irresponsible deficit spending, government subsidizing of family farms to grow commodities, the lack of care of the quality of our food, the shallow societal desire to out-do the Jones’ next door, and you get the image of the family farmer that I grew up with in my head — a dirty, tired, uneducated, poor, God-fearing guy in worn-out denim overalls who smells like a mixture of sweat and chicken poop.
At Wild Willow, however, I saw and experienced the opposite reality.
Mel Lions is a life-long San Diegan and graphic designer / pizza chef by trade who saw an opportunity to do what all of those angry bloggers and traitorous politicians out there weren’t doing — to actually make a positive difference in his community. He got together with a few local farmers and farming educators including Paul Maschka and Dorothea Sotiros and created the Wild Willow Farm and Education Center. Their mission: to grow farmers (and gardeners).
Oh, and if you’re wondering how my girlfriend reacted to me telling her that “uh, hunny…I’m going to become a farmer,” she was by my side a week later at the farm shoveling goat shit in the goat pen. I always knew she was a keeper.
She encouraged me to enroll into Wild Willow’s educational pipeline (as if I needed the encouragement), and so I did. My first class was Farming 101 and was held on the farm as an introduction to the property and its staff. That’s when I met Paul Maschka.
Tolkien’s Gandalf, but shorter and without the beard is how I’d describe Paul in a nutshell. He’s the lead educator at the farm and a seasoned veteran in the field. Quick, lean, and with his face usually half-hidden under his circular farming hat (he even wears it at night), he fulfilled the role of a mentor that I had been seeking out for a long time. I’ve never known another soul that has such a unique blend of Jedi-like knowhow and the patience and passion to bestow that knowhow upon others who are in search of it.
As the weeks and months passed by, he taught us about bed preparation, pest management, irrigation, crop planning, composting, and propagation among a slew of other tricks of the trade. But what I learned most from him can’t be evaluated in a grading rubric. He taught me the poise, work ethic, creativity, humility, and the love for our earth and its flora and fauna that’s needed to make it in small-scale farming.
Paul, however, wasn’t the only one in the class who I learned from. The group consisted of those who had backgrounds in education, economics, hospitality, corporate finance, policing, and the military — all of whom were aware of at least a few of the aforementioned ominous societal clouds quickly approaching, and who were all looking for an alternative to this domesticated, medicated, dependent, plastic life that society herds us into living.
These savages made the decision to take their livelihoods and liberty into their own hands rather than expecting politicians and the like to do it for them. And the electricity that flows between such a strong and rebellious collective is unspeakably enlivening. I felt it often, and when I did, I knew that I was in the right place at the right time. I needed this. I wanted this. I knew that this was the camaraderie, the mission, the purpose, and the mountain of challenges that I have been seeking for a long time.
When Farming 101 ended, I enrolled into their advanced courses — their ‘tier’ program — that offers continuing education and work experience to those who wanted to feed their addiction of farm life. It’s a more intimate, apprenticeship-like program established to act as the bridge between a complete novice and a work-ready farm-hand. It’s a unique opportunity in that the student falls under the full mentorship of Dorothea, a wonderfully patient and experienced grower, as well as Paul, with whom the student is involved in a one-on-one or small group setting.
You learn a lot of valuable material such as irrigation-related plumbing, construction, and overall infrastructure management skills necessary to not be terrible at farming. Because let’s face it: as a small-scale farmer, aside from actually knowing how to grow and harvest produce, you’re required to be a meteorologist, a construction worker, a plumber, a mechanic, a rodent trapper, as well as a marketing, sales, accounting, and efficiency expert.
But enough about the technicals, let’s get into the philosophy aspect of gardening.
Many anthropologists agree that the human species has never been unhappier as a whole going back to our hunter-gatherer and horticultural ancestors. In many cities and suburbs all across the nation we live closer to our neighbors than ever before yet couldn’t be more disconnected from each other. I mean, I lived in an apartment complex of six units in San Diego and only knew one of the other tenant’s names — and that’s because I worked at the bar with her.
Like farming icon, author, and speaker Joel Salatin points out, when you walk into most supermarkets, all of the real food is kept along the outer perimeters — the middle and most accessible part of the store is full of edible chemical compounds in cardboard boxes and plastic bags produced in factories far, far away. As a society, we have no connection to where our food comes from and little understanding as to how it affects our bodies. We ship produce to other countries to be packaged and then sent back to us. This lack of connection seems to be correlated with our increasing levels of depression.
And beyond that, our communities have been sold up the river by lobbyists and greedy politicians that have squeezed the life out of our local economies.
Food deserts are increasing in size not only in urban areas but in impoverished rural areas as well. As the ‘Guerilla Gardener,’ TED talk extraordinaire, and community activist in South Central Los Angeles Ron Finley argues, ‘the drive thru’s are killing more kids than the drive by’s.” He, like many others across our nation of shrinking liberties, has been in trouble with the law simply for growing food that those in his community could pick and eat for free.
Healthcare costs are skyrocketing (and of course, purposely staying out of the government’s inflation data) while pharmaceutical companies lobby to keep natural and holistic remedies off of the shelves or illegal. Nearly every product in the snack isle at the supermarket has high fructose corn syrup in it — a known contributor to diabetes — (among many ingredients you need a doctorate degree in chemistry to recognize) yet government prohibits the sale of raw milk from a small family farmer in many areas of the country. Finley likes to joke that “if you can’t read that shit, don’t eat that shit.”
Due to the proximity of the 4th of July holiday, I feel that it’s appropriate to have a discussion concerning our independence, or lack thereof. We have been sheepishly surrendering our freedom and liberty to bureaucratic vampires on both sides of the political isle and their lobbyist pimps while being fed propaganda that we are the epicenter of freedom. We are not a free people. But we can be.
If you really pay attention, you’ll notice that there is an insurrection taking place. Sounds dramatic, right? Well, it is. Tribes of folks both young and old are taking up shovels against those who would stand in the way of them living an awake, healthy, purposeful, and independent life. Revolutionaries like Joel Salatin and Ron Finley are working in the trenches alongside thought leaders like permaculturist and author Toby Hemenway (Gaia’s Garden, Permaculture City), author and economic analyst Chris Martenson(The Crash Course, Prosper, and PeakProsperity.com), and podcasters like Jack Spirko (The Survival Podcast) and Diego Footer (Permaculture Voices) to inspire a new wave of reinforcements to the cause. Young, hard-working entrepreneurs like urban farmer Curtis Stone continue to impress naysayers by breaking away from the rat race and building innovative small businesses that are strengthening the connectedness and resiliency of their communities while minimizing their dependency on a system that continues to fail them. The next great war for our independence has begun, and it’s being led by gardeners and farmers.
And like previously stated, our current farmers are getting old, and we need new ones. We need droves of passionate, creative, hard-working, and somewhat pissed-off growers to rise to the occasion and to grow food for our communities during a time of increasing challenges and bureaucratic road blocks. It’s either that, or it’ll be corporate mystery meat and vegetable clones grown petri dishes for everyone!
Are you riled up and shaking your fist in the air yet? I hope so. In any case, if you happen to be in the San Diego area, go introduce yourselves to the militia of shovel-wielders that is forming at Wild Willow Farm and Education Center. Talk to Mel, Paul, Dorothea, and their merry band of soil soldiers that congregates there throughout the week to learn, laugh, share, plant, eat, and work hard. If where you are is lacking a community like Wild Willow, then do what Mel Lions did and seek out some like-minded neighbors and create your own.
Don’t wait for some politician to turn this ship around. Get out there and do the work. If there’s one thing that can bring a community together, its food. And like Ron Finley says, “when kids grow kale, they eat kale!” Plant the seed, and when you do, spread the word by any means necessary about this insurrection. Send a raven if you must. Just do it, ya dig?
If you’d like to follow along on our journey into small-scale, organic farming, check us out on Instagram. We’re dedicated to documenting and sharing our experience in starting our own farm named ‘Resilient Farms’ to help shine a little light on what it takes to get started. https://www.instagram.com/resilient_farms/
Check out and say hello to Wild Willow Farm here: http://www.sandiegoroots.org/farm/index.php