Imagine the whole world as a garden

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.