April 3, 2007

Marin Sun Farms Trip, 3/25/2007 (part 1)

Dudes, I'm off to Greece for the next week and a half to relax, hang with my wife and friends, and track down some amazing food experiences. In the meantime, I'll be posting my first guest blog, courtesy of my good buddy Jeff. He took a fantastic-looking trip up to Marin Sun Farms and has some really good insights to share about having a thoughtful relationship with the food that sustains us. Enjoy his commentary and photos!

I’d like to think it would be difficult to be someone who really cares about preparing, consuming and evaluating food without also really caring about how that same food was produced (and evaluating that production). It’s not hard. It’s easy. And embarrassing. It’s exactly how I would’ve had to describe myself prior to reading Michael Pollan’s The Omivore’s Dilemma. Suffice it to say the book had nothing less than a profound impact on me and, since reading it, I’ve taken an active interest in my food producers. I’ve tried to narrow the divide between what ends up on my plate, and those living plants, animals and fungus – and the people who raise them – that make all of it possible. Living in the Bay Area certainly makes it a lot easier to engage in this pursuant, with so many great local food producers.

With that in mind, my girlfriend "LE" and I recently took Dave Evans and his team over at Marin Sun Farms (Point Reyes Station) up on the offer of a “farm tour," as advertised on their website. From what information I could gather, MSF seemed to be a model of sustainability – producing 100% grass-fed beef and free range broiling chickens and eggs. It turned out to be just us…and 68 other similarly interested Bay Area residents. We were lucky to get in – though we planned the outing a couple of weeks ahead we ended up sneaking in off the waiting list.

While killing time at the MSF butcher shop – the chosen meeting spot – it took all of about a minute before one of the other participants asked bluntly, “So, why are you two here?” It turns out he was a university economics student who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which “totally changed [his] paradigm.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I am pretty sure Dave would’ve had a much harder time filling two tour buses for his farm tour a couple of years ago, before “Michael Pollan” was on his way to becoming a household name.

About half an hour later we disembarked from the tour bus in the midst of more green than I had seen in a very long time. Rolling hills of lush grass in every direction, dotted by herds of cattle, mobile chicken coops, farm houses, and miscellaneous storage sheds, all peaking in and out of a cozy layer of coastal fog. Dave took the lead and guided us on a tour lasting a couple of hours, exuding much of the well-informed yet quirky passion shared by Joel Salatin (the hero, to the extent there was such a thing, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma).

He told how his family had been farming much of Marin County for generations since they emigrated from Europe more than 100 years ago. One of the things he really loves about farming is the opportunity to carve out a niche different than the one occupied by other farmers (even if those “others” are his parents and grandparents). Marin Sun Farms – 100% grass-fed cattle, and free range chicken and eggs – is his generation’s foray.

He, in particular, has been experimenting with broilers, while his sister does the same with a herd of goats. When raising a polyculture of plants and animals (the plants being grasses), there’s an almost endless way to plan, tinker, evaluate, plan, tinker and so on. If only all of us were so stimulated by our careers, and had the opportunity to reflect in that career our own sense of morality.

Dave makes no claims to being “sustainable." He, rightfully so, argues that farming can never be truly sustainable. Humans cannot directly harness the energy of the sun, like plants. But, that doesn’t prevent him from striving to achieve as close to that ideal as is possible by removing as many layers as possible between the sun’s energy and the food on our dinner table.

For example, this season he’s going to add wheels to his larger mobile chicken coops. As-is, they can easily be pulled across the pasture using a 4x4 truck. But, with wheels, he could move them around with a small ATV or, some day, using oxen. He is realistic – he knows these kinds of changes take many years to implement. If they didn’t take time to carefully plan and come to fruition, he said, they wouldn’t really be “ideals”.

Dave, more than most, seems to have an easy time seeing the interrelationship between plants, animals and humans on a farm. He intuitively knows to appreciate diversity for the flexibility it brings, notwithstanding some short-term negative impact on farm economics (e.g. he was trying to raise red broilers for the first time this year, though there’s no reason to think they’ll taste any better and they’ll take twice as long to reach slaughter weight as compared to the more conventional yellow variety). LE commented how tough it must be for him to lead this tour – to have his expression of self presented to 70 complete strangers and subject to hours of questioning and judgments. It was no doubt difficult, but is also required by his belief that each food producer should be completely transparent with his consumers.

to be continued...

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