Baja Cooking on the Edge
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BAJA Cooking on the Edge

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Deb's Writings

Cow The Farm Connection

Down on the Farm

The road to Tierra Miguel farm winds from the I-15 at Fallbrook up a steep and stony valley, past historic Gomez Creek and Warner Ranch, past the starkly anachronistic mega-story Pala casino, and finally into the Pauma Valley at the foot of Mount Palomar.

Bison and horses lounge by white board fences. A hand-lettered sign nailed to a fence offers lessons in tango argentine. Oranges glow like Chinese lanterns among the green leaves of countless trees behind white board fences. For most of Tierra Miguel’s student visitors, this countryside is a world away from their neighborhoods and schools.

Hats are de rigueur today: all kinds of hats. Wide-brimmed straw lifeguard hats, canvas slouch hats and those Lawrence of Arabia-style caps with neck flaps that mothers pick out and children hate. It’s barely 10 am and already over 90 degrees, and though there isn’t a breath of air or a cloud in the sky, the rocky hills are vibrantly flushed with leafy scrub, and the 86 acres of Tierra Miguel farm stretch out on all sides in a haze of a hundred shades of green. It’s spring, and there’s plenty of work to do.

Past the nascent orchard or peaches and apricots, not far from the farm trailer, second and third graders from the Waldorf School of San Diego are lined up on either side of a long heaped row of earth, planting spindly young plants. The children carefully settle each wobbling stem into holes, then scoop and pack the earth around the pots. The earth is dark and crumbly moist beneath the dry powdery surface. The students have dirt up to their elbows, streaking their faces with sweat and sunscreen. Several mothers hover, applying more sunscreen.

“These are sunchokes,” farm teacher Robert Farmer says to the children working beside him. He is wearing shorts, sturdy boots, a wide-brimmed hat and a thin layer of grey dust. “These are a special kind of plant that nobody else has. It has a kind of carbohydrate that diabetics can use. They’re very special.”

The kids nod, showing varying degrees of interest. It’s hot, and some people are fooling around and talking instead of working. Farmer lines the class up to help stretch a long line of black drip irrigation tape. He patiently coaches them through the steps of straightening, turning, and sealing off the drip line, then hands out an array of fierce-looking rakes, hoes and shovels.

Immediately there’s some non-specific, vigorous shoveling in one area, but the kids set to work grooming the sides of the rows. The Waldorf School has its own garden, so most have some inkling of what they’re doing, though Tierra Miguel shows it to them on a much larger scale.

Farmer supervises the grooming, packing a little more earth here and there, coaching a child on the use of a cultivator while working himself with quick, efficient motions.

“I like them to get their hands on everything, and really feel what they’re doing,” he explains. He points to the young fruit trees behind him. “When Roosevelt school came out, they pruned the orchard. Now the trees are leafed out and making fruit. It would be great if they can come back and see the results.”

Tierra Miguel hosts about two dozen schools a year on day outings like this, where elementary and middle school kids can spend a day or two learning about composting, planting, watering and harvesting. The certified organic teaching farm also offers internships to post-graduate agriculture students from around the world. The not-for-profit foundation offers programs in organic, biodynamic and sustainable gardening and agriculture.

The farm supports itself through various grants, donations and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA,) which is a kind of seasonal produce timeshare in which members pay a fee and receive a weekly box of fresh-from-the-farm produce.

Farmer (his real name) is Educational Program Director. His vision is to create an integrated learning cycle linking farm visits, school garden development and learning, and hands-on culinary technique- a program he calls FACTS: Farmers And Chefs, Teachers and Students. He worked with Memorial and Roosevelt middle schools to create school gardens as part of the state LEAF grant.

He’s upbeat about how farms and schools can work together. “This program can be very enriching, and support the classroom in a positive way, while teaching these kids some real life basics in a hands-on way.” He turns again to the very hands-on students, who are almost finished planting.
Soon the sunchoke plants are tucked into surprisingly neat, even rows, and the drip tape is delivering water. Farmer calls the group to the end of the row for a lesson in farm math.

He tips up a wheelbarrow of compost and moves it one side. “We planted about 100 sunchokes today,” he says. “Each of these plants is grown from one tuber, and every one of these plants you put in the ground today will make about 10 new tubers. So when we harvest, how many new plants can we make?”

Hands shoot up. “1000 plants,” says one.

“That’s a lot!” someone says.

Farmer continues. “And when we plant the 1000 new tubers, and they each make 10 tubers, how many plants will we be able to grow?”

“100,000!” a boy calls out and his friends roll their eyes. “Ten thousand,” says a blond child in a straw hat, smugly.

Everyone is suitably impressed by their morning’s work. Farmer says, “Before it gets too hot, let’s go pick our strawberries. After snack we’re going to plant the Three Sisters (Native American style mound plantings of corn, beans and squash) and then we’ll visit the goats. Now-let’s put our rakes back in the pile over here. And remember, always put the points down.”

Even one generation ago, most of these children would have known to set a rake with points down, Today, things are different.

“We had a school out last week, and most of those kids had never been on a farm before,” Farmer says, as he leads the way to the strawberry fields. “They had grown one huge carrot in their school garden, as long as my forearm, and they all had their pictures taken with it.”

A girl, overhearing, pipes up to no one in particular. “How come we can’t harvest carrots like yesterday?”

Her friend gives her a playful shove. “Because they aren’t ready yet.”

“But they were soooo good.”

There’s a lazy drone from planes taking off and landing at the small airfield nearby as the group trudges up the dusty road to the strawberry fields. The air is alive with bugs and birdsongs. White butterflies flutter and fall over a field of dark green cabbages.

The strawberry field is full of bees, working the tiny white flowers, undisturbed by the children. The students fan out, each with a stack of clear plastic clamshells to fill.

“Remember to pick the dark red ones, and look at it before you pick it to make sure it doesn’t have any white spots or brown spots,” Farmer calls out. The children are serious and careful, lifting the thick green leaves to reveal the red fruit below, examining each berry before picking it and adding it to their collection. It’s like a relaxed, quiet Easter egg hunt.

“Ms. Austin!” urgently calls a boy, who crouches bareheaded under the merciless sun. Heide Austin, the Waldorf teacher, hurries over.

“Look, there’s a whole family here of strawberries, big ones and little ones. And this one’s the grandfather. He’s all shriveled up.”

When the clamshells are full, Farmer writes each child’s name on his or her boxes with a felt-tip pen.

“What’s your name?” a boy asks Farmer.

“Mr. Farmer,” Farmer replies.

The boy shakes his head. “I mean your real name,” he repeats.

Farmer smiles. “That is my name.”

But now the students have discovered a trap with a dead ground squirrel up the road, and the strawberries – and Farmer’s real identity—are forgotten. The stiff grey body dangles at the end of the chain as the bravest of the boys swings it around. “Drop it,” says Ms. Austin. Exploration of nature only goes so far, even at a Waldorf School.


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