Articles in Family Farms

Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek

Are olives an aphrodisiac? My research suggests they are not, but for Andrea Pupek and Fabio Cimicchi, they most certainly were. Andrea’s Global MBA thesis project, a comprehensive marketing plan for Fabio’s family olive oil business, resulted in love, marriage and now a vibrant olive oil export business, Caselle Italian Imports.

Andrea’s mother knew early on that Andrea would travel the globe when at 13 she became a student ambassador of People to People. Her parents provided her with roots and wings. Her roots were firmly planted in Western Massachusetts, and her wings took her to Italy.

Family’s pierogi ‘factory’

Andrea recalls the strong ties her family had to her paternal grandmother, her babci. Her favorite memory with her babci is what she calls “the Pupek family pierogi factory.” As with many family recipes, none were ever written for the pierogis. Andrea had the foresight when her babci started forgetting things at 92 years old to document and photograph the pierogi factory. A legitimate recipe now exists, and an indelible memory was forged between Andrea, her sister and their babci.

Family values were the centerpiece of Andrea’s upbringing. Even after her parents divorced they continued to celebrate the holidays together. This exceptional situation of support, love and respect was one Andrea would find among the olive groves in Orvieto, Italy.

Andrea’s thesis work took her to Italy — to the Cimicchi family — to develop a business and marketing plan for the export of their olive oil. She never imagined that one of the Cimicchis would become her husband or that she would call Orvieto home.

The transition she says was easy.

Fabio’s family’s values echoed hers. His family is emotionally and physically close, resembling what one might imagine a prototypical, multi-generational Italian family to be. Sunday lunches are a ritual. It anchors the family solidly in their generational traditions of meals that are simple, but long and delightful. There are multiple courses that include some form of roasted chicken, potatoes and, of course, a homemade pasta dish.

Marriage of family traditions

At the holidays, Andrea integrated her family’s Christmas cookie-making traditions into the Cimicchis’ traditions. When Andrea and Fabio traveled to the United States for the holidays, she made sure to include one of the Cimicchi family’s Christmas Eve favorites – chocolate spaghetti – in her family’s festivities. Imagine spaghetti with olive oil, chocolate, walnuts and sugar paste. Now that’s a decadent tradition worth importing.

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Le Caselle, located in the Umbria region of Italy, has 195 acres of olive trees and vineyards (and Ozzy, the dog, keeps all of the animals on the estate in line). Credit: Andrea Pupek

The love affair has produced much more than the fusion of family values and food traditions. It has also resulted in the creation of Caselle Italian Imports. The Cimicchi family owns more than 195 acres of land, planted with more than 2,000 olive trees.

Le Caselle is located the between Orvieto and Castel Viscardo in the Umbria region, which is known for its olive oil and is frequently referred to as the green heart of Italy.

The Cimicchi family’s ties to Le Caselle date as far back as the 1700s when the family came to care for the land under Knight Guiscardo, who was himself hired to protect the land for the church. The land changed hands a few times among a small group of families, but Fabio’s great-grandfather Alessandro ended up owning the majority of the original Castel Viscardo estate. In 1984, Fabio’s parents purchased the rest of the family land that makes up the original Le Caselle estate from Uncle Guiseppe Cimicchi, with the goal to produce wine and olive oil.

Family’s olive oils

The Cimicchis produce two types of olive oil for sale: Madonna Antonia, which is made from 100% moraiolo olives, and Olio delle Caselle, their signature Umbrian blend. The blend is a closely held, secret family recipe perfected over several generations, using just the right proportions of moraiolo, leccino, frantoio and rajo olives. Olio delle Caselle has a golden color with a tinge of green.

When tasting the olive oil, Fabio told me to slurp the olive oil along with some air. Adding the air emulsifies the oil and allows it to spread across your entire mouth for a full taste bud experience. The taste was smooth and fresh, with a little spicy aftertaste. Delicious. It is perfect on young greens and tomatoes, in salad dressings and soups, and as a dip for crusty Italian bread.

With the matrimony of Andrea and Fabio, and the loving support of close family friends, Caselle Italian Imports was born. Andrea put her masters thesis to work, sharing the amazing fruits of the Cimicchis’ labors with the wider world. Caselle Italian Imports also offers other Italian specialty products, such as traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena.

Main photo: Recently harvested olives from the Cimicchi family’s Le Caselle estate in Italy. Credit: Andrea Pupek

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Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

The demographics of the United States reflect an increasingly global world, and so do the demographics of our farm operators. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the nearly complete Agriculture Census for 2012, a database that is completed every five years.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership.

Part 2: Female farmers of color.

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos.

With each update to the census, the type of statistical information available increases, in particular in the area of farmers of color. Yet, a simple Google search on basic statistics and stories about Native American farmers or African-American female farmers, for example, uncovers few detailed stories.

More often than not, the information that can be found is about those who dominate the agriculture industry — white male farm operators. Numbers often determine what and who is covered in depth. But equally true is that this country has a long history of institutional exclusion and racism against Native American and African-American farmers, other farmers of color and women. Yet it is Native American and African-American farmers and their ecological knowledge of farming traditions that built this country.

Data on farmers of color in the United States

In the United States, the vast majority of farmers continue to be white men, but the number of farmers of color is increasing.

More than 80% of all principal farm operators in the U.S. — the person primarily responsible for the on-site, day-to-day operation of a farm or ranch, as defined by the USDA — are white men (1.7 million out of a total of 2.1 million), according to the 2012 Census. Of the total principal operators nationwide, 95 percent are white, including 96% of male farmers and 93% of female farmers.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Between 2007 and 2012 — the period included in the 2012 Agriculture Census — every category of minority principal farm operators increased. Latinos farmers increased significantly, followed by American Indian, African-American, Asian, multiracial and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders.

Where are these farmers of color — in what states and counties do they farm? This series of  four informational maps shows the top five states where farmers of color – Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian — are growing roots by county and state.

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

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Credit: Sarah Khan

Historical exclusion of farmers

Civil rights abuses in USDA state offices existed from the agency’s inception, based on a 1997 USDA-commissioned investigation,”Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture” and the General Accounting Office’s 2008 report “U.S. Department of Agriculture: Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.” More recently, the nation witnessed the Pigford I and II settlements, class-action racial discrimination lawsuits filed by black farmers who were denied loans and other federal aid between 1981and 1996. Many farmers included in the settlement are still awaiting disbursement.

The Pigford settlements, which lately have been mired in accusations of fraud, highlight the country’s ongoing divisive stance about race and reparations. Meanwhile, other groups, including Latino, Native American and female farmers are seeking compensation and awaiting judgment or payment.

To quell growing discontent about reporting civil rights complaints, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack produced a civil rights fact sheet on “USDA Accomplishments 2009-2012.” As of July 2014, the USDA has announced grants to help veteran and farmers of color get started in the industry. Despite these efforts, a profound distrust of USDA offices and officials continues.

Reparations and the white environmental movement

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a piece on “The Case for Reparations” in the May 2014 issue of Atlantic. Coates begins by explaining how government programs, instituted from the end of slavery to the present, systematically denied, stole or swindled African-Americans out of their land and home ownership.

In June 2014, Carolyn Finney, a geographer at the University of California Berkeley, published Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African-Americans to the Great Outdoors in which she redefines African-Americans’ long and profound relationship to the environmental movement, though it has largely been invisible or ignored. Through her own family’s story of land dispossession and those of others, Finney has collected the stories of unseen pioneering African-Americans and their diverse connection and commitment to the great outdoors. Her research reinserts African Americans back into the predominantly white environmental movement narrative in the United States.

And finally, the Green 2.0 Working Group published The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies in June. The report concluded that a green ceiling for people of color; unconscious bias, discrimination, and insular recruiting practices; and a lackluster effort and disinterest in addressing diversity still exist in environmental organizations across the country.

Finney’s book, Coates’ article and The State of Diversity In Environmental Organizations Report reveal a historical context that have allowed exclusion to persist to this day. Both Finney and Coates begin and end with land ownership and dispossession, and both elegantly shine a light on African-Americans and other people of color. They make visible the invisible, and they make people of color the main story.

Main photo: Cynthia Hayes is the founder of the Southeastern African American Organic Network, or SAAFON, based in Savannah, Ga. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Garlic tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

A number of Chicago’s 3,000 Burmese refugees have found a place that feels like home, improbably situated in the middle of a thriving metropolis of 2.6 million people: a lush, sprawling acre of Midwestern farmland. Tucked inside an 8-foot-tall metal fence and pinched between the shadows of large brick apartment complexes, this all-organic farm gives these and other refugees a chance to do what they know best.

“Just about everybody here was a farmer back home,” says Linda Seyler, the manager of the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm. “They used the word home a lot, especially when we were building this. It’s in a ‘being resettled finally’ sense.”

AUTHOR


Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a multimedia freelance journalist who has previously reported out of Ghana and Morocco. Twitter: @madcrowell

Converted from the ruins of a candy distribution warehouse, the land was purchased by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership (an arm of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement) from the city of Chicago for $1 (although apparently the city has yet to collect). Located in the ethnically diverse Albany Park neighborhood, it is the only refugee farm in Illinois, and one of a small handful in the United States.

Seyler says many of the urban farmers at Global Garden spent at least 20 years of their lives in refugee camps after being forced out of their home countries. “That’s 20 years in limbo,” she says. “They were not allowed to work, and everything is rationed — food, water, living space.”

With the farm, the refugees nurture a small piece of land they can call their own, rent free. For many, it’s also an escape from the chaos of the city. A hundred individual plots feed about 100 Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese and Congolese families, and anything left over can be sold at a nearby farmers market.

It’s a living amoeba of shared space, with farmers tending not only their own gardens but also their neighbors’. Some farmers push their growing season as late as November to get the last of the summer harvest.

Despite ministering to four different ethnic groups, Seyler found surprising agreement when it came to choosing which crops would kick-start the farm. “There would be one picture of some greens in the catalog, and they’d all say, ‘We like that!’ The pictures evoked something,” she says. She ordered anything they requested from a Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.

Roselle is a sour surprise

At first, the farm was dotted with standard American crops — spinach, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, basil, thyme, sunflowers, mustard greens. Soon, however, Seyler began to notice a crop she didn’t recognize.

Chin baung, or roselle in English, announced itself in the form of red sticks poking up from the ground and appeared on the farm three years ago. A chewy, leafy, tart relative of the hibiscus family, the plant is as common in Myanmar as basil is here. Many Burmese families began searching it out as soon as they emigrated.

“My dad first ordered it from Thailand because he didn’t know there were seeds here,” explains 16-year-old Su Mon, a Burmese refugee who has spent the past seven years in Chicago. Mon sells her family’s vegetables at a local farmers market in Chicago every Saturday, including bunches of chin baung. “It’s very, very popular. Every Burmese family plants it.”

Before the Albany Park farm was founded in 2011, the Mon family stocked up on chin baung by traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind., which has a large Burmese population. Although the seeds are expensive, chin baung grows fast and stays hearty in the field a long time. It emerges as a maroon stem, and then buds into a three-leaved green leaf, edible immediately.

Known as mei qui qie in Mandarin Chinese, krajeap in Thai and asam paya in Indonesia, the plant does more than add a tangy kick: it’s full of iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin and vitamin C, and can either be ground for tea or chopped up and added to salads. Mexicans put its red flowers in their tea for a tart Flor de Jamaica-flavored accent. Most Burmese throw the leaves on top of anything, from chicken soup to fish curry.

At the local Horner Park farmers market, one bunch of chin baung sells for $2 and is becoming popular among American customers looking to add some exotic leafy greens to their dinners. It provides a chewy complement to a lemony chicken or whitefish.

But for the Burmese, chin baung is invariably the featured ingredient of any meal. Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry, a deeply flavorful whirlwind for the taste buds — spicy and sour at the same time.

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A Burmese refugee sits after a long day of farming. Credit: Maddy Crowell

Chin Baung Kyaw (Fried Roselle Leaves)

Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 3 to 5 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches roselle leaves

1 tablespoon cooking oil

¼ tablespoon turmeric powder

¼ tablespoon red chili powder

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon pounded dried shrimp (optional)

1 small can of shredded bamboo shoots (not raw)

6 green chilies

Bean noodles (optional)

Directions

Prepare the roselle by breaking off the leaves at the base. Wash and drain the leaves.

Heat the oil in a frying pan.

Add turmeric, red chili powder, onion and garlic. Stir until the onion paste is golden brown.

Add the dried shrimp if using, roselle leaves, 1 tablespoon of water and stir well. Add salt if desired.

When the roselle leaves are soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots and green chilies. For extra spice, cut small slits into the chilies.

Cover and let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a separate pan, heat up the bean noodles if using or steam rice for extra texture.

Main photo: Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

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The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Corn grows in fields in California's Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.

Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.

Agribusiness central to region

Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.

Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.

Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.

The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.

Produce packinghouses

Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”

Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.

There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.

World Ag Expo

One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.

The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.

The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.

Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison

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Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery's vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

If you live in Seattle, you summer at Lake Chelan.

It’s a requirement of residency, along with buying your pearl barley at the co-op and stoically facing down nine months of gloom each year. You load up the Subaru Outback and make the 180-mile trek across the Cascade Mountains to a narrow glacier-fed lake that cuts into those peaks for 50-plus miles. There you swim, boat and bake — or burn — for a few of the inland region’s 300 days of sunshine a year.

And increasingly, you travel from winery to winery, tasting local bottlings that are expanding in number and quality.

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state, and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Summertime on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state and the office is many miles away. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Wine grapes have been grown on the lakeshore since the late 1800s. But Chelan is still an infant among American wine regions when it comes to commercial production, going back less than two decades. The 24,040-acre Lake Chelan American Viticulture Area — the 11th AVA in Washington state — is only 5 years old. It remains part of the 11-million acre Columbia River AVA, one of the powerhouse regions in a state that ranks 2nd only to California in U.S. wine production.

Lake Chelan Valley’s unique properties — including the lake’s cooling effect that helps counter eastern Washington’s relentless heat — have been attracting winemakers and growers, sandwiched among the area’s traditional apple orchards. From a handful a decade ago, the area now has more than 20 wineries with an upstart temperament and, sometimes, a quirky sense of humor. (The Hard Row to Hoe winery takes its name from an enterprising oarsman who nearly a century ago carried workers across the lake to an equally enterprising brothel.)

The lake’s wineries are bottling a wide range of grapes from Chelan and the broader Columbia River region, from Syrah to the obscure Picpoul.

Charlie and Lacey Lybecker know about both grapes — and about pursuing the dream of making wines on a small scale in a corner of Washington wine country.

The Lybeckers are in their sixth year of producing wines, for the past three years from Cairdeas Winery on Highway 150 near the town of Manson. Their operation says family owned and operated, down to 2-year-old Eugene in his father’s arms as Charlie passed through the tasting shed on a recent afternoon.

Cairdeas, which means friendship, goodwill or alliance in ancient Gaelic, is a dream still in the midst of being fulfilled for Charlie, 34, and Lacey, 31. They produced their first bottles in their home in West Seattle and were looking to relocate to eastern Washington wine country when Lacey came to Chelan on a business trip.

Getting in while Lake Chelan Valley’s young and growing

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery's 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache blanc, Roussanne and Picpout. Credit: Roger Ainsley

Two wines from Lake Chelan: 2010 Whistle Punk from C.R. Sandidge, a big, jammy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; and Cairdeas Winery’s 2013 Southern White, which includes Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul. Credit: Roger Ainsley

“As soon as we saw Lake Chelan, it was like there’s no other option,” says Charlie, who studied winemaking at Seattle’s Northwest Wine Academy. “It was really appealing to us to get in while it’s still young and see the valley grow and help it grow.”

Cairdeas reflects their passion for Rhone varietals — Syrahs, Viogniers, Roussanne — with the grapes coming from around the Columbia River AVA, some from Chelan. Their method for sourcing grapes is straightforward: When they taste a great wine from the region that reflects the style they are seeking, they find out where the grapes came from and go knocking at the grower’s door.

By next spring, however, about half of their six acres near the lakeshore will be planted with their own Syrah.

“There are some very high-quality grapes coming out. I think people are really experimenting a lot and seeing what types of grapes grow really well here,” Charlie says. “For my personal taste, I think the Syrah from Lake Chelan is absolutely the best.”

And then there’s Picpoul, an obscure grape that Charlie has used to advantage in his “new favorite white wine right now,” Cairdeas’ Southern White. “It’s an extremely acidic grape by itself but has great flavors and we use it as a blending grape,” he explains. The result: a bright wine with a broad palette of flavors that could work in place of Sauvignon Blanc with a simple grilled chicken.

The Lybeckers hope to tap in to Lake Chelan’s natural advantages, including as a wine tourist destination. As Lacey notes, the lake comes ready made with tourism infrastructure — lakeshore hotels, golf courses, water sports and winter snow skiing — that some Washington wine regions had to create from scratch.

Their goals are at once ambitious and limited: Having grown from producing 250 cases in 2009 to slightly over 2,000 this year, they figure on topping off at about 4,000 cases. Then build a new tasting room facing the lake. Add a picnic area and a pond. Maybe offer up farm dinners.

“We are always going to be a very small family winery,” Charlie says.

Adds Lacey: “We want to make sure we always have our hands in the process.”

Main photo: Syrah grapes at Lake Chelan Winery’s vineyard near Manson, Wash. Credit: Roger Ainsley

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One

The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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