by Nikki Ausschnitt, June 12, 2013
"I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anyone could ever want to own.” — Andy Warhol
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There was no plan, well, no real plan, when we bought land in the Anderson Valley. We didn’t “plan” to be farmers, to manage a small business, to have our family working with us, to go to market every week, to hire people, to build a kitchen. The reasons for the move were vague — the backyard in SF was small, my parents had recently died and left me some money, I became fascinated by the concepts of permaculture after I signed up for a CSA, and I had met Steve on a High Sierra backpack several years prior and we wanted to create something together that kept us outdoors and active.
Nine years ago we drew a circle on a map with SF at the center and contemplated all the places that were no more than two hours away. Neither of us had ever visited the Anderson Valley but driving back from looking at a property on the coast, Steve saw a for-sale sign on the property we now farm and the rest is history and relentlessly hard work.
Nothing had ever been grown on the land or maintained and there remained lots of fences and detritus when we moved in. With baby steps we slowly made changes: in the house, making it livable (we camped in the barn for many months); in the front garden, a jungle of weeds and huge bull pines growing up through an even larger, gorgeous valley oak (we had the pines removed); and put in many hours of manual labor clearing and cleaning and planting small starts of things brought from our San Francisco garden or found among the weeds here. A bit further out we had a pond dug then a 5-acre fence built against deer and wild pig. They have plenty of room to roam without being the area we now farm. We put in a windmill ourselves, redid the entire well and plumbing systems with help, and re-plumbed the concrete block house because the galvanized pipes were rusted out. What we discovered along the way was that we were having fun learning and practicing new skills, and we were falling in love with the place.
The idea of “farming” evolved slowly as well. We are not farmers, and although, from a young child I always wanted to be one, it was not deemed an acceptable ambition for a girl of my time from NYC. I am an artist (farming is art) and Steve is an attorney. Originally, and innocently we now recognize, we thought that since young people usually can’t afford land and many are interested in farming, we would offer them the space/place to farm and we would assist both physically and monetarily. We didn’t find anyone interested. OK, we’ll set up the infrastructure and then see. So we started digging beds, planting food, learning drip irrigation, going to farmers’ market and fumbling our way to keeping the necessary records. The farm name, Petit Teton, came from a prominent pointy little hill on our land visible from the driveway. We discovered we were enjoying the creation, the learning, the work, the food, the community, and the occasional kudos. It dawned on us that there could be no better way to use our energy and money while building a business than doing sustainable small-scale agriculture. In this out-of-alignment world we humans have manufactured it is almost impossible to find a job to do that is not harmful in some way. Growing good food for others, hiring good people and all the while improving and beautifying a piece of land are almost perfect.
Our farming education started for real when Jessie Spain came to work for and with us. She was educated at the Santa Cruz CASFS program and taught us all she had learned; what/how/when to plant; how to keep records; marketing; and how to have fun doing it all. When we expressed interest in delivering a CSA in SF, she bluntly described the responsibility and work involved. She was right, but four years later we are still delivering boxes to SF (several are picked up locally) once a week in the summer, twice a month in winter. We sell at a farmers’ market nearly every week of the year and, after 5 years selling at the Boonville market on Saturdays, have switched to the Ukiah market. Our other markets are weekly deliveries to local restaurants and to a store in Ukiah as well as to on-farm visitors, the market we most enjoy. There isn’t a stand; instead we greet guests, give them a tour if they wish, converse, and let them roam.
After one of our first tomato harvests, throughout which I was constantly cooking tomato sauce, we realized we could produce a lot of fresh food and wouldn’t be able to sell it all fast enough and that a commercial kitchen would be a great way to preserve it and increase its value. It took two years, but finally the building I designed and a local contractor, Cliff, built was in operation at the end of 2011. We hired a young chef and started cooking. When visitors stop, the kitchen is an instant draw. There is often produce in the walk-in and a now large variety of farm-made fare on the shelves. It has enabled us to use everything we grow and add value to it. It also has centered our business and enabled us to hire wonderful people. In fact, Cliff has never left and is our ranch manager taking care of nearly everything that needs caring for and participating in our planning and decisions.
Our growth would not have been possible if our family had not joined us. At first they couldn’t imagine what we were doing or thinking. My younger son, Cameron, a Chartered Financial Analyst on a career path in foundations and endowments, now lives half time in the AV and half time in SF. In 2008 after the stock market collapsed, he became convinced that farming was a growth industry and started participating by doing our CSA deliveries. He was quickly drawn in by the other aspects of living and working here: the beauty, creativity, education, hard work and healthiness. When I bought the adjacent property in 2011, my older son, Wynne, a software developer, daughter-in-law, Sarah, an EMT, and their two young daughters living in Colorado, jumped at our offer to rent the house on it and moved in a bit more than a year ago. They slowly worked themselves into farm life and community, Wynne taking over the management of most of the farm animals and many of the new projects we dream up, and Sarah working in the kitchen part time and with the AV ambulance service the rest. We could not grow without them; they are the future. And recently, Cliff’s wife, Diana, has joined us, working in the kitchen with Sarah. We now have two families working on this project!
Our process of going one step at a time has led to us having 100 chickens for our egg CSA, 2 pigs for a future meat CSA, 5 yaks for their grazing and meat, a dog and 3 cats for protection and companionship, and at present count, 6 employees (Steve and I are not included in the count since we are not paid). Our goal is to be here for the long term and become financially sustainable. Our philosophy is that what we produce we sell and we pay a fair wage for labor. We live in a capitalist society and until the rules change (we agree they need to), we will fit into the system to the degree necessary and challenge it where it makes sense. Because we are trying to create a profitable business we do not give away our products. Instead, we formed Petit Teton Foundation with the mission of supporting non-profits in our two neighborhoods…the AV and the Richmond District of SF.
Being involved in small farming has honed our political views and we now feel that to operate a small farm is in itself a political statement and a stand against the corporate establishment. Although we farm organically and in good part biodynamically, we do not need or want government certification to use the word “organic”. The people who stop by can certify us for themselves. We are very aware that what we are creating here would not have been possible without community support, and most specifically the Foodshed Group which has encouraged awareness of local food in people in the valley. Our gradual awakening to the issues around food, around the building of a commercial kitchen, around the management of a small business; the incredible miasma of rules and regulations that are scaled for one size - very large - makes us realize that the permaculture model is not just for farming, but is a model for life. We work slowly toward connecting all the pieces of our lives to make a whole — a whole person, a whole business, a whole community, and a whole world.
We would love to have you visit Petit Teton Farm at 18601 Hwy 128 about 4 miles south from Boonville. It’s a very short drive to the farm on a paved road at about mile marker 33.39. You may also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out if we’re open (most of the time) or to ask if we have certain produce. Check out our website www.petitteton.com where there’s a link to the Facebook page Cameron keeps updated.
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The third in the Anderson Valley Foodshed’s Connecting with Local Food series will be in two weeks, June 26th, about the life and times of the Boonville Farmers’ Market. The previous articles can be found on mendocinolocalfood.org.