Mendocino Talking: Thomas Brower
by Dave Smith, March 4, 2015
(Thomas grows crops in several areas around Mendocino County including his main crop, Lavender. You will find him almost every Saturday with his kids during the season at the Ukiah Farmers Market selling the products he makes from lavender.
In the early 1990s, lavender became a huge fad with Sonoma County covered with it. Williams Sonoma’s number one product for many years was “Lavender Wands” which are fresh cut stems weaved with ribbon.
He’s a one-man show, doing everything himself, and he’s been doing lavender since the late nineties. He recently was given access to a 30,000 plant lavender crop that had been abandoned by the previous owners three years ago. He’s undertaken a huge task to shear back by hand all 30,000 plants with a motorized hedge trimmer so they can be productive again. At the time of our interview he had done 18,000 by himself.)
I grew up in the sixties in southern Minnesota hand-hoeing soybeans and de-tassling corn from the age of 10. Back then it was all farm kids doing that kind of work… there were no pesticides because it was expensive. We kids saw it as an opportunity to make money, not child abuse. I had independent income and by 12 I was foreman of the crew. There was full employment. There were endless fields of soybeans and corn to work in. That instilled a certain discipline and patience and stubbornness in me. It was a different world back then.
My pioneer ancestors, farmers and fishers, homesteaded the area back in the 1850s because the homeland population was getting crowded. My father’s Dutch family was from Friesland, a coastal region along the southeastern corner of the North Sea where they speak Frisian, a language group closely related to Olde English.
During the Depression my family lost their farm which severely disrupted our family. I think I’m the first in my extended family to go back to farming… it’s in my blood, I’m going to do it, and I’m not going to stop.
My father was an all-state athlete in baseball and basketball and he got a job at The Worthington Daily Globe newspaper as a sports editor. The ownership were wealthy, very progressive democrats. When I was 16, I also started writing for the newspaper, then when I graduated from high school I left home. I was a big reader as a child and I knew too much about the outside world… and I had had it with the prairie.
I started hitchhiking a lot, did some traveling, and worked one summer for the National Park Service in the Great Smokey Mountains where I met a girl from New York City and eventually we got married. In 1976, when I was 19, we moved to San Francisco. I became a carpenter and also worked in the produce business for a company that had wholesale produce, a couple of retail stores, and had street-side farm trucks. I would go in the middle of the night with a huge stack of cash and visit a whole bunch of packing houses in Lodi and Stockton and Modesto to buy produce. The company gave me the leeway to select it and buy it with cash, and then truck it back to San Francisco before dawn and distribute it.
The other thing I did in San Francisco was I got involved in housing issues. I’ve always been political since I was a young teen. I was renting an apartment and the owner asked me to manage the 8-unit apartment house. I saw how unfair he was, raising the rates and not doing needed repairs, so I started a Tenant’s Union in the building and we all went on rent strike. I also joined the San Francisco Tenant’s Union, which is a fairly powerful organization, and I organized many, many buildings in San Francisco.
In the late seventies there was a huge eviction struggle around the International Hotel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Hotel_(San_Francisco); foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_Battle_for_the_International_Hotel; foundsf.org/index.php?title=I-Hotel_Eviction_Summary). It had been inhabited for many years by older Chinese and Filipino folks, mostly seamen, and many of them were members of the somewhat radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union. It had been a wonderful, thriving community located in a large, 3 story building almost a block long in what was left of “Manilatown” next to Chinatown.
Historically, it was one of the biggest eviction struggles in United States history. It went on for 10 years. There had been a buyout by an overseas corporation which wanted to raze the place. But we were very well organized to physically defend the building. I was specifically responsible for defending the roof and the 24-hour patrols around the building. We had a phone tree of over 10,000 names. We could immediately get thousands of people to respond and come to the defense of the hotel, which we did a number of times. When the eviction finally happened, there were at least 5,000 people locked arms chanting “We won’t move, we won’t move.” Me and 17 other people were up on the roof with these big, heavy wooden forks to push away the fire engine ladders that the TAC squad was using to get on the roof. Every window and door were barricaded. The police cavalry formed across the street and they charged repeatedly, and were repelled again and again. Many people were hurt. We resisted, but we non-violently didn’t fight back and lost. The riot police kicked the shit out of me… they just let me have it and dumped me in the street after beating me senseless. It pissed me off and radicalized me even more. But I realized that I was too radicalized and needed to calm down and mellow out. My wife and I divorced and I took a hitchhiking and train hopping trip around the country.
I headed for Europe and loved it there. I went to the island my ancestors came from, lived in Amsterdam and Stockholm and did a lot of different work there for a number of years including an import business. I built shipping crates on a wharf in Stockholm. I was a roadie for rock & roll and blues bands… B.B. King, Steppenwolf, and a bunch of Scandinavian bands. That was so much fun, but not a life you can live for long.
Then I went to India and almost died there from dysentery and bronchitis… penniless, barefoot, tramping around, begging for food. India really turned my head around. There were so many poor people really living bare bones. There was an incredible melding of ancient lifestyles along with very modern lifestyles. It gave me a very broad perspective. Much of the population is living like they have for thousands of years. Ever since then I’ve lived very simply. I now live in an ancient 100-year-old cabin that sheepherders used to live in.
I finally came back to San Francisco, looked up a carpentry partner who had moved to Ukiah. So I ambled up here in 1981 and connected with him. I loved Mendocino County. I went to the coast, and Point Arena, up to Humboldt and scouted it all out. I just thought here was the most beautiful, diverse places I’d ever been to. I did a lot of stream and salmon restoration and then got into agriculture, doing farmers markets, doing carpentry… became a wine maker for a couple of the Fetzer brothers, apprenticed with Germain Robin, the french brandy maker, and got into distillation.
Hubert Germain-Robin first introduced me to botanical distillation. I’ve always been into the alchemy of transformation of a plant into another form… whether it be beer making, grain and hops into beer, or making brandy out of grapes.
Steam distillation of plants can produce medicine. I have a beautiful steam distiller that a friend and I built. So now I produce a lot of essential oils and hydrosols which are the two essential products you get from steam distillation, a very pure process. If you introduce enough steam under pressure, heat will vaporize the oil in plants… and be carried away with the steam out of the vessel that contains the plant material. Then you re-condense it back into liquid form… which is the alchemy… and you’ll have the essential oil floating on top of the hydrosol, which is the steam water. Then you separate those two products into the very pure essential oil and the hydrofoil. The hydrosol contains very small amounts of the essential oil and all the water soluble parts of the plant.
Lavender is probably the most useful herb on earth. It’s applied externally to skin and also inhaled. It’s like a first aid kit in a bottle… calming, relaxing, rejuvenating, uplifting, balancing. It is one of the essential oils that is safe even for babies. It will heal burns, open wounds, insect bites, and rashes. The hydrosol itself is also good for skin care.
The other herbs I distill are rosemary, douglas fir leaf tips, lemon balm, clary sage, rose geranium, and rose petals.
But I really struggle because there is no money in farming. I have two kids to raise, which takes most of my time. They’re my focus. They’re the best thing that ever happened to me. My goal is to spend as much time as possible with my kids, Bella and Willem. I play guitar and 5-string banjo, but I don’t have time to do music right now… or to write short stories, based on my life experience, which is another interest of mine. I already have quite a collection of short stories with many, many more to come.
There is a certain scale that you have to obtain to make money, and it’s really hard to find the time to get to that scale. But I’m on a mission to give the world lavender because lavender is what the world needs… to calm down, slow down, and mellow out.
When I’m out in that huge field of 30,000 lavender plants, I can get it done only because I hand-hoed miles and miles of soybeans when I was a kid and developed a certain persistence and patience. I like field work because it leaves me with my own thoughts. I just like to groove with plants. I visit every plant and establish a connection with the field at large. I feel like we’re in harmony, all doing this together.
It’s a little disturbing sometimes for me to see there is so much mono-cropping here in Mendocino… both with marijuana and wine grapes. I don’t have anything against either… I love wine and used to be a wine maker and vineyardist. But I would like to see more diversity.
I’m really hopeful about our county. Despite the drought, we’re in a good physical location geographically. But there are a lot of people moving to the county to escape from somewhere else, and bringing suburbia with them. They live at a faster pace… especially how they drive. You can really see the change in the last decade or two.
I love Mendocino County. We have a good thing going here. All you have to do is go somewhere else to know how good we have it.
(Coming up: Tom Liden — Photographer, Community Advocate. Mendocino Talking archive: theava.com/archives/category/features/mendocino-talking)