Opinion Columns & Blogs

Stuart Leavenworth: Give thanks to a new generation of farmers

When you give thanks today, give thanks to a farmer.

It was a farmer who raised the turkey you will eat and the potatoes you are about to mash. It was a farmer who harvested the corn in your prized cornbread stuffing. It was a farmer who labored over the pumpkins in your pie.

“Farmer” is a catch-all term that applies to a wide variety of growers, large, medium and small. Yet they all share some things in common. All take risks contending with fickle forces, such as markets and Mother Nature.

Jim Muck is one of a younger generation of growers who have embraced farming after initially rejecting it. Muck grew up on his family’s farm outside of Wheatland, in Yuba County. As he recalled during a recent farm-to-fork event in Roseville, he was determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“You didn’t want to be a farmer if you grew up in Wheatland in the 1980s,” said Muck, speaking at “The Art of Real Food,” a celebration of local produce sponsored by The Bee. “I worked on farms in the summer and that is how I bought my car. I drove the tractor back and forth, back and forth, and there was never any connection to the customer … There never seemed to be a point.”

Muck went off to college, got bored selling typewriters for Xerox and then joined Lagunitas Brewing Company in Sonoma County.

That gave him a window into the world of Sonoma’s specialty farmers, who geared their smaller operations toward direct sales to restaurants and farmers markets.

“I had beer, which is the ultimate currency at a farmers market,” he recalled. “I had beer, and they had lots of food, and I just got inspired by what they did.”

Returning to his family’s farm, Muck started growing specialty crops – lettuce, tomatoes, greens and other vegetables. He now grows 40 different crops. “Every month of the year I have something I am planting and something I am picking,” he said.

Two days ago, I rose early and drove out to Muck’s farm, arriving just as the sun had tipped over the golden foothills. Not far down the road is a monument for the Overland Trail, one of the routes used by pioneers moving to California.

Muck’s ancestors were some of those pioneers. They came west to get rich on gold, and ended up buying part of a Mexican rancho. With no irrigation, they dry farmed winter wheat on part of their 675 acres. The current farm is now 180 acres, ranging from grazing land to more fertile lowlands.

This time of year, Muck and his workers are planting salad greens in a hothouse, digging up German butterball potatoes from the rich soil and “buttoning up the farm” for wet weather ahead.

It’s a chilly morning, but not so frigid that frost might endanger Muck’s delicate lettuce.

During the summer, the days are far more intense. His crew starts work before dawn, working with head lamps and knee pads to harvest kale, spinach and chard before the sun hits them and the vegetables wilt.

“If it gets hot, there is no amount of refrigeration that will save them,” he said. “It’s called ‘field heat.’ That’s farmer speak for ‘It’s hot.’”

Once the sun comes up, Muck and his crew turn to picking fragile heirloom tomatoes, and then to more hearty crops, such as squash and melons. By 2 p.m., they stop harvesting and devote themselves to bunching and packing the bounty.

“You haven’t lived until you have bunched 100 bunches of basil a day,” said Muck. “You will hate basil.”

Every afternoon, Muck has tea with his mom, a chance to rest his lanky frame and recharge. But usually the work isn’t over. If there are multiple farmers markets the next day, he and his wife, Amanda, have to load up a pair of trucks with boxed veggies, scales, cash boxes, tables and chairs.

Farming is frustrating. Gophers eat your carrots just as they are hitting their peak sweetness. Frost and fungi are not your friends. Red tape and environmental regulations are constantly changing, as are consumer preferences.

Yet for Muck, the thrill of the job is connecting directly with his customers.

“It is totally different than when I started,” he said. In 2001, consumers at the Yuba City farmers market raised their eyebrows when they saw his stripy beets and colorful heirloom tomatoes.

“Now when I go to Yuba City, I will sell more heirloom tomatoes there than I will in Auburn. It is a whole sea change in what people know about food and their interest in wanting to know where it came from.”

The sun is now higher in the sky, and as the air warms up, the dew glistens on rows of romaine lettuce. As Muck digs for potatoes, he glances at the romaine and contemplates making a Caesar salad for part of his family’s Thanksgiving feast.

I ponder whether to ask Muck a clichéd question – what he is thankful for – but I already know the answer. It came when Muck concluded his remarks at the “Real Food” event.

“Farming is the most satisfying thing I have ever done in my life,” he told the crowd. And when he said it, you knew he meant it.