A Winters Tale

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Photographs by Max Whittaker

As the son of one of the most controversial figures in American history, Craig McNamara grew up in the presence of presidents and others who helped shape our world. Now, from his organic walnut farm in Winters, he’s shaping the future of our state by trying to feed the millions of Californians who don’t have enough to eat, and by nurturing the next generation of farmers. Oh, and by helping his son grow hops for really cool Sacramento craft beer.

MMeeting Craig McNamara for the first time can be a bit startling for those of a certain age. The resemblance to his father, one of America’s most polarizing secretaries of defense, Robert McNamara, is striking—right down to the way he combs his hair straight back and wears rimless glasses. It’s all the more disorienting that this man who looks so familiar isn’t standing in the Oval Office with Presidents Kennedy or Johnson, or on the cover of Time magazine, but is standing in the middle of a walnut farm in Winters, California talking about feeding the hungry.

But despite the stark differences between their chosen careers, perhaps the apple didn’t fall as far from the tree as one might assume. Secretary McNamara, it turns out, was an avid gardener and loved the outdoors, taking his family skiing and backpacking in the Sierras. With his wife Margaret, he worked a backyard plot at their Michigan home, before his time in Washington, D.C., that holds a seminal place in the heart of his son, now a political player in his own right, and the patron saint of the burgeoning ranks of eco-hipster young farmers cropping up in the Sacramento region. “I could paint you a picture today of what it looked like,” he says of that family patch. “We had peonies and roses. We had artichokes and asparagus and fresh tomatoes. And my mom and dad were [really] engaged. I remember them bending down and hoeing and harvesting and taking a bite out of a tomato.”

If the tumultuous era of the late 1960s and early ’70s shaped both the young adults who served in uniform and those who vehemently cultivated the antiwar movement on the home front, imagine what it did to Craig McNamara. He was a fifth grader when his father left the presidency of Ford Motor Company (a job he’d only held for 10 weeks) to answer newly elected President John F. Kennedy’s call to service. Craig spent his teen years trying to reconcile the man he knew as his thoughtful, beloved father, with the political titan who was dubbed “Mac the Knife” and “warmonger” by both press and the dissenting public, many of them Craig’s contemporaries at St. Paul’s, his elite boarding school in New Hampshire.

“I was under a lot of pressure,” he recalls, sitting in a serene, white-walled office on his farm, large windows overlooking rows of well-tended walnut trees that make up the core of his 450-acre holding, Sierra Orchards. The stress got so bad, he says, that he developed ulcers. But that first exposure to the calm patience of growing and harvesting is as much an influence as his family history with war.

“Farming was a sense of unification for me. I was a back-to-the-land person, although I had no land to go back to. I didn’t have a mom and dad who were farmers or from farm history, but it was definitely a part of who I was. I think it was the garden,” says the 63-year-old, whose intense cerulean blue eyes leave no doubt that he’s paying attention. “I was in a political family [surrounded by] presidents and cabinet ministers and leaders from around the world. It was the coming together, the unification of land and the politics through farming, that made sense to me. It just felt right.”

Reaching that connection was a long journey of antiwar activism, disillusionment with a country and father he felt out of touch with but deeply loved, wanderings in foreign lands and a return to the U.S., where he ultimately found himself combining those two threads of his family history. First by farming, then by delving into political activism that has made him a leader in shaping the future of California in agricultural issues like sustainability, water management, immigration reform and fighting hunger.

He serves as an advisor on many fronts—including his current role as head of the state’s food and agriculture board, to which he was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011—and has founded a number of nonprofit programs that focus on environmental stewardship.

But the legacy that is most apparent and immediate is his impact on the next generation of local farmers (including his son, Sean), the idealist ones intent on small operations with even smaller environmental impacts and a commitment to local sales—the farm-to-fork folk. And while Secretary McNamara’s lasting legacy involved war, Craig McNamara’s quest appears focused on leaving the world a little bit better than he found it—more peaceful, more aware, and well-stocked with heirloom produce.

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As a 19-year-old at Stanford, a school his father had wanted to attend but couldn’t afford, Craig McNamara was active in his opposition to the war. He participated in protests, including one at the San Francisco airport where he stood in front of a terminal reading the names of dead California soldiers. Still, he was drafted, eventually receiving a medical deferment for his ulcers. The experience left him confused. “I was steeped in the natural beauty of this country and the goodness of the people,” he says. “[But] I needed to think about the direction this country was headed in because it was not a direction I supported.”

McNamara’s son Sean grows hops on his dad’s farm for Ruhstaller Beer. The direction in which he looked for answers was south, traveling with a small group of college friends on a motorcycle trip into Mexico and South America. Too broke to buy his own bike, he split the costs of a BMW 650 with a buddy and the two shared a seat for countless miles, crossing the border in Laredo, Texas, none knowing how to speak Spanish. It was “like The Motorcycle Diaries, only we were going south and not north,” says Will Rogers, one of the adventurers and current president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land, a national land preservation nonprofit based in San Francisco. The ride ended at the Darien Gap, an impassable patch of swampland that separates Panama from Columbia, an obstacle that none of them had considered. They put their bikes on a boat and made it to South America. Then McNamara set off on his own, hitchhiking to Chile, where he met a woman nicknamed Maria Lechuga (Maria “Lettuce” in Spanish, for her love of greens), who “infatuated” him with stories of her home on Easter Island, about 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile. He decided to visit her family there. On his first day, her mother nicknamed him after the mythical king Tuu Ku Ihu, who moved the famous island statues   to to their posts with divine help. “Nobody knew my name,” says McNamara. “My name was Tuu Ku Ihu.”

It was here that McNamara first began to gain some of the clarity he was searching for, in the unlikely form of a herd of cows. Up until his arrival, the islanders depended on powdered milk despite having about 150 local bovines, sparking his interest in making them self-sufficient. “I learned how to milk a cow and then formed a dairy,” he says. “It was my self-discovery of being a farmer.”

McNamara returned to the states after two years. He finished an undergraduate degree in plant and soil sciences at UC Davis, then went to work in the fields for Ton Lum, a Chinese-American farmer who grew crops including tomatoes, sugar beets and sunflowers in the Dixon area. But despite his travels and studies, he was still such a novice at the real work of farming that he once put gas in a diesel engine.