A Winters Tale
(page 2 of 3)
He persevered, renting 100 acres from Lum and planting strawberries, melons and peppers for “truck farming,” an old-school term for small-scale operations that load up their produce into a vehicle—a green Datsun pickup for McNamara—and drive it to market to sell. “It was just backbreaking work and bank-breaking work,” he says. “I lost money hand over fist.”
* * *
On a warm February morning, Craig’s son, Sean, walks into his father’s office, pulls off mud-caked work boots, sits down on the floor and runs a hand through his dark, shaggy hair. He has been out putting a mineral called gypsum on the soil to improve the drainage of the one-acre field on his father’s property that he took over last year and where he is now growing hops for Sacramento’s Ruhstaller Beer. It’s a perfect example of how Craig is helping nurture the next generation of farmers. Unsure about a future in farming, Sean was drawn into giving it a try, in part, by the opportunity to participate in the region’s budding farm-to-fork or, in this case, farm-to-pint movement. The Sacramento area was once home to the country’s most abundant hop-growing industry. Hops, the key ingredient in beer, fueled Sacramento’s reputation as the West Coast beer capital until Prohibition came along and the local farmers switched crops. Working with J.E. Paino of Ruhstaller—and on a challenge from grocer Darrell Corti to create an authentically local beer—Sean planted the first hop field in the Sacramento region in decades, with the support and advice of his dad. Now in his second season, he already has his sights set on expanding.
Sitting in the office this morning, he chats with his dad on work topics—how the equipment did on the damp soil, a bank note that needs signing, does Sean need a ride back to the tractor? The tone between them is one of friendship, with little trace of the authority that most parents fall into when talking to kids, regardless of age. His father, says Sean, is an optimist who is usually in a positive mood to the point that his family “always gave him crap about his chipperness.” Sean’s foray into farming began only about a year ago, and he is quick to clarify that it’s a “hobby,” balking at the trendy image of being a “peasant farmer,” and pointing out that he earns his money in construction. But with only one newly hired employee in his hop yard, he does work hard.
“The way much of my generation is approaching it is as kind of an idyllic trade. I think that the baby boomer generation, this one included,” he says, gesturing at his dad with his thumb, “bought up a lot of land, and has farmed in a certain way.” He does not exactly mean that as a compliment. But when Craig McNamara was working in his first field, big was not bad, and he didn’t have the backing of a farm-to-fork social movement, complete with customers like regional chefs and grocers.
“What’s available for beginning farmers today in terms of marketing is wonderful. You’ve got CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], you’ve got chefs in restaurants who want to buy your produce, you’ve got consumers who are aware of local and organic and sustainable. The marketing opportunities today are 100 percent different than they were when I got going. I was going to produce terminals,” Craig points out, referring to bulk produce warehouses found in cities. “They didn’t really care about organic or sustainable.”
Faced with that reality, McNamara quickly realized that he needed to do something different. He spent some time figuring out his goals, “to reduce the amount of risk, increase the amount of profit and reduce the amount of wear and tear on my body,” he says. “And bingo, walnuts.” (The edible seeds were less perishable than his previous crops and they only needed to be harvested once a year.)
Undeterred that he “knew nothing about walnuts,” he and his then-girlfriend, Julie, another Davis graduate whom he met at an “Aries party” and married in 1982, purchased the land they are still on in Winters in 1980. “I love sitting here and watching [the orchards] through the seasons,” he says. “I really totally fell in love with this area. This is the most incredible place to farm on earth.”
During the harvest, he watches the organic nuts being loaded onto giant trucks and shipped to Andersen & Sons Shelling in Vina, Calif., where they are packaged and sold to brands he has no part of—including the Trader Joe’s label, as well as exported overseas to countries including China, Australia and Germany. This is no small-scale operation. “We farm almost 500 acres with about four people,” he says. “So it’s really mechanized.”
Despite their different approaches, McNamara is a strong supporter of Sean’s endeavor, and is firmly at the center of the area’s growing relationship with sustainability and locavorism, respected even by those who consider wholesaling a form of evil. He thinks Mayor Kevin Johnson’s recent proclamation of Sacramento as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital “is one of the most exciting things that has happened in the last quarter of a century because what we’re doing is taking this great capital of ours, this great region, and we’re reintroducing it to the nation for what we do best. We do farming really well. We are the best.”
* * *
But as much as McNamara loved farming, eventually it wasn’t enough to satisfy him. “I think that, growing up in Washington and being exposed to government and coming from the family he came from, [things like] public service, politics and working through the political system to make a difference are all in his blood,” says Rogers, who attended St. Paul’s with McNamara as well as Stanford.
In 1995, McNamara switched his own operations to organic after his wife expressed concerns about the chemicals being sprayed around their three young children. But he was beginning to see a new generation of kids that seemed disconnected from the land, and looming environmental and business concerns for the state. In spite of the fact that California supplies approximately half of the nation’s fresh produce, farmers were and are an aging demographic with few replacements coming in. Currently, California is facing a shortage of 100,000 new farmers. It was time to look at things differently.
In 1993, McNamara started a program called Farming, Agriculture and Resource Management for Sustainability (FARMS) Leadership to bring in teenage kids from local high schools for a yearlong experience working and learning about agriculture and related jobs (56 percent of graduates from the program go on to careers in agriculture or environmental sciences).
“Craig’s original vision was that students needed a chance to see where the food on their plate was coming from and be connected with it, and also have a chance to learn about all of the different steps of that,” says Karen Swan, youth leadership programs director for the Center for Land-Based Learning, the nonprofit organization McNamara created to manage the programs. “That idea is now this big, hip movement, right? Which is great, but Craig realized that a long time ago.”
Later, he added the Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS) program, targeting sustainability issues and the GreenCorps for internships and job skills training—McNamara’s programs have served more than 10,000 kids across the state and led to a prestigious James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award last year.
“I learned a lot about native plants and animals and things we can do to help the watersheds,” says Andrew Goodson, a Grant High alumnus now attending college in Florida to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, who completed both FARMS and SLEWS and hopes to someday have his own sustainable cattle ranch. “Being a student and someone who hasn’t really gone out into the world and experienced things, knowing him and seeing the things that he’s provided for the program and his passion for the students was inspirational. It just makes you want to be in his place at some point in your life where you can maybe do the same thing for students. You can give back to your environment, your community.”
McNamara’s next leap in activism came when a Davis native, Toby Hastings, approached him for help starting his own farm in 2007. “He came to me after graduating from UC Santa Cruz and he said that he really wanted to become a farmer,” recalls McNamara. “And I said, ‘Well, great. We’ve got an acre. Have at it.’ ”
Along with the land, McNamara gave Hastings support: equipment, time, advice.
“One of the things I’ve done is to ensure this is a real farm for Toby,” he says. “Now Toby is entirely up. It’s a for-profit operation. He is entirely in charge of it and he’s got to have his own wits about him and his business plan so that he’s making money because he’s got to pay me. Whereas when he started, I was much more flexible in terms of donating our time for him and doing things way above and beyond.”
Hastings’ one acre has grown to eight and become the poster child for successful small farming in the area. He sells a wide range of specialty produce—including Early Girl tomatoes, butternut squash, paprika peppers, blackberries and melons to two CSA collectives (those boxes of fresh produce delivered weekly)—is the vendor of choice for more than 40 of San Francisco’s top restaurants, including Slow Club, Serpentine, Bar Tartine and Nopa, and makes a five-figure profit annually after only a few years of operation, according to McNamara.