A Winters Tale
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His success working with Toby in part inspired McNamara to start the California Farm Academy—a program for aspiring farmers to learn both the manual labor and business of agriculture, then have the chance to start an incubator farm—last year. “Beginning farmers don’t have that time or resource base to do it,” McNamara says. “And yet, we need new farmers. The goal of the California Farm Academy was to jump-start the process.”
“I think he’s always had a sense as to where you can get the greatest impact,” says Rogers of McNamara’s programs. “I think working with kids and introducing them to principals of sustainable agriculture and conservation is a way to get a lot of leverage. It’s a way to have a big impact on the future.”
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“You walk into a room, and he’s not going to be the one that’s dominating,” says Neal Van Alfen, a UC Davis professor who tapped McNamara as part of his advisory council when he was dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. “He certainly is not shy in speaking his views but he’s not one of those who’s pounding on the table. He’s a really good, decent person. There’s real integrity there. He’s not afraid to try new things and he’s not afraid to go against where the stream is flowing. Respectful and thoughtful is how I would characterize him.”
Respectful and thoughtful are two words tossed around a lot when speaking of McNamara, but he’s got a third descriptor he uses for himself: impatient, a trait he says is becoming more pronounced with age. That may be because he has goals—big goals—he wants to accomplish and no end of opinions coming in on what needs to be done, especially in his role as president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.
Take the issue of food insecurity—not knowing where your next meal is coming from. “One of my passions is food insecurity,” says McNamara. (Sixteen percent of households in the state don’t have reliable access to food.) “The majority of those who are affected by it are children. To me, that’s both a tragedy and an impossibility. We can’t tolerate this. Those are your neighbors, my neighbors, the people sitting next to you on the bus. Those are people in your employment. They may be a janitor. They may be a housekeeper. They may be someone in your school.”
At the same time, farmers waste a lot of crops. Maybe they plow a field of lettuce back into the ground because prices have dropped and it costs more to harvest than it’s worth. Maybe a bug got into the crop and marred it visually, but it’s still healthy to eat. With his leadership, the state board established the goal of doubling farmer contributions to food banks by 2015. In 2011, they increased donations to 120 million pounds. In 2012, that jumped to 127 million pounds, and 2013 has the goal of 141 million pounds. Much of it has been accomplished by understanding what keeps farmers from donating, and breaking down those barriers. “Craig has personally devoted hours to do media and public events to highlight the important connection between farmers and food banks,” says Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross.
“Craig has kept the state board very focused on the strategic objectives,” she adds. “He’s very inclusive. And he’s an excellent listener, which is really an important trait for a leader. He’s very vigilant to make sure that all the diverse perspectives that may be involved on an agricultural issue are being heard. If there seems to be a particular area of expertise or a part of the state that’s missing, he’s always the first one to identify that and make suggestions.”
“Empathize with your enemy is a very important one,” says McNamara, referring to one of his father’s 11 life lessons highlighted in the 2003 Oscar-winning documentary film about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War. “I believe it, so I try to use it as a helpful reminder, a helpful tool in my life either in personal relationships or in larger issues.”
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McNamara is driving his dark blue Subaru too fast down a country lane, 60 miles an hour at least, on his way to take Sean back to the tractor. Sean laughs when the speed is pointed out—his dad is a known leadfoot and doesn’t seem too interested in slowing down.
The hops field appears ahead, a neat rectangle of dark green, planted close to the farmhouse where Sean lives, and McNamara stops to let him out. Then he turns up a gravel lane lined with Mission olive trees planted in the 1880s, the hard fruit drupes occasionally bouncing off the windshield as he stops for a moment to look at Sean’s work.
“I am really proud of him,” McNamara says, chipperness subdued for a moment by reflection as he watches this son who has followed him into the field but not in his footsteps. Maybe the McNamara legacy is this ability to learn from past generations without being bound by them.
Like his father, Sean is growing into a land-based leader in his own right, though without that exact intent. He is at the center of what McNamara sees as a new breed of farmers in the region, ones who will be more focused on a holistic way of life. Along with Toby Hastings, Sean hosts parties that include square dances and lamb roasts for the local farm-to-fork community as a way to bring everyone together. “My political stance for the last two years has been to reach out to young farmers and throw events and dinners and get people talking to each other and borrowing tractors and figuring out how much gypsum to put on an acre,” Sean explained earlier.
Craig seems as proud of that big-picture activism as he is of the wiry vines of hops growing a few feet away. He didn’t expect his kids to farm, much less champion this new ethos of growing and living. “For almost 33 years, I’ve been doing this by myself. I just go ahead and march in my own direction. But it’s much more profound and much more fun to have other people engaged,” he says. Watching and helping this new generation has been tremendously satisfying to him precisely because they are doing it their own way. “We too shall pass. And whether Sean becomes landed and wants to be a farmer or Emily, who’s our youngest child, I don’t know. There’s no guarantee,” he says. “But to engage their fellow contemporaries and our fellow citizens and fellow decision-makers is just so rewarding.” S