A Winters Tale

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.

Craig McNamara sitting beside his tractor on his Winters farm

M Meeting 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.

A close up view of hands holding walnuts

Craig McNamara holds a handful of walnuts, his farm’s primary crop.

“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.

* * * 

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.”

Craig McNamara and his son Sean in two cars

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.

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.

The McNamara family posing beside President Johnson

Craig McNamara (third from right) in 1968 at the White House on the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded his father Robert McNamara (fourth from right) the Medal of Freedom. Joining them for the occasion were, from left to right, Lady Bird Johnson, his mother Margaret, and his sisters Margy and Kathleen. (Photo courtesy of Craig McNamara)

“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.”

Robert McNamara and Craig on his farm

Robert McNamara visits Craig on his farm outside of Winters in 1978. (Photo courtesy of Craig McNamara)

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.

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.”

* * * 

“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.”

Craig McNamara driving a tractor

McNamara was awarded a James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award last year for cultivating a new generation of farmers through his Center for Land-Based Learning.

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.”

* * * 

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.”