The fresh asparagus stalk was sweet, tender, and mild as spinach, with just a hint of the vegetable's usual astringency. It was the best I'd ever tasted, though its flavor was certainly enhanced by where I was standing: in a field of asparagus 12 feet below sea level, on an island in the middle of the Sacramento River Delta.
It's one thing to get precious about the farm-to-table movement — about farmers, about the ingredients they grow or make, about buzzwords that swirl around the food system like seasonal, local, organic, free-range, and sustainable. It's another to visit the places where food is grown and be reminded that farms are businesses, that farming is incredibly hard work, and that those who raise food on a small scale are not in it for the money or the prestige (there's no fortune in either), but from a sense of responsibility for their little parcel of the ecosystem.
I had this point driven home during a recent spring farm tour I went on with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, more commonly known as CUESA, the group that runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, among other things. The organization has been giving these farm tours for a decade, piling curious market shoppers and foodies into air-conditioned coaches and taking them on a day trip to see firsthand what goes on at the farms that sell at the Ferry Building's Saturday market.
“We do [the farm tours] because we want people to know where their food comes from. And to understand how it's grown, and to know the people who grow their food,” says Julie Cummins, CUESA's director of education. “We think that connection is really important and part of a healthy food system.”
In many ways it's the purest expression of CUESA's mission, a way to push back against industrial agriculture, one busload at a time. Though these tours certainly preach to the converted — everyone on the bus already appreciated the small farmer, or we would have been doing something else with our Sunday — the context they provide is important. I generally pay more for local food because I know I should. Meeting the farmers and seeing the food grown firsthand reminded me of what I'm paying for, beyond just a carton of eggs or a bunch of asparagus: the preservation of a way of life that sometimes seems like it's going extinct.
Zuckerman's Farm is the family-owned asparagus operation on that island in the river delta, one of many such islands formed by fresh water streaming through wetlands as it makes its way from the Sierras to the Pacific. The Zuckerman family's 1,500 acres — which are planted with potatoes and melons as well as asparagus — are below sea level, and kept from the river by a series of levees. Despite these, the land has flooded a few times since the family settled on it in the 1920s; the last major event in 1982 wiped out the whole farm. So why would a family stay around here for nearly a century when it's only a matter of time before the river floods again? Simple: The rich, peaty soil and mild spring climate are ideal for asparagus.
Roscoe Zuckerman is the face of the business now, a hearty, ruddy-cheeked, third-generation farmer who will launch into a rant about how cheap Mexican asparagus is challenging his business in one breath, and in the next talk recipes with equal enthusiasm (he prefers asparagus baked with butter and bread crumbs, and likes the fatter stalks over the thinner ones). We file off the tour bus and follow him into an asparagus field. I'm taken aback by the plant's stark appearance — it's just the bare stalks sticking bravely out of the ground, looking more or less like they will on the dinner table tonight.
Zuckerman demonstrates the long, forked knife his workers use to trim asparagus at the root. This root will keep generating stalks, one after another, until the weather gets too warm in June and the season is over. After that, it's finally allowed to bloom. Asparagus grows quickly — it can shoot up a few inches on a warm afternoon — and so an asparagus farmer needs to be vigilant about his fields, checking back several times a day to see how the stalks are doing. Asparagus also keeps growing once it's cut, so growers leave an inch or two of headspace in the box for the stalks to stretch out.
Standing in the field with Zuckerman, it's easy to visualize how hard it is to harvest asparagus mechanically — the stalks are all different thicknesses, and white asparagus is buried in the furrows between stalks. But high labor costs aren't the farm's biggest problem. Like most small farms, Zuckerman's is having trouble competing with larger ones. Asparagus used to be one of the most seasonal crops in the country, only available in the spring, but year-round asparagus from Mexico has been cutting into Zuckerman's wholesale business. He's selling at more farmers markets, which creates overhead and spreads him thinner. His fellow farmers are moving onto more lucrative crops. In 2003, there were 27,000 acres of asparagus in California; a decade later, only 12,000.
But the Zuckermans have always been an asparagus family. So they sell their crop, $5 bunch by $5 bunch, at the farmers market, and one by one try to remind customers that this — not the week-old, flimsy, sour stuff you find in the supermarket — is what asparagus is supposed to be.
We pile back on the bus and drive an hour or so east to Rolling Oaks Ranch in the Sierra foothills. Owners Charlie and Liz Sowell have a pastured egg farm on an idyllic 115 acres, complete with a pond and rolling hills that were green after a recent rain. Their 1,800 hens live in converted trailers that are moved around the property, with plywood roosts built into the walls like a bunkhouse. Unlike factory-farmed hens, these girls spend their days outside in the pasture, eating whatever comes their way, and only return to the roost at night.
It was at Rolling Oaks Ranch that I began to understand that eggs have a season, just like asparagus. Birds like to lay in the spring, prompted by the increased daylight. In factory farms, hens are tricked into constant laying with artificial lights, but on a farm without electricity like the Sowell's, egg production slows down during the winter.
The Sowells have several varieties of chickens, including the Ameraucana, which lays pretty blue eggs that look like they belong in an Easter basket. They also have a few horses and cattle (though they had to sell off most of their herd earlier in the year because of the drought). They got into chicken farming by accident, when they inherited some chicks from a neighbor and eventually had more eggs than they knew what to do with. Now, chickens are their lives. They talk with fierce pride about sleepless nights coddling new chicks, cold mornings repairing busted water lines, and evenings checking that hens are back in their caged roost to keep them away from predators like brown bears, coyotes, foxes, and mountain lions.
The Sowells treat us to a barbecue lunch on a hill overlooking their pond, and after we say our goodbyes to the chickens and walk back to the bus, they sell nearly everyone on the tour a carton of eggs at $7 for a dozen. It's a price I have previously scoffed at in the grocery store, but out here it seems like a relative bargain. And when I get home and eat a scramble of these fresh eggs with their yellow-orange yolks, I know I've been spoiled against the cheap factory ones. CUESA's thinking is that the more people who come to feel this way, the less their trips will seem like expeditions to see endangered species.
The next CUESA Farm Tour will head to the Central Coast on Friday, May 16, to visit Far West Funghi, a mushroom operation, and Thomas Farm, a flower grower. Tickets are $25-$45. Learn more at cuesa.org/event/artful-farm-tour-mushrooms-and-flowers-central-coast.