Grass-Fed, Dry-Farmed: Adventures on CUESA's Meat and Potatoes Tour

In a mostly harvested potato field, 46 visitors are stooped over dying potato plants, digging into the loamy soil with their bare hands beneath the overcast skies of coastal Marin County. They're harvesting German Butterballs, filling paper bags with the tubers they find.

A few women find themselves having to dig around Gibb, an Anatolian shepherd and a big friendly lug of a dog, who has decided that smack-dab in the middle of where they're digging is the perfect place to sit and soak up attention. They laugh and plead with him to move, but he falls over on his side instead.

The potato harvest was the finale to the visitors' first stop on a daylong tour of farms and butchers in Marin and Sonoma counties. Organized by Center for Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), this particular tour is called the Meat and Potatoes Farm Tour focusing on, unsurprisingly, meat and potatoes and the people who produce them.

[jump] The tour is just one of numerous farm tours CUESA organizes each year, hauling city slickers out to the country in tour coaches to see where and how the farmers and producers who sell their produce, meat, and prepared foods at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market do their work. Some 117 farms and businesses around northern and central California sell at the market and the farm tours are designed to help connect the growers and their customers, said Julie Cummins, director of education for the 21-year-old organization.

The tours are popular. Several members of the group had been on numerous tours before, including retired Judy Sessler of El Cerrito, who estimated she'd been on at least half a dozen prior excursions. It was Mike Valdez's second tour. The 29-year-old YouTube employee is a CUESA volunteer, and has brought along med student Norma Villalon, 30, as his date. The tour was her first, but agriculture is hardly new to her. Her father, she said, works an avocado and orange farm in Ventura County.

Standing in an empty field farmer David Little, who owns the potato field mentioned earlier, explains the dry farming techniques he uses at Little Organic Farm to the crowd who range in age from twenty-somethings to retirees like Sessler. Most of the visitors are listening to their host but several wander about, photographing the chickens scratching the dirt, or the beautiful rolling hills, punctuated with groves of trees and fences, that surround Little's property. Gibb, delighted to see so many new faces, makes his way through the crowd, currying pats and praise as he goes.

Dry farming, besides being stingy with water – a big plus during the drought – also produces far more flavorful vegetables.

As Little explains, when “you add a lot of water, you get a lot less flavor, because it's diluted.”

Unfortunately, it also results in lower yields, he adds, which results in higher prices at the market. One of the visitors urges Little to consider growing Capriola tomatoes, insisting they're as good as the dry farmed varieties he raises.

Capriolas, Little replies, “can be dry farmed.” He pauses. “I get a lot of suggestions about what to grow.”

Eventually, the tour group makes its way a few miles down the road to Stemple Creek Ranch, which specializes in grass-fed beef, as well as lamb and pork. There, they're greeted by owners Loren and Lisa Poncia, along with their two young daughters. The couple are plainly excited by the visitors and, before a barbecued lunch of burgers featuring the Poncia's beef, they explain how and why they do what they do, and why they feel being open to tours like this is so important.

Transparency is of the utmost importance, Lisa Poncia tells the crowd as she struggles with her clearly distracted 3-year-old, “because not everyone is that way in the industry.”

She describes the fear and the stress she and Loren first experienced when they embarked on their effort to raise and sell grass-fed cattle 10 years before. The first year, in particular, was notably stressful as, when their first herd reached conventional selling age at about 10 months, the couple didn't sell, opting instead to finish the cattle on grass. That meant no income for at least another eight months.

Those words don't fall on deaf ears. One couple in the group is on the tour for research. San Franciscans Elana Altman, 32, and Matt Roberts, 33, are hoping to one day establish a farm themselves, focusing on demonstrating sustainable agricultural techniques to visitors. The CUESA farm tours aren't the couple's only means to see farms, they explained, and they frequently head out on tours of their own. Altman, who studied in Italy, first experienced agriturismo there and fell in love with it. A former ballet dancer, Altman has been working as the deli supervisor at Bi-Rite Market, a food enthusiast's haven in San Francisco. Roberts, a chef at Jardinière, is right on board.

“On our next venture,” said Roberts, “I plan to be the one growing vegetables.”

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