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Cultivating a Movement: An Oral History Series on Sustainable Agriculture and Organic Farming on California's Central Coast

The Regional History Project has been documenting the history of the Central Coast of California and the institutional history of UC Santa Cruz since 1963, through oral history, a method of conducting historical research through recorded interviews between a narrator with personal experience of historically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of adding to the historical record.

Cover page of Dee Harley: Harley Farms Goat Dairy

Dee Harley: Harley Farms Goat Dairy

(2010)

In the village of Pescadero, forty-five minutes’ drive north of Santa Cruz, Dee Harley runs San Mateo County’s only active dairy. Harley and her staff care for a herd of more than 200 American Alpine goats, crafting the animals’ milk into sought-after cheeses (chevre, feta, ricotta, and fromage blanc) that have consistently garnered awards at national and international competitions. An increasingly popular agritourism destination for denizens of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Areas, Harley Farms also offers leisurely, informative tours of its entire dairy operation, from the birth of hundreds of kids each spring to the on-site sale of delicate white cheeses decorated with fresh herbs and colorful edible flowers grown on the farmstead.

A native of Yorkshire, England, Harley discovered Pescadero while traveling in California as a young woman. In the gently rolling coastal landscape and in the rural community’s intimate spirit, she saw reflections of her verdant birthplace. When Harley fell in love with Tim Duarte, the local restaurateur who eventually became her husband, Pescadero became her new home.

Harley took up residence on a nine-acre farmstead originally built in 1910 as a cow dairy—and shuttered, like many small local farms, after California’s industrializing dairy industry migrated to the Central Valley. She worked for a while for Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin at nearby Jacobs Farm. In 1982, she acquired six goats from a local dairywoman. The herd began to grow; one thing led to another, and Harley Farms was born.

Sarah Rabkin conducted this interview with Dee Harley on April 8th, 2009, in a private residence at Harley Farms. Outside the small cottage, guard llamas looked on while goats played atop a chicken tractor in the middle of a green pasture; small children participating in a farm tour reverently cradled newborn kids; flowers bloomed in garden beds. Dee Harley described the origins and evolution of her business and the day-to-day life of her small farm. She also articulated the values that inform her choices as a farmer and a businesswoman: deep community ties; a sense of responsibility to the local economy; dedication to the health of the herd and the land; creation of a high-quality product; truth in advertising; a sense of whimsy; a fierce resistance to unrestrained growth, and commitment to the preservation of an intimate, sustainable operation.

  • 2 supplemental audio files
Cover page of María Luz Reyes and Florentino Collazo: La Milpa Organic Farm

María Luz Reyes and Florentino Collazo: La Milpa Organic Farm

(2010)

María Luz Reyes and her husband, Florentino Collazo, run La Milpa Organic Farm on land they lease from the Agriculture & Land Based Training Association (ALBA) near Salinas, California. They grow 5.5 acres of mixed vegetable crops that they sell at farmers’ markets in the Salinas, Monterey Bay, and San Francisco Bay areas.

Collazo was born in 1963 in the municipality of Purísima del Rincón, in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. He studied agricultural engineering at the college level in Mexico. Reyes was born in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1965. Due to difficult economic times in Mexico, they decided to immigrate to the United States under the Amnesty Law of 1985. Collazo worked harvesting and packaging lettuce in Yuma, Arizona, and in the Salinas and Imperial Valleys of California. Reyes worked off and on at an asparagus packing facility. Eventually Collazo enrolled in a six-month course at the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association known as the Programa Educativo para Pequeños Agricultores, or PEPA, in 1995. In 2003, Reyes also enrolled in that program. After graduating, Collazo worked for eight years as the field educator/farm manager for ALBA, and Reyes continued to farm on land she leased from ALBA.

Collazo left ALBA to farm full time with Reyes on ten acres of land they purchased together in southern Monterey County. They have run La Milpa Organic Farm for the past six years and are certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers. The financing to purchase their land in South Monterey County came through the help of an Individual Development Account organized by California FarmLink and a beginning-farmer farm loan through the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Reyes and Collazo also continue to farm 5.5 acres of land they rent from ALBA.

On their farm—named La Milpa in tribute to traditional MesoAmerican methods of growing many diverse crops closely together—Reyes and Collazo cultivate over thirty crops, including fifteen varieties of heirloom tomatoes; seven varieties of squash; two varieties of cucumber; two varieties of beets; cilantro; two varieties of onions; rainbow chard; celery; four varieties of chili peppers; fennel; purple cauliflower; broccoli; romaine; strawberries; raspberries; golden berries; green peppers; corn; onions; basil; carrots, and green beans.

Collazo and Reyes have raised three sons; one is studying chemical engineering at UC Santa Cruz and another is studying microbiology at UC Berkeley. They both help with sales at La Milpa. Their youngest son is in fourth grade.

Collazo and Reyes have a deep respect for the land that they farm and take pleasure in the crops that they produce. Collazo said, “I love to work the land. I don’t like using gloves, because . . . it’s like taking a shower with an umbrella, you understand, putting an umbrella over yourself when you wash. When I want to work, I want to feel the earth. When I pull the weeds, I want to feel my fingers penetrating the soil, feel that I’m pulling them up, that I’m doing it myself. My hands and my mind are linked. I really love to look around, walk up and down observing, surveying it all and saying, ‘Wow.’ That’s what fulfills me. When I’m at the farmers’ market, when people are arriving, reaching for the produce, and then later passing by, I feel like my self-esteem really rises. . . . But when you arrive over there and they tell you, ‘These are the best strawberries I’ve ever tasted, I’m going to take them’ — that is, they flatter you, ah, it makes you feel a light in your soul, you know?” Reyes added, “Like yesterday, when they had that festival and all of these people came out to buy, a man said to me, ‘I’ve never touched the sky, but with these strawberries I just did.’ So, how do you think that made me feel?”

This oral history was conducted in Spanish at La Milpa Farm on July 26, 2009, by Rebecca Thistlethwaite. Thistlethwaite, Collazo, and Reyes know each other from Thistlethwaite’s work as program director for the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association. The interview was transcribed and sent to Collazo and Reyes for their edits and approval. Then it was translated into English. The transcript appears here first in English, and then in the original Spanish.

  • 1 supplemental audio file
Cover page of Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail: Pie Ranch: A Rural Center for Urban Renewal

Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail: Pie Ranch: A Rural Center for Urban Renewal

(2010)

Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail make up two thirds of the founding partnership that operates Pie Ranch—“a rural center for urban renewal.” With San Francisco-based colleague Karen Heisler, Lawson and Vail began establishing this working farm in 2002 as a place where city youth could learn about food. The non-profit organization’s mission, according to its website, is “to inspire and connect rural and urban people to know the source of their food, and to work together to bring greater health to the food system from seed to table.” Mission Pie, a sister business located in the city’s Mission District and overseen by Heisler, employs local young people in baking and selling pastries concocted from the farm’s products.

Perched on a coastal hillside in southern San Mateo County, between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Pie Ranch’s triangular slice of land now produces “everything you need to make pie”—from pumpkins, berries and tree fruits to eggs, milk, butter, honey and wheat. Students and teachers from urban high schools make monthly farm pilgrimages throughout the school year. Guided by Lawson and Vail and other Pie Ranch staff, they experience hands-on learning about soil, compost, weather, weeds and water; the cycles of planting, tending, and harvesting crops; the challenges and rewards of working as a group, and the pleasures of cooking and eating wholesome food from scratch.

Pie Ranch also offers year-long apprenticeships, summer internships, monthly work parties and barn dances, and a variety of educational programs and cultural events. Travelers and locals can sample the farm’s wares at a roadside farm stand downhill from the farm fields, on coastal Route 1—near the historic Steele dairy lands that Pie Ranch, in cooperation with the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), is working to protect.

Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail both bring a wealth of experience to the Pie Ranch project. Lawson is a UCSC community studies graduate and a former Apprentice in Ecological Horticulture at the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). Between his first two college years, Lawson spent a formative summer at Stephen and Gloria Decater’s Live Power Community Farm in Covelo (Mendocino County), where Alan Chadwick—Stephen’s mentor at UCSC—had been invited to establish a garden project in 1972. Live Power had recently launched the first community supported agriculture (CSA) program in California. Lawson went on to initiate and oversee a CSA program for Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project, and later did the same for CASFS. Increasingly interested in CSA as a marketing strategy for sustaining small farms, he organized a 1995 Western Region CSA conference and created a statewide CSA advocacy and outreach program campaigns for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). He also helped establish farm-to-school and buy-local programs for CAFF, and did similar work with the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley.

Nancy Vail, a graduate of UC San Diego, began learning about farming in a series of post-college internships abroad. Returning to the U.S., she apprenticed with writer-farmers Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, at Angelic Organics (whose proprietor, John Peterson, was celebrated in the 2006 documentary “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”), and at biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County, New York. Like Lawson, Vail also apprenticed in the CASFS program, eventually staying on as a second- and third-year apprentice. She went on to share oversight of the UCSC farm operations with Jim Leap, and managed the CSA that Lawson had inaugurated in 1995. After Vail and Lawson’s first child was born, she moved into a part-time position as farm-to-college program coordinator for CASFS. In early 2008, she left CASFS to attend to childrearing and Pie Ranch full-time.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Jered Lawson on March 4th, 2008, at Rabkin’s home in Soquel, with a brief follow-up interview in the Science and Engineering Library at UC Santa Cruz on March 18, 2008. Rabkin interviewed Nancy Vail in the same library conference room on March 18, 2008. These interviews covered Lawson’s and Vail’s individual histories prior to the founding of Pie Ranch. On December 11, 2008, at the offices of UCSC’s Program In Community and Agroecology and Community Agroecology Network, she interviewed Lawson and Vail together about the founding and development of Pie Ranch.

  • 3 supplemental audio files
Cover page of Gail Harlamoff: Executive Director, Life Lab Science Program

Gail Harlamoff: Executive Director, Life Lab Science Program

(2010)

Gail Harlamoff is Executive Director of the Life Lab Science Program, a nationally recognized, award-winning nonprofit science and environmental organization located on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Founded in 1979, Life Lab helps schools develop gardens and implement curricula to enhance students’ learning about science, math, and the natural world. The program has trained tens of thousands of educators in more than 1400 schools across the country.

Life Lab’s specialized initiatives include LASERS (Language Acquisition in Science Education for Rural Schools)—also known as the Monterey Bay Science Project—which trains teachers in the region to teach language development through scientific exploration. The Waste Free Schools program helps teachers and students reduce school waste through conservation. And the organization’s model Garden Classroom, located on the Farm at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, is used for teacher training and school field trips and events.

Harlamoff grew up in a (then) relatively rural section of suburban Soquel, in Santa Cruz County, with a large garden that provided much of the family’s food. Her own struggles as a hands-on student in schools that emphasized rote memorization, and the strategies she cultivated to overcome those struggles, yielded insights that later helped her excel as elementary school teacher. In 1987, during Harlamoff’s first year teaching school, a Life Lab workshop for teachers rekindled her childhood interest in gardening, and set her on a path that led to joining the Life Lab staff in 1996 and eventually taking on the executive director position.

Sarah Rabkin conducted this interview at Harlamoff’s home in Soquel, California, on July 8, 2008. Harlamoff told detailed stories about children excelling in garden-based settings who had struggled in conventional classrooms. Outside the house, goats played and rested in a large fenced area, while in Harlamoff’s kitchen, adjacent to the room where the interview was being conducted, her exuberant dogs got into occasional bouts of benign mischief.

  • 2 supplemental audio files
Cover page of Nesh Dhillon: Manager, Santa Cruz County Community Farmers' Markets

Nesh Dhillon: Manager, Santa Cruz County Community Farmers' Markets

(2010)

Nesh (pronounced “Naysh”) Dhillon is operations manager for the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets, which include locations in downtown and Westside Santa Cruz, Live Oak, Felton, and (added in 2009, after this oral history was recorded) Scotts Valley. All operate open year-round except the Felton market, which is open May through October.

Dhillon’s parents both grew up poor—his father in a farming family in northern India, his mother in rural Oregon—but with a preference for fresh, nutritious foods, which they passed on to their son. A high-school education at a Jesuit institution in Portland, Oregon, instilled in the young Dhillon a deep concern for ethical behavior, cooperation, and justice—values that, he says, have also informed his career choices. Initially aiming toward medical school, he shifted direction when he discovered sustainable agriculture at the University of Oregon. After a stint of post-graduation employment in bars and restaurants on the Oregon coast, he relocated to Santa Cruz, where he joined the staff of a local winery before taking a job as assistant manager for the farmers’ market in 2000, eventually moving into the operations manager position.

In this oral history, conducted by Sarah Rabkin on Thursday, November 20, 2008, at Rabkin’s home in Soquel, California, Dhillon discussed the emergence of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Market out of the rubble of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; the market’s growth and evolution over the ensuing two decades, and the pleasures and challenges of managing year-round farmers’ markets in an agriculturally rich, socially diverse, sometimes politically contentious community.

  • 2 supplemental audio files
Cover page of Stephen Kaffka: Pioneering UCSC Farm and Garden Manager, Agronomist

Stephen Kaffka: Pioneering UCSC Farm and Garden Manager, Agronomist

(2010)

Stephen (Steve) Kaffka came to UC Santa Cruz as a philosophy student in 1967 and began volunteering in Alan Chadwick’s Student Garden Project in the same year. He worked side-by-side with Alan Chadwick and eventually became the student president of the Garden in 1968. In this oral history, conducted by Ellen Farmer at her house in Santa Cruz, California on August 31, 2007, Kaffka shares his recollections of Alan Chadwick and the Garden in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the period after Chadwick left, when Kaffka managed the Farm and Garden and formalized the apprentice program through University of California Santa Cruz Extension.

Although Alan Chadwick was deeply troubled by the specialization and fragmentation of scientific practice within the academy, paradoxically, Kaffka, perhaps Chadwick’s closest apprentice at UCSC, ended up with a distinguished career as a research agronomist. After he left UC Santa Cruz in 1977, Kaffka earned his Ph.D. in agronomy from Cornell University, and now directs UC Davis’s Center for Integrated Farming Systems. He is also director of the California Biomass Collaborative and extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California, Davis. He chairs the BioEnergy Work Group for the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and participates on several advisory committees for the California Energy Commission and California Air Resources Board. Kaffka conducts research on water quality and agriculture in the Upper Klamath Basin, and the reuse of saline drainage water for crop, forage, energy biomass feedstocks and livestock production in salt-affected areas of the San Joaquin Valley. He has M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell University in agronomy and a B.S. from UC Santa Cruz in biology. In May, 2008, Kaffka was the subject of an NPR documentary, “Are Organic Tomatoes Better?” which featured his research comparing the nutritious value of organic versus conventionally grown tomatoes.

  • 2 supplemental audio files
Cover page of Dick Peixoto: Lakeside Organic Gardens

Dick Peixoto: Lakeside Organic Gardens

(2010)

Dick Peixoto (pronounced Peh-SHOTE) exemplifies a recent type of organic farmer who, after a long career in conventional farming, transitions to organics for a mixture of reasons. Peixoto was born in 1956 in Watsonville, California, the grandson of immigrants from the Azores Islands who have been farming in the Pajaro Valley for the past 100 years. He grew up on the family ranch on Green Valley Road. His father worked off-farm for a fertilizer and pest control company in Watsonville, in addition to working on the family ranch. Peixoto spent his childhood riding around with his dad, dragging spray hoses around apple orchards in the Pajaro Valley. He dates his farming career to eighth grade, when he hired neighborhood kids to pick tomatoes on his family farm so he could market them. In 1976, when Peixoto was a senior in high school, he and his brother, Jim, began growing string beans commercially. Soon after, Peixoto began farming on his own, learning lettuce growing, as well as irrigation and laser leveling.

Attracted by the organic price premium, Peixoto decided to transition to organic farming, and began Lakeside Gardens on a 55-acre farm in Watsonville in 1996. His conventional farming friends thought he had “lost his marbles,” but Lakeside Gardens has been very successful and Dick has become a spokesperson for integrated pest management, hedgerows and other organic farming methods. The company has expanded their operation to a total of 1200 acres, including fifty different parcels in the Pajaro Valley, many of which border on hospitals and schools trying to reduce pesticide exposure. Lakeside also farms on 500 acres in El Centro, making them one of the larger organic growers on the Central Coast and in California. They grow 75 different crops. All of their produce is California grown, and shipped by Albert’s Organics and other organic food distribution companies across the country to grocery stores such as Safeway and Kroger’s, as well as Whole Foods.

Peixoto is outspoken on food safety, water supply, open space preservation, and other issues affecting agriculture, and is often quoted in the media on these topics. Ellen Farmer conducted this oral history on April 18, 2007, at Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville.

  • 2 supplemental audio files
Cover page of María Inés Catalán: Catalán Family Farm

María Inés Catalán: Catalán Family Farm

(2010)

María Inés Catalán was born in Santa Teresa, Guerrero, Mexico, in 1962. She immigrated to the United States in 1986 and picked broccoli and carrots in the Salinas Valley of California. Her father was also a migrant farm worker, but her grandfather had owned land that the family farmed in Mexico. Catalán’s life took a different turn when in 1994 she entered an organic farming training program at the Rural Development Center in Salinas. (This was an earlier incarnation of what is now known as ALBA, the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association program). This incubator program helps farm workers become organic farmers by providing training in farming and marketing, and leasing them land.

After graduating, Catalán became the first Latina migrant farm worker to own and operate a certified organic farm in California, and the first Latina in the country to found a farm that distributes produce through a community supported agriculture program. María Inés and her family have run Catalán Family Farms on fifteen acres of rented land in Hollister, California, since 2001. Their farm was certified organic by CCOF in 2005. The Cataláns grow kale, chard, strawberries, tomatoes, corn, onions, pumpkins, chiles and carrots, among other crops that they sell through Laughing Onion CSA and at farmers’ markets around the Salinas, Monterey Bay, and San Francisco Bay areas, including the Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco, and the Berkeley Farmers’ Market.

In addition to her farming, Catalán is also an activist who devotes herself to improving food security for low-income communities, especially Latinos. She worked with the group P.O.D.E.R. (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), in San Francisco’s largely Latino Mission district, to deliver CSA shares to their members. Over the years her CSA project has also collaborated with schools and churches, and with the Homeless Garden Project’s CSA in Santa Cruz; it has delivered boxes to people who are home-bound, and provided information about her CSA in Spanish. Catalán set up a farm stand outside the government office in Monterey County, on the day when women pick up their WIC (Women, Infant and Children) allowances. She founded her own non-profit, Pequeños Agricultores en California (PAC), to help immigrant farmers acquire organic certification, helping them apply for grants and loans and work towards owning their own land. Catalán Farms also invites local high school and college students to visit and learn about organic farming. A group of eighth graders camps out each year for a week at a time and works the land. In 2008 Catalán was honored by the Center for Latino Farmers for “her tireless work in advocating for organic farming and assisting limited resource producers using her own funds.”

This oral history was conducted on July 27, 2009, in Spanish, by Rebecca Thistlethwaite. Thistlethwaite and Catalán know each other from Thistlethwaite’s work as program director for the Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association. The interview was transcribed and sent to Catalán for her edits and approval. Then it was translated into English. The transcript appears here first in English, and then in the original Spanish.

  • 1 supplemental audio file
Cover page of Ken Kimes & Sandra Ward: New Natives Farm

Ken Kimes & Sandra Ward: New Natives Farm

(2010)

Both Ken Kimes and Sandra Ward grew up in Southern California. They met in the Los Angeles area, but moved to Santa Cruz in 1980. Together they founded New Natives Farm, a greenhouse-based farm certified by California Certified Organic Farmers in 1983, and located in Corralitos, California. There they tend organic sprouts, including alfalfa, wheat grass, pea shoots, sunflower sprouts, broccoli, and beans. In addition to managing their farm full time, Kimes and Ward are both outspoken activists dedicated to the sustainable agriculture movement. They are longtime members of California Certified Organic Farmers. Kimes served on the board of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) for many years, and worked for Santa Cruz Trucking, an organic foods distribution company affiliated with the local health food cooperative, Community Foods. In this oral history, conducted by Ellen Farmer on May 3, 2007, at New Natives Farm, Kimes and Ward share their recollections, impressions, and opinions of the organic farming movement over the past thirty years.

  • 2 supplemental audio files
Cover page of Jeff Larkey: Route One Farms

Jeff Larkey: Route One Farms

(2010)

Jeff Larkey was born in Montreal, Canada, but his father’s family has been in California since 1849. Larkey spent part of his childhood in the Carmel Valley of California, and in Davis, California, working summers in the fields and processing plants of the conventional agriculture world. He came to Santa Cruz in 1973 to enroll in Cabrillo College’s solar technology program, where he also studied horticulture with Richard Merrill. In the late 1970s, Larkey moved onto a commune on Ivy Lane in Live Oak—an unincorporated, then still somewhat rural area of Santa Cruz County, where he and his fellow commune members grew basil and garlic as well as other crops on four acres of land, and transported them via bicycle to sell at the Live Oak Farmers’ market. These crop choices helped establish a taste among local community members for fresh pesto, creating a lasting legacy.

In 1981, Larkey left that commune to farm along the fertile floodplain of the San Lorenzo River on Ocean Street Extension in Santa Cruz. His farming operation was certified by CCOF [California Certified Organic Farmers] in 1985, and eventually became Route One Farms. Larkey originally ran the farm together with Jonathan Steinberg (known as ‘Steiny’), but since 2002 has been the sole proprietor. Route One leases sixty-five acres of land in several locations in Santa Cruz County, including Rancho del Oso along Waddell Creek in Big Basin State Park. This oral history was conducted by Ellen Farmer on June 23, 2007, at the offices of Route One Farms in Santa Cruz, California.

  • 2 supplemental audio files