Food Lovers’ Guide: Green Acres

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These urbanites discovered that farm livin’ is the life for them. So they said, Goodbye, city life. Hello, chores, weeds&emdash;and happiness.

If you ask Tina Reikes what’s hardest about life on a farm, she’ll answer in one word: weeds.

I used to get so upset about it, like, ‘I cannot conquer these weeds,’ says Reikes as she stands among her lavender plants, weeding hoe in hand. But after a while, you realize this, too, shall pass. There’s only so much you can do when you’re dealing with the elements.

It’s a lesson in patience&emdash;one that has come slowly, Reikes says, since making the leap from corporate life to farm life nearly five years ago.

(Insert Green Acres theme song here.)

By now, you might be assuming that Reikes was born with a green thumb and had been hopelessly miscast in her role as Miss Corporate America.

Or perhaps she was just another miserable office worker, trapped in the wrong job/wrong life and itching to get out.

But nooooo.

Truth is, Reikes was happy in her 18-year-long real estate career, and yard work was something she’d mostly done as a kid. So when she suddenly quit her job without having another one lined up, people figured she was going to work for the competition. When she did a 180 and landed on a 26-acre farm in Winters, no one was more surprised than Reikes herself.

Now, her face shielded by a straw hat as she plods through a field past tangerine trees and Syrah vines, Reikes evokes such a palpable purposefulness that it’s hard to picture her anywhere else. But not so long ago, she was leading a conventional life, climbing the corporate ladder and nesting in her Land Park home with her husband, Kevin.

Then came Sept. 11.

When that horrible event happened, it really made me . . . her voice trails off. I took a hard look at myself and asked, ‘Is this really who I want to be? Is this who I am? Am I doing anything to help anybody else? Does it mean anything, really?’
Within two weeks, Reikes gave her employer three months’ notice. She had no plan in place. She just knew she wanted to do something different.

You know, I was making a decent living and I loved what I did, she says. But I wasn’t really passionate about it. And I felt like there was more to me than the career I had.

Farming was the furthest thing from her mind.

But in the wake of Sept. 11, another kind of clarity came: The Reikeses longed to get back to nature. For months, the couple searched for a home in Mill Valley, where they could hike the rural hills and reconnect to the land. Nothing gelled.

Then, on a whim, they called a real estate agent to take a tour of a Winters farm and its Provence-inspired farmhouse, which had been sitting on the market for several months. This property was a fluke, says Reikes. We came out here out of curiosity, not expecting to buy it. It was March, a time of dormancy, and about 15 acres were completely fallow&emdash;just a big weed bank, she recalls. It looked like it needed an injection of energy.

In a spirit of blind faith, she took on the challenge.

In September 2003, the couple moved into their new home, christening it Bear Flag Farm. While Kevin continued his work as a political consultant, Tina&emdash;the city girl who had never even grown a weed&emdash;was now a farmer.

Coincidentally or not, she also had turned 40 that year.

If ignorance is bliss, Reikes was undeniably blissed out when she took on the farm.

I knew nothing, she says. It was blind ambition, blind excitement, Pollyanna. I thought, ‘It’s gonna be great! I’m just going to plant this stuff, and it’s going to be beautiful!’

But even first-generation farmers would have been likely to wring their hands at the challenges posed by Bear Flag’s enormous diversity of crops&emdash;a condition Reikes cheekily describes as psycho. Operated as a year-round fruit farm before the pair assumed ownership, it produces a staggering array of fruits, including lemons, oranges, kumquats, grapefruits, peaches, nectarines, cherries, plums, Asian pears, apples, apricots, figs and kiwis. That’s why it’s psycho farming, explains Reikes. You have to know something about each, and there’s a different way to prune one fruit tree from another. Reikes also grows some 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and other field crops, including peppers, cucumbers, squashes, eggplants, beans and flowers.

She brings in help when she needs it. But largely to keep costs down and also because it’s the art of the farm, Reikes does much of the work herself, including the operation of heavy equipment. In her first project, Reikes learned how to maneuver a backhoe, excavating tons of road base to create new planting beds. She drove a dump truck, bringing in topsoil. She planted, with some assistance, 160 ornamental trees and 1,500 plants. In just three months, the project was complete. I thought to myself, ‘Well, that wasn’t so bad,’ Reikes recalls. ‘Everything seems to be living, for the most part.’

But finding a foothold in the market was tough. Although she found a handful of buyers for her certified organic produce, including local food co-ops and restaurateur Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, the region is so saturated with farmers producing similar goods that newcomers like Reikes often are nudged out. We’re closed out of a lot of markets, because if you don’t have a new widget&emdash;if it’s already well-represented&emdash;well, then, too bad, she says. I understand now, really well, why small farms are going away, why it’s so hard for small farms to make it.

Being self-sustaining, Reikes says, is the goal. But she’s not quite there yet. Up to this point, I basically work for free, and that’s not really self-sustaining, she says.

By expanding her operation, Reikes is working to turn that around. Realizing early on that the farm was just begging for perennial crops, she and Kevin took viticulture classes at UC Davis and, with the mentoring of a Suisun Valley farmer, planted 3 acres of Syrah grapes. Their first wine is now at the barrel stage. Kevin is passionate about the wine grape&emdash;that’s his baby, says Reikes. Adjacent to the vineyard, Reikes planted nearly 4 acres of lavender, which occasionally has been fresh cut for markets, but is primarily used to produce essential oil. Olive oil is another new venture, and a growing one: Although the past two harvests have been small, she expects to make up to 600 percent more oil this year.

Reikes has high hopes for these new ventures, including a move into the retail market. (She’s currently a wholesaler.) Up to now, it’s all been about fresh market produce, she says. But as I develop the lavender products and now that we’re getting into wine and olive oil production, we’ll start retailing some of it off of the website. Already, Bear Flag’s olive oil has earned kudos, taking silver awards in two competitions this past year.

In 2005, Reikes added something else to the Bear Flag repertoire: private events (mostly weddings). Even with her limit of 10 per year, it’s a nice revenue-generator for the farming operation.

It’s tricky trying to make a living as a farmer, says Reikes. I decided I just had to get creative.

Reikes is more than creative, says husband Kevin. She’s unstoppable. Tina is somebody who will just get her mind set on something and do it, he says. Left to my own devices, we would not have the vineyard or olive trees here. She’s on a different pace. I am in awe&emdash;constantly.

Others who hear her story are in awe, too. People want to know how she found the courage to make such a bold life leap, take such a giant risk. Often, they are midlifers like Reikes (she’s now 45) who see her, perhaps, as a role model.

 I end up having this conversation with a lot of people, says Reikes. They’ll ask me, ‘How did you do that? How did you make that leap from making good money to really struggling to make it as a grower?’ And I say, if you’re contemplating a major life change and you can do something you might think you have a passion for, just do it. Because you know what? This is it. This is your chance to experience life and the world and grow and nurture your own spirit. So whatever it is, just do it.

Even if it involves weeds, says Reikes, it’s worth it.                             

Retiring From Retirement&emdash;
At 53, Nick Atallah decided to retire. He had enjoyed a long, satisfying career, beginning as a professor at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon (his homeland) and ending with an eight-year stint as a water engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Along the way, he’d also earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at UC Davis.

But after a few months of sitting around his Davis home, reading the newspaper and watching TV, Atallah wasn’t feeling so well. He consulted his doctor, who ran a batch of tests. Negative. So his doctor put on his psychologist’s hat. He asked me to tell him my story, says Atallah. After I did, he said, ‘People like you can’t do nothing. You’d better find yourself an occupation and get going.’

Atallah knew his doctor was right. So I asked my wife, Jane, ‘What do you think? Should I buy a farm?’

Considering his background in engineering and agriculture, the idea wasn’t so far-fetched. Atallah already knew how to grow things, and he was an expert in irrigation and drainage. It was just a matter of buying a farm&emdash;and he did: about 30 acres in Madison, outside of Davis. Then he built 11 greenhouses for the purpose of growing vegetables&emdash;tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers&emdash;and started Atallah’s Madison Growers.

Twenty-two years later, the farm soldiers on. Although vegetables are his specialty, with two kinds of cukes (Mediterranean and Japanese), various tomatoes, and red, yellow and orange bell peppers, Atallah also grows delicious exotic melons in the summer. Some people would kill for them, he says. Madison Growers has a regular spot on the farmers market scene, and not just in Sacramento and Davis: On Saturdays, he sells at the Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco; on Thursdays and Sundays, Marin County.

The best part about being a farmer, says Atallah, is it keeps me busy. When I wake up in the morning, I don’t have to ask myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ I know exactly. And this is apparently the kind of character I have.

At 75, it’s important to know these things.

Farmers in the City&emdash;When Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa met in 1997, it was as if they’d been living parallel lives. Both grew up in urban settings: Harrison in Sacramento, Franciosa in Los Angeles. They were the same age. In college, they’d both majored in history.

But the big connector was this: Both had been apprentices on urban farms, an experience Harrison describes as extremely eye-opening. When I saw the impact it had on the community&emdash;the rich, positive interactions between people and their food&emdash;it lit a spark in me.

That, and a shared social and environmental consciousness, led the two to a shared dream: to start a farm in the city. People have become so disconnected from their food, says Harrison, 36. We wanted to reconnect city dwellers to healthy food and where it comes from.

In 2000, Harrison and Franciosa realized their vision with Soil Born Farms, a small organic farm on Hurley Way. For Harrison, who serves as executive director, Sacramento made sense because my roots are here. My parents live here. I met my wife here. We want to make change at the local level, and for me Sacramento was the place to do that.

Soil Born started out as a for-profit farm. But in 2004, the pair went nonprofit and began enlarging the scope of their mission. We wanted to provide better food access to underserved residents and also wanted to do more in the way of education, explains Harrison. And that’s just what they’ve done. They spearheaded a new farmers market in Del Paso Heights, sell weekly produce boxes through a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, and have given local youths interested in agriculture a place for hands-on learning.

This year, Soil Born made another giant leap with the founding of a second farm site, the American River Ranch. The 25-acre farm, located within the American River Parkway in Rancho Cordova, opens the door to all kinds of exciting possibilities, says Harrison. With this new ranch, we’re finally at a stage where the potential to positively affect our society has really been ratcheted. We’re growing and we’re reaching more people.