Inspiration from Catalán Farms   •   Comments »

Ever wonder what tales your broccoli has to tell? Who planted the seed, watered the field, and picked the produce? Did it travel thousands of miles to land on your table? Does that green-bosomed vegetable have more stamps in its passport than you? At nopa, we prefer our food to be less worldly than our guests. That being said, the stories found in our soup bowls are likely to be richer than most.

My latest source of agricultural inspiration is Maria Catalán. It's impressive enough that she's the first Latina to own and operate an organic farm in California, but it's the story of her journey that's truly inspiring.

I pulled onto the Catalán homestead one sunny afternoon, right around mid-squash season. Maria greeted me briefly and had her son, Juan, show me around the farm. We wandered our way through the rows of tomatillos and the over-abundant peppers - Juan carrying a box he filled with reds, oranges, yellows and greens, and myself juggling various electronic recording devices, feeling like a battery-operated city slicker. Our talk wound around farming techniques and organics, interspersed with bits of family history. Farming is in the Cataláns' blood. Maria grew up in Guerrero, Mexico, where her grandfather grew cotton, melons, and other foods to feed the family. These small, family farms in Mexico don't use pesticides, as the farmers lack both the funds and the knowledge for chemical use. So, organics are part of Maria's heritage, but back home it's not called organic; it's just called farming.

In 1988 Maria made the move to California, her four kids in tow. They began as many immigrants do: picking for existing farms. It was by chance that she made her way into (California-style) organics, starting with a course given through ALBA (the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association) in Salinas. From here she went on to lease, and finally own, her own land.

I have to wonder where Maria mustered the will to pack up her family, move to a foreign country with a foreign language, and work her way up the agricultural ladder - from picking, to owning and operating. Where does a single woman find the energy to raise four kids, work the fields, and run the dubious business of a small-scale farm? That would be more than enough for most, but it still doesn't quite cut it for Maria. While over-seeing the daily logistics of the family farm - what to plant, when to pick, what markets to hit, etc - she's also starting up a non-profit to assist immigrant farmers. Her Pequeños Agricultores en California (PAC) assists immigrant farmers in acquiring organic certification. Having been through the process herself, Maria knows the difficulties Latino immigrants face in getting established. She realized just how many small farms aren't registered due to language difficulties in the legal processes. Not registered with the agricultural commission = not counted in the census = not represented in the farming community. Her first step was to hold a conference and invite these farmers to fill out a census. From there she began helping them with all the other details, from applying for grants and loans, to gathering the necessary paperwork for CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) and owning their own land. Eventually, she plans to open a commercial community kitchen to farmers who can bring in the produce they don't manage to sell, and manufacture salsas and other packaged food items. The sale of these would go towards funding her non-profit.

In addition, Maria is involved in various education programs. She's spoken at events across the country about small-scale farming, and received recognition from the Department of Agriculture for her transformative outreach efforts. On a local level, Catalán Farms invites high school and college students to visit and learn about organic farming. They even have eighth graders camp out for a week at a time and work the land.

Coming from the land of chain restaurants, pre-packaged foods, and corporate everything (ie, the Midwest), I find there is a particular delight in digging up the intimate stories lying beneath the soil of family farms. There is toil, hope, persistence, and victory all woven into the tapestry of our edible world. In people like Maria Catalán, who use so simple and ancient an action as farming to create and sustain, there is a source of great inspiration. Indeed, it's not just the freshness and purity that gives local food its quality, but this connection of human-to-soil-to-human.

You can visit Catalán family and their produce stand at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza and Berkeley Farmer's Markets year round, and browse over their seasonal selection of tomatillos, tomatoes, chilies, kale, chard, squash, broccoli, onions, etc. Tell Maria I said thanks for the inspiration.

Posted March 19, 2009 • Filed under Food,
Photos by Rachel Glueck

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Rachel Glueck

Former Server, nopa

Working at nopa and seeing the community bonds that the sustainable agriculture movement is building in SF, Rachel was inspired to dig a little deeper. She has always had a keen interest in seeking out the personal stories and philosophical musings rooted in current events and social movements – usually by way of offbeat adventure. Spending the past 4 years doing just that (motorcycling Vietnam’s backroads, sailing in a handmade boat to Panama, etc), and craving adventure in her new, “settled” SF life, she jumped at the chance to explore California’s Ag. community (preferably, via motorcycle). When she’s not serving, or interviewing nopa’s purveyors, she can be found riding her little ’69 Honda along the coastline, or working on her non-profit cultural education project, TE KORU.