Visiting Paradise Valley Farms
Dennis scrapes through the first several inches of the four foot mound and pulls out a wood chip fringed with a fuzzy, white fungus. Here in the newest compost pile, the round, dry balls of horse dung roll softly down the heap, and the vegetal matter - scraps from previous crops - are clearly visible. We move to the oldest of the three compost mounds where he reaches in and pulls out a handful for me to smell. Mmmmm....the sweet snuff of rich, fertile soil.
And why, you wonder, should you have any interest in the smell of rotted vegetables and fecal matter?? Seems like the last thing you’d want to think about when you tuck into that tantalizing tagine at nopa. Ah, but friends, it is this pile of poo and its microbial cohorts that make all the difference in your dinner. It is the passion of Paradise Farms, and the lifeblood of their lettuces and legumes.
Organic farming is what Dennis Dierks has been doing ever since he and his wife Sandy bought their four acres as part of a 50-acre, six-family land trust in Bolinas in 1972. But the title “farmer” doesn’t quite do him justice. In fact, his focus isn’t even on the crops, but the soil from which they grow. “Take care of the soil and the plants will take care of themselves,” he says. For today’s conventional farmers soil care might mean ploughing it with giant machines, and infusing it with chemical fertilizers. That’s followed by pesticide sprays and wasteful irrigation systems. What you get is massive chemical run-off, severe soil degradation, and serious damage to the riparian ecosystem. Not to mention over-processed, tasteless produce. What you end up with as a farmer is chemical dependency, land that has been stripped of its ability to sustain itself, and vegetables that have given up flavor for cosmetic consistency. In contrast, Dennis makes it his business to study natural ecological processes and promote them on his farm.
“Local” is the big word these days in the food business, and it doesn’t get much more local than Paradise Valley Farm. Their compost and fertilizer ingredients come from within 5 miles of their farm (many organic farms purchase fish fertilizer from as far as Norway). Manure comes in from a neighboring farm in Olema. Added to this are the wastes from previous harvests, stinging nettles from the forests, and fish wastes and by-catch brought in by his son who works as a commercial fisherman out of the Bay Area. Then he throws in his special brew of fermented kelp, which is gathered from Bolinas Beach. All of this is mixed together and disked into the soil prior to planting.
The folks at PVF seem especially fond of fermentation: the apprentices who work and study on the land have jugs of homemade kombucha, plum wine, and pickles adorning the stoops of their Airstream trailers. This biochemical pathway, while beloved by the masses for giving us the icing on our social cake, has been overlooked in our culture for its nutritional benefits. Fermentation breaks down large chemical chains, making the nutrients more readily available - a sort of predigestion. Kelp itself provides a large amount of Vitamin B, which seedlings use to cope with the stress of transplantation (much like humans use it as a preventative for headaches).
Even more interesting than his kelp brew is his fungal soak. 99% of plant species form a symbiotic relationship with fungi that grow in or on their roots. These mycorrhizal fungi provide greater surface area to the plant’s root system, and thereby improve mineral and water absorption, in exchange for the carbohydrates produced from photosynthesis. At PVF, the fungi are collected from the surrounding forests by setting “traps” which promote their growth. With this, they make a solution to soak the roots of seedling crops before transplant, giving them a jump-start on competing weeds.
Walking around the farm with Dennis, I was struck by the similarities between his work and that of a naturopath: the analogy of organic vs. industrial farming and holistic vs. western medicine. Industrial, chemical agriculture has done a phenomenal job of producing enormous crops to feed a bulging population. But at what price? And for how long? By flooding the soils with chemical fertilizers and dousing crops in a wealth of pesticides, we’ve come to expect rapid turnaround time, and vegetables worthy of a crown in the Miss America Produce Pageant. Yet failing to look at the system as a whole, we’ve degraded the soil, created international dependency and imbalance, and lost our ability to taste our food in its fullness. Industrial ag. (not unlike western medicine) provides us with a quick fix - instant, desirable results - but strips communities of their ability to care for themselves. Dennis’ methods utilize the wealth of resources at his doorstep, promote sustainability and community, and promote environmental coexistence.
What I saw on the farm that day was proof enough to me that the words “organic”, “sustainable”, and “local” aren’t just the current trendy verbiage, but represent a shift in how we look at the health of our bodies, our environment, and our communities. It’s a difference that’s evident all along the line - from the smell of the soil at Paradise Valley Farm, to the tincture in nopa’s welcoming taste, to the flavors of your flatbread.
Paradise Valley Farms
Dennis and Sandy Dierks
P.O. BOX 382
Bolinas, CA 94924
Farmer’s Market schedule:
Civic Center: THURS, SUN.
Fairfax: WED evenings
Pt. Reyes (Marin Organic Farmer’s Market): SAT
Posted November 22, 2008 • Filed under Food
Photos by Rachel Glueck
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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.
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