There are people who have dreams and then there are people who make their dreams come true and in the process make the world a better place. Sarah and Seth James, the visionary, hard-working husband/wife team behind Open Field Farm in Petaluma, CA, fall into the latter camp. I recently got wind of their new “farm stand” CSA-based farm, which grows up to 50 varietals – from heirloom beans to sweet peas – and boasts a grass-fed herd of Corriente beef cattle, and decided to pay them a visit.
Their 500+ acre farm, set in rolling hills on the site of an old dairy farm, is just a few minutes outside of Petaluma. Turning off Spring Hill Road, an automatic gate swings open to reveal a straight, unpaved, road which takes you directly to the promised land. This is a place where nature is right at home and seems to work in harmony with the farm. On the short drive in I spotted a small red kite soaring through the sky, a huge big hawk taking a brief respite on a fence post before swooping in on his prey, and numerous other busy birds darting about.
With a cloud of dust behind me and the crunching of gravel to announce my arrival, I pulled into the parking lot to be immediately greeted by Rosie, the uber-friendly and very obedient sheep dog. She obligingly sat so I could take her picture before leading me to the pretty barn where I found Sarah, a petite blonde, and two of her young kids, setting up for the members’ Friday pick-up.
While many of us city-dwellers are used to the type of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where a box of beautiful, organic produce magically appears on our doorstep overnight, Open Field Farm takes a slightly different “free choice/farmstand” approach. Modeled after farms in Vermont – which, in fact, is where the James’ romantically first met – members are invited to visit the farm once a week and take their pick of a broad selection of produce. Ultimately, the idea is that the members meet the operating costs of the farm using a “take what you need, give what you can” approach.
On the day I visit there are over 20 selections to make: from butter lettuce to gleaming red strawberries, cucumbers to stunning purple potatoes, garlic to shiny peppers. The beauty is that you can take what you need and what you like. No more giant bundles of kale that no-one wants to eat. Hallelujah!
It was too much for me to resist and I signed up on the spot. The quality of produce was stunning and it’s all grown in a biodynamic, organic manner, although the James’ don’t yet have the certificate to prove it, they assured me that this is the only way they know how to farm. And judging by the caterpillars being nurtured and proudly shown off by their middle son, it’s very clear that toxic pesticides are not found here.
In addition to filling your weekly box, you can also grab a pair of clippers and walk out front to the herb garden to take what you need: everything from borage to thyme, or go around the back to the giant flower field. Wandering through the gorgeous, 8-foot tall flower patch, taking my pick of sunflowers, dahlias, amaranth, cornflowers, to name but a few, is a treat for the senses all on its own. This really is a farm that keeps on giving.
Seth told me he was going to feed some of the cows – in fact, a giant bull, their family milking cow and and another lady – and invited me to join him. We jumped on a mini tractor pulling a trailer full of “seconds” – slightly bruised cucumbers, strawberries and tomatoes, etc, that couldn’t be sold but frankly, looked perfect to me. Along the way, Seth talked of his dreams to have a member-supported biodynamic farm: one that is fully self-sustaining by working the inter-relation between soil fertility, livestock and growing produce. “If we can really engage the community with an annual subscription of say $3,000, and people understand that this is not in addition to their weekly grocery bill, but a replacement for it, then our vision really stands a chance of becoming reality.” Note to self: I really should figure out how much I spend at Wholefoods each year.
We feed the cows, who seem to love the cucumbers and even the tomatoes, and then traverse parched, bumpy pastures in the tractor to find the main herd – all mamas with four month-old calves. The chief mama, Blossom, watches us closely as Seth tells me that he names all the cows so he can easily identify them and get to know their quirks and needs. He practices rotational grazing, moving the “line” each day to give the cows access to fresh pasture each day.
2014 was the first summer season for Open Field Farm’s produce CSA, and there are plans to soon offer beef to the members. With three “experimental” sheep, and the intention to add chickens at some point, in talking to Sarah and Seth you get the strong impression that there is a grand plan unfolding here, and those of us who live near enough to participate are blessed. On the way back to the barn, Seth brings me to another outhouse where three workers are sorting through dried beans, separating the stones and bits of dried mud to fill brown paper sacks with the end result. Yet another treat for the members.
Currently there are two levels of membership: individual for $24/week and family for $37/week. Either way, it seems to represent jaw-dropping value, especially when you add in the fact that you can pick your own flowers. Flowers alone could cost you $12-15 for a small bouquet at Wholefoods. This year the produce CSA will run through November, but starting next year, it will be year-round. As my trip to the farm draws to a close I feel a sense of sadness about leaving and returning to reality, and then I remember, I can come back next week and experience it all over again.
You can find Open Field Farm at 2245 Spring Hill Road Petaluma, CA 94952
Member pick-up is on Tuesday and Friday from 2pm-7pm.