On the road to Organic Farming . . . a vision
In my 17th summer, a high school dropout and stoner, I found myself in White River Junction, Vermont. I was running along a beautiful country road – why I don’t recall – when a vision came to me . . . I was to become an organic farmer. I would go to “agriculture school,” learn what I needed know to turn our family’s untended little spread in Hillsdale into a working farm (the product of a teenage mind high on endorphins). Even to me it’s remarkable that it really did come to pass. But I want to assure you, it wasn’t the story of a focused mind or laser-like dedication to an ideal. And it surely wasn’t a straight uninterrupted path. No, some adventures had to be gotten out of the way and detours navigated, before I found myself, chronologically a grown up, in Hillsdale with wife and child, beginning to pick away at the rocky soil – making the beginning of what was to eventually to become Equinox farm. Much has happened since, but the working with the soil part remains at the center.
The Ghost of Alan Chadwick.
Three years after my fateful run, I was in California at UC Santa Cruz getting the education foretold that day in Vermont. But why California? Two words: Alan Chadwick. Chadwick – a guy few outside the world of sustainable agriculture have ever heard of – was, well, a kind of God of the Soil. Chadwick was no longer at Santa Cruz in 1980, the year I arrived, in fact it was the year of his death. But his spirit still burned brightly.
In 1967, this tall, handsome English master gardener came to California, to the newly opened Santa Cruz campus, with evangelical zeal and ideas about gardening that at that time were revolutionary. He brought with him the biodynamic concepts of Rudolph Steiner along with something called the French Method – a regimen of soil preparation, composting and planting that could generate huge harvests from small acreage. He set to work with the Bulldog spade and fork that Smith & Hawkins would one day make essential in every serious gardener’s collection of tools and within two years, he and his students had transformed a rocky poison-ivy-infested hillside into a lush near-magical garden. From that original gleam in Chadwick’s eye and the dirty fingernails of a handful of devoted apprentices sprang today’s UCSC Center for Agroecology. In the past 30 years, more than 1000 students have served in the apprenticeship program based on Chadwick’s personal, hands-on model of working side-by-side with teachers in the field. Today, many of them are leaders in the now-flourishing sustainable food movement.
Ted gets his Ag education
I had the good fortune to be one of those students, learning primarily under the direction of Dennis Tamara, one of Chadwick’s main apprentices. Everything we did to improve the soil was done by hand. There were no tractors or tillers. Not even a horse. A great deal has happened since then to validate the methods Chadwick taught–so much so that today it’s hard to believe there ever was another way to plant a garden. Of course you worked with raised beds, double digging the soil way deep down to create a fine texture and plenty of room for roots to stretch. It was back breaking work and we loved it. It was these lessons I brought with me, Annie and baby Ben when we finally made it to back to Hillsdale, the destination of my vision.
The ubiquity of seasonal organic produce that’s become the darling of top restaurants can be traced directly back to those fields at the foot of the Santa Cruz campus. You can’t really shake a tree in the expanding world of sustainable agriculture without finding the influence of Chadwick’s program and its passionate graduates. I am so glad I was one of them. The lessons I leaned all those years ago apply equally today. Equinox Farm still pretty much lives by them.