A Food Revolution

“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world”
The Beatles
Last Saturday was my 52nd birthday.  In years past I would treat myself to adventures on my birthday; hiking, climbing, skiing or riding adventures.  This year I decided to do something different and go on a food adventure.
my 40th birthday, mount keith – 13,977′
Chef Jamie Oliver also hailed the day as Food Revolution Day.  If you haven’t heard about Jamie he’s quite a character.  A talented and charismatic guy, Jamie has been teaching and entertaining folks about good, nutritious food for years.  I remember seeing him on his Naked Chef program back when it was on the air and thinking “this guy’s on to something good.”
Jamie took a stand on how we, first in his native England, then here in this country, feed our children.  By researching school lunch menus he found some disturbing things and decided to do something about it.  Not only did the success of his efforts result in changes at the schools he was working with, it has had a ripple effect round the world.  It also earned him the coveted TED Award.
that’s me on the right, in high school
So last Saturday some 664 cities in 62 countries joined to “Stand Up For Real Food!”  This comes right from his website:
real food


“Together we can change the way people eat by educating every child about food, giving families the skills and knowledge to cook again, and motivating people to stand up for their rights to better food. Add your voice to the conversation with your best cooking and food education tip, favorite ingredient, or tell us why you support the Food Revolution and what actions you are taking.”

This is a story about what I did that day.

Down on the Farm

schober lane, bishop
It was a beautiful morning for a birthday.  I received many happy birthday wishes before heading out on my motorcycle.  Out the back way, through the irrigated alfalfa field now green and cool, south to Big Pine.  Then south a little bit more.  My destination was the Smith Hay Ranch where a couple gentleman farmers are involved in their own kind of food revolution.
Bruce Willey and Steve Baldwin met at a party not too long ago.   Steve had owned mountaineering and climbing guide service in Bend, Oregon and recently moved to Bishop with his wife.  Bruce is a “recovering journalist” living in the area.  They discovered many common interests, including a knack for gardening.
A few months later they decided, after ten minutes of discussion, to go into business together raising food crops.  It began with a small lot in Bishop last summer.  They grew enough to put a CSA together and offered up 20 memberships, which sold out in less than a week.
That’s how Bishop Creek Farms got started.
hoop house
CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is way for farmers to sell their crops directly to the public and share the risk in doing so.  Most CSA’s require members to pay an annual fee, up front at the beginning of the season, and then they split the food grown.  Normally it’s a box of produce offered weekly to the members, each week’s items vary depending on the season and what’s ready to be harvested.
In addition to the CSA they set up shop at the weekly Farmer’s Market in Bishop.  One of only 12 of farms raising food crops in the Inyo/Mono region they received much attention and interest from the public last year.  I am not surprised.  This area once held hundreds of farms.
The 2011 Inyo/Mono Agriculture Report came out this week.  While news of a bumper year accompanied the press release, a closer look reveals some interesting facts.  The overall value of goods rose 26% over the year before, the highest total values on record.  At the same time prices received for good sold rose to their highest levels.
An additional 50 acres were sown for various food crops in Inyo County, 269 more acres in Mono County for garlic and potatoes and ¼ acre for wine grapes over the previous year.  All together about 2,250 acres of land are used to grow food crops in the two counties.  Compared to the size of the region, nearly 8.5 million acres, it’s very a small percentage.  Even though much off the land is too high or dry, or in national parks, it’s still only small portion of the land one would consider arable in the Owens Valley alone.
soaking the land
I called on Saturday morning and talked to Steve confirming someone would be there and available to show me around.  Upon arriving at the ranch I didn’t immediately see anyone.  Stepping out of my riding gear I grabbed my camera, note pad and hat then wandered off to the east where I could see a hoop house. A couple irrigation rigs drenched the soil in the distance.
A few old corrals have been converted into gardens; some with nearly ripe garlic swaying in the breeze, some with just planted tomato starts trying to find their footing.  I snapped a few photos and called out a couple times but nobody was to be found.  Walking back to my bike, over the top of some fencing and equipment, I saw a wide brimmed straw hat coming my way.  Soon enough the hat’s occupant was visible and I saw it was Steve.
mount brewer
After a brief introduction we made our way out to the eastern most plot.  Owing to a mountaineer’s taste, names for the locations on the farm have been taken from the local peaks, places and histories.  The very first plot was named Brewer.  William Brewer was the chief botanist of the US Geological Survey of California.  In 1864 he and Charles Hoffman (of Mount Hoffman fame) made the first ascent of Mount Brewer.
The fields to the east were given the names of the grand section of the Sierra Crest directly above, Palisade, Polemonium and Sill separated by the U & V Notches. It turned out that Steve knew an old friend, climbing partner and roommate back in Mammoth Lakes who has lived in Bend for many years.  Dave and I had climbed North Palisade the day a 6.1 earthquake hit Chalfant Valley and woke to the earth grinding and rock falling all around us.
I learned that the soil in the corrals varies in make up.  One issue that was being addressed when I visited was high salt levels.  The guys were flooding the Palisade plot, 2-3 acre-feet of water had drenched the land, draining away the salt with it.  A great story about it was featured in the Bishop Creek Farms Independent.
crusty salt rich soil
Outside the hoop house we were soon pulling weeds from the garlic rows.  It was nearly ready to pick.  Bruce arrived with Birkie the blue-state dog and a bunch of tiny young starts ready for planting.  An impromptu meeting was held, a plan hatched and off they went.  Easy as pie.  I followed them over to the Brewer plot and met Virginia Thorson.  She had been out rounding up cows for branding and was back to get lunch together.  She strolled out to the hoop house, cut some lettuce, then gathered up a bucket of eggs.
I first heard of Virginia and her husband Zach Smith about a year ago.  My friend Brian, whose house I lived in during my year in Lone Pine, had been worked at the Smith’s hay ranch off and on building decks and stairways, a small out building and other stuff.  They have a 5,000 acre lease with LADWP to raise their crops.
Steve and Bruce had placed an ad in the paper last year asking if anyone had land available for them to use for their farming adventure.  With incredible generosity the Smith offered up over an acre of land at no cost other than great produce!  The Smith’s also raise chickens, ducks, goats and cattle in addition to hay.  I need to have a longer talk with them.
Back at the Brewer plot the buffet suddenly opened as Bruce handed me samples of radishes, rapini florets, arugula, pak choy and taboose.  Taboose is a native plant, now considered a weed, and once was a main part of the indigenous Paiute diet.  They used irrigation techniques to grow more of it from Round Valley north of Bishop to Oak Creek near Independence.  It’s a grass that has something like a nut growing underground.  I only found one of the nuts and ate it raw.  It was rather tasty, much to my surprise.
lessons on oats
I also got a quick lesson on testing oats to see if they are ready to pick.  Virginia pinched the seedpod and explained that there are three stages of development one will find doing this procedure.  Milk, dough and fire.  It has to do with what comes out of the seedpod; it’s color and consistency.
As I was getting ready to go Bruce pulled several plants out of the ground and handed them to me saying “no one leaves the farm hungry.”  This small gesture felt so right, so fitting and so gracious.  I’ll share what I did with the produce in my next story – thanks!

What they are doing at the farm is being noticed, not just locally.  A recent Kickstarter project found funding for some fruit trees and grant money from the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District’s Clean Air Project Program (the whole story)will fund a new walk-in refrigerator, two more hoop houses and an electric conversion of an old tractor. Well deserved rewards for their efforts.

By taking a step backward, revisiting the past and learning what was once was considered normal these new pioneers are finding allies and fans here on the soil and out there in cyberspace.  Many thanks to everyone involved in this adventure.
The wheels are turning again in the Owens Valley.
One revolution at a time.
meet the farmers, eastern sierra brown bag lunch talk
green leaf
smith hay ranch
flooding the fields
board meeting
steve and virginia
reds & greens, brewer plot
fava bean
taboose & radish
bruce tasting the product
parting gifts
what more can you say?
smith hay ranch