Week 14: August 31- September 6

Sometimes it feels good to rest. This morning I decided to take some time for myself, a decision that is not easy for me to make in general and particularly difficult when I feel responsible for an epic journey that requires a big bit of physical and intellectual exertion to keep exploring the endless wisdom we find on small-scale women-run farms. So, I woke at a leisurely hour today (as opposed to our usual 5 or 6am mornings) and went to the Healdsburg Farmers' Market!


August 31: Crazy Tomatoes in Healdsburg, CA!
September 2

           There I was on Country Road A between Country Roads 4B and 4C, turning around because we missed the farm’s road. Country Road A in Raymond, Nebraska was loose gravel—not ideal for our skinny road bike tires—and we had to chug uphill to reach the farm’s perch on a small but significant hilltop. Stubbornly persisting uphill I repeated the mantra in my head, “Tetons… Tetons… Tetons…” to mentally prepare myself for the much more intense climbs further west. Even my powerful “Tetons” mantra couldn’t help me, though, so I had to downshift.
           But I couldn’t.
           The gears weren’t shifting properly! Catastrophe! If I can’t make it over these measly Nebraskan hills because I can’t downshift, how will I make it over the TETONS?
            Moments of slight catastrophe recurred throughout the trip. Fortunately the knowledgeable and generous experts we encountered across the country quickly remedied all our mechanical misadventures. Much of the Shifting Gears conversation has revolved around farms, food, and females, and another component of our learning has been about the skills, craftsmanship, and unflagging support of bike shops coast to coast (another aspect of interdependence we alluded to in our podcast “Thoughts on a Radish”). As I have a moment to reflect now that the trip is done, I appreciate how crucial their support has been from start to finish.
            A few days after the Country Road A debacle, I felt like a worried mother as I took my bike to Wayne’s Cyclery in Grand Island, Nebraska. When the fellow finished giving my bike a facelift some hours later, I asked how much his work would cost.
            “No charge,” he said, “You’re on a cross country bike trip, and we’re here to keep cyclists on the road.”
            I tried to protest, but the only way I could get away with compensating him was by buying some electrolyte energy tabs. He even gave me some Stinger bars.
            “What is your name?” I asked, trying to understand some aspect of this unbelievable person. He pointed at his business card: John Wayne. Classic.
            John Wayne of Wayne Cyclery in Grand Island, Nebraska was the first guru I consulted about my bike (who is named Celeste, by the by, so when I talk about Celeste she’s not the mystery third member), and there are many more folks who were instrumental in getting Lake and I on the road safely. Some, like John Wayne, recognized and respected the physical and conceptual magnitude of our endeavor to such an extent that they went beyond being helpful and provided us deals that truly made our trip possible.
            Debbie Lewis of Wheel & Heel in Wappingers Falls, New York, for example, gave us our ubiquitous and essential yellow bike boxes free of charge. Doug Cory of Bikeway also in Wappingers Falls, New York gave us a generous discount for a tune and parts. Richard Peacock of Spoke Folk Cylcery in Healdsburg, California was taken by our journey so cut my final tab in half and threw in a fantastic shirt that I wear right now.

This is Richard, above, and Matt, below, the whizzing generous geniuses at Spoke Folk Cyclery in Healdsburg, CA.


            In fact, Richard was over the top. I called him a week or so in advance to make sure they would have availability to shop Celeste. I told him about Shifting Gears’ mission, and somehow he wound up asking me, “What is the most generous arrangement you’ve had with a bike shop so far?” My goodness—I was shocked to find myself the lucky winner in a generosity contest! Of course I tried to talk him down saying anything he can do is appreciated, but Richard still went all out with half off and an awesome shirt I wear with pride.            


All this is to say THANK YOU ENDLESSLY! to the bike folks who took such meticulous care of our steel steeds.

Your knowledge, encouragement, and support kept us shifting our gears and riding smoothly up and down the

many mountains of this cross-country learning adventure. Our gratitude is limitless.

Meeting Temra Costa!

Photo courtesy of Organicconnectmag.com

This is Temra Costa of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat fame and legend! She is an author, speaker, sustainable food and farming advocate, and soon-to-be mother! We are delighted that Temra found our project and agreed to meet with us at the Union Hotel in Occidental, CA, for a conversation about our findings on Shifting Gears.


Reviewing Temra's own conclusions in Farmer Jane, I was struck by the similarities of our respective "answers" to the basic question: What's with the female farmers? Some fundamental overlaps we have both found include:


  • Femininity (in other words, not being female per se, but feminine qualities that women, and some men, bring)

  • Relational & systems thinking: interpersonal and ecological

  • Long-term vision

  • Values and motivations beyond the purely economic

  • Educational element: wanting to share knowledge

As Temra sees it, women are integral--and are perhaps leading--the sustainable food revolution. For her book Farmer Jane, Temra visited thirty women farmers, food activists, politicians, and food-related business women across the country. Before the Farmer Jane adventure she worked at the state level as the director of California's Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign and with the Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF). In other words, Temra is what we call a big deal when it comes to thinking about the future of food. We look forward to learning what she has to say about Shifting Gears on her blog sometime soon!

September 3: Cheesin' at Cowgirl Creamery, Petaluma, CA

We met Peggy Smith, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery, in her sunlit office in Petaluma, California. “I mostly work from behind a desk these days,” she says with her characteristically warm smile, “But it wasn’t always that way!”
After cooking in local food pioneer restaurants like Chez Panisse, Peggy Smith and Sue Conley decided to go a step further in reinvigorating local foodways—geographically and conceptually. In the early 1990’s they established Tomales Bay Foods, an aggregation and distribution company for numerous small producers in West Marin, far out in Point Reyes Station. “With a to-go stand, fresh produce, and cheese, we wanted to source and provide the local produce of West Marin like its own appellation,” Peggy explained. ​


Twenty years ago, the idea of a local market was ahead of its time. Especially because they were women who had never made cheese professionally before, Peggy and Sue encountered challenges establishing Tomales Bay Foods and Cowgirl Creamery. “Financing was a challenge. It was a hard idea to get across; it was hard to get people to understand the concept,” says Peggy, “Being women, people didn’t take us as seriously. We were just seen as these kinda crazy gals.” Kinda crazy gals or not, Peggy and Sue have built Cowgirl Creamery into a nationally recognized brand feted for its top-quality cheeses. 

“It’s all about the milk—all about the beginning product,” Sue tells us, revealing the secrets of Cowgirl’s success, “All we are trying to do is carry that integrity through to the finish.” When Cowgirl first started, they partnered with Albert Straus of the legendary Marin dairy family. The Straus Family has been dairying in the Tomales Bay area since the 1940’s. In 1994, Albert converted the farm to organic methods, becoming the very first organic dairy West of the Mississippi! Now Cowgirl Creamery works with three dairies (including Albert’s!) whose milk from Holstein and Jersey cows are used for particular cheeses because of the specific characteristics of the different breeds’ milk. “The number one thing,” Peggy adds, “is that you cannot make good cheese without good milk.”


Peggy’s attention to the quality of their milk reveals the greater values Peggy and Sue bring to their business. “Our values are treating everything with respect and taking good care of everything involved, including animals, ingredients, equipment, and people,” Peggy intoned, revealing more of their secrets to success. This holistic consideration of the many aspects involved in Cowgirl’s end product reflects the company’s emphasis on collaboration, cooperation, and consideration.

For Peggy, collaborative relationships with people are key: “Having a strong foundation and a group of people can move things forward much quicker. Everybody that comes adds a little something. A large part of our ability to scale up has been working closely with people with similar visions coming from different fields,” Peggy says. Cowgirl has a “more the merrier” mentality emblematic of women farmers and food producers. Sharing information, techniques, resources, and even financial models and business plans for small-scale agricultural operations is at the forefront of Peggy’s mind when she contemplates how to transform our food system for the better.
The same holistic consideration Peggy applies to her milk sources appears again in her thoughts about how to make positive change in our food system. “What we eat is the basis of our life,” she says, “If the mentality is just trying to make food cheaper with no regard for anything else, that is shortsighted. One way or another we pay for our health. By now we know the effects of good food, and the many ways it is valuable.”
Peggy, Sue, and Cowgirl Creamery ask us to develop our political consciousness such that we see the many people and processes involved in the food we eat as they stretch back in time and forward into the future health and wellbeing of our bodies, land, and society.

Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Peggy Smith (left) and Sue Conley (right)

Classic truth-humor combo on the farmers' market money boxes!

Thank you hugely (like our hips after we eat this!!!) for the exquisite cheese! Find Cowgirl cheese at dozens of grocery stores and restaurants in the Bay Area.

The Straus Family: A Marin Legacy

During our time at Cowgirl Creamery we were lucky to meet Vivien Straus, sister of dairyman Albert Straus and daughter of Bill and Ellen Straus, the original Tomales Bay dairy farmers in the 1940's. Viven talked us through the Cowgirl Creamery cheesemaking process, took us on a tour of the factory, and told us a bit about her incredible family.


"My mother was a wonderful woman--so energetic and positive. I miss her every day," she said. In addition to being a supportive and vivacious mother, Ellen was instrumental in protecting the future of agricultural land use in Marin County forever.


Ellen Straus was a founding member of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a non-profit organization that works with local farming and ranching families to protect their land from the pressures of development and onerous tax burdens. MALT was created in 1980 "by a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists to permanently preserve Marin County farmland for agricultural use." MALT establishes conservation easements which are legal agreements between the landowner and MALT that prohibit non-agricultural development or subdivision or uses that would be destructive to the land's agricultural uses--in perpetuity.


Marin Agricultural Land Trust was the first of its kind in the United States. Now, millions of acres and thousands of parcels of land are protected in land trusts throughout the United States.


Vivien Straus lives up to her family's name. As head of public relations, marketing, and sales for Straus Family Creamery for ten years, Vivien is responsible for the instantly recognizable Straus brand and for its ubiquity in good food stores throughout the Bay Area. She has a lot to say about the direction of sustainable agriculture, the most important being the crucial question of how to transition farms to sustainable, and how to give new information and new ideas to farmers without the pitfall of being superior to their inherited ways of farming.


These days she has wisely scaled back her many activities. Vivien continues the Cowgirl-Straus connection in her capacity at Cowgirl Creamery, and enjoys growing vegetables on a few acres of her family's land in the town of Marshall on Tomales Bay in West Marin.

September 6: Freedom Farmers' Market, West Oakland, CA
September 5: Acta Non Verba Youth Urban Farm, East Oakland, CA

Fresh, colorful crowded peas and black-eyed peas from an African American farmer growing in Sacramento

Gail greets Ron Finley, known for his work in South Central Los Angeles growing a "food forest" and a healthy, accessible, local food system in low-income urban spaces guerilla-gardening style.

Meet Gail Myers, Ph.D., anthropologist, black farmer advocate, sustainable agriculture and anti-racism activist, and founder of the Freedom Farmers' Market.

This is Will Scott (right), a farmer in Fresno, CA and President of the California Association of African American Farmers. Watch his lecture on TedX "Bring Back Black Farmers" in which he describes his personal farming history, the complex relationship between African-Americans and working on the land in the wake of slavery's scars, and what African American culture uniquely contributes to agriculture. 

Brother's Kitchen: the staging ground of the Freedom Farmers' Market. The owner of Brother's Kitchen welcomes the Farmers' Market free of charge, because as a member of the community who suffers from health problems himself, he recognizes the importance of providing fresh, healthy food grown by the black community to the people of West Oakland.

The Cottage Foods Act allows individuals to sell their value-added products without having access to an expensive industrial kitchen. This is Charlotte Coleman's Pots to Jars preserves: "Home Canning As You Remember!"

Kelly Carlisle is so vibrant and alive that I secretly suspect she grew out of the soil like the thriving organic corn stalks in her non-profit urban farm, Acta Non Verba (ANV). Under the corn, beans reach trellising themselves up towards the sun. Kale, eggplant, sunflowers, and lettuce glow all shades of green in the raised beds. Potted lemon, apple, and peach trees line the chain-link fence, balanced on the other side of the garden by a cluster of towering redwood trees. On the far side proudly stands the “Ode to the South” greenhouse growing collards, okra, watermelon, and cotton. Things are tidy, new, and thriving. This is Acta Non Verba, a non-profit youth urban farm in the middle of East Oakland. Right behind the baseball diamond, Acta Non Verba occupies a quarter acre at the back of the Tassafaronga Community Center which is a central place for community gatherings and programs.


Like a captivating blossom, Kelly immediately envelops you in her bright and buzzing presence. She is a storyteller full of laughter. Sitting in the shade of redwood trees on a sunny September afternoon, Kelly kept us laughing and gasping as she wove the tale of how she became a farmer, and how Acta Non Verba came to be.


What in her life before motivated her to farm? “Nothing!” she told us. I almost thought that was the end of the story, but then she continued, “Growing up, my grandparents had a vegetable garden. Tomatoes totally freaked me out! All the bugs, and watching them grow—I wanted to throw them! It was nasty.”


Many years later after serving a term of decorated service in the US Navy, Kelly got interested in growing food as a low-cost and fun activity to do with her young daughter, Kaya, in their own backyard. At first growing food was more of a science experiment than a stand of sovereignty (and it took a little to get used to the tomatoes again…) but as Kelly learned more about the state of the food system she began to realize something: “I was poisoning my baby the whole time! When I started learning about the bizarre chemicals they put in formula, I started to question what I was feeding Kaya.” Like many other women, care for the child’s health is what motivated Kelly to begin growing food to eat. Eventually, this same desire to create a better future for youth enlivened her to create a space for others to do the same.


In 2010 she founded non-profit urban farm Acta Non Verba, a venture that brings together urban farming, food security, youth empowerment, community cohesion, and economic resilience in a way that I have never seen before. “I learned that a person is seven times more likely to attend college if they have some savings,” Kelly explained, “And I wanted kids to have the chance to do it themselves. Here at Acta Non Verba, the kids plan, plant, harvest, sell, and save.” Kids plan the garden, do the plantings, harvest the food, and sell the produce at a community farm stand. Kelly then helps the kids’ families establish a savings account for the money they’ve earned. Blending gardening skills, business sense and savings, Kelly hopes the programs encourage youth to take responsibility for themselves, their money, and their future.


Kelly wants a food system everybody could participate in regardless of race, class, or—notably—record. “I want to introduce youth to agriculture as a viable means of raising a family. Farming doesn’t care what you look like, who your family is, or how much education you have. You can have a record and do it.”


As of 2008, over 60% of the incarcerated population is African American or Latino even though African Americans and Latinos comprise only 25% of the overall US population.  With an average of one out of six African-American men under carceral control and with that percentage expected to increase to one out of three, legal careers that can support people who have had to check the felon box is a serious concern for poor people of color in general, and for the residents of East Oakland in particular.


People are at the center of Kelly’s mission. While she wants to avoid what she calls “poverty pimpin,’” she recognizes that the farm’s East Oakland neighborhood grapples with problems of interpersonal violence, blight, racism, high levels of incarceration, and relatively few economic opportunities for its residents. She hopes that ANV can be an uplifting force to help address and ameliorate these systemic issues. She asks herself rhetorically, “How can this quarter acre give someone a foot in the door to make that salsa, open that restaurant, go to college…?” Like mothers everywhere, Kelly is providing the space and the structure in which others can grow their own opportunities.


With enthusiasm, innovation, and dedication, Kelly Carlisle’s Acta Non Verba youth urban farm provides community members the chance to rethink how we are interacting with food, relating to others, and taking responsibility for our own lives.

Kelly Carlisle: A Mother to her Whole Community

Whizzing south down San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland past famous Arizmendi Bakery and KFC and under the highway overpass I noted to myself, “After biking in New York City and Chicago, this is nothing!” The streets were wide, the buildings lay low, and the dazzling blue sky made the urban area feel spacious. In an urban studies program I did in high school, we were taught to look for anomalies within the “text” of the city—architectural and spatial anomalies reveal fascinating stories, alternative histories, and the people who hold the present in different ways. So when I spied a cluster of navy-blue canopies with produce-laden tables beneath them, I knew it was the anomaly for which I searched.


The Freedom Farmers’ Market is in its second week here in the corner parking lot of Brother’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant in West Oakland. Ten or so vendors, mostly African-American, sell fresh pesticide-free produce and value added goods like fruit preserves. Mandela Foods Cooperative, a worker-owned full service grocery store and nutrition education center in the neighborhood, also has a booth. Aside from devouring a piece of bean pie (tastes just like pumpkin pie but is made with navy beans—yum!), I was at the Freedom Farmer’s Market to meet Gail Myers.


The first thing Gail did when I introduced myself was hand me a sample of succulent solar-cooked lentil stew, followed shortly by a bite of cinnamon pound cake. I quickly learned that this was Gail’s way to welcome me to the market and to her world, “My uncle owned a grocery store and he always gave food away,” she said, “Giving food: that is what love and family were to me.”


Since 1997 when she began her Doctorate in Anthropology research at Ohio State University, Gail’s life has been devoted to supporting disadvantaged farmers, particularly African American farmers. Today, black people own less than 1% of America’s farms, compared to 14% in 1920. On average, black farmers receive about one-third (or less) of the funding and loan resources as white farmers, which has resulted in black farmers losing their land. This asymmetry led to a landmark discrimination case against the US Department of Agriculture. The 1999 settlement of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit provided about $1 billion to 15,000 black farmers who say the USDA unjustly turned them down for loans because of their race.


“The black farmer experiences serious financial and physical violence,” says Gail, “They deal with burned down houses and barns… the average farmer I work with has seen their buildings burned about twice each.” Gail’s work in remedying this long history of racial discrimination and disrespect is multifaceted; she brings refracting activism that reflects her skills as a field researcher, organizer, and dedicated member of the black farming community.


In 2003 she founded Farms To Grow, Inc, an Oakland-based non-profit whose mission is as integrated and active as Gail is. FTGI aims to promote the welfare and survival of underserved farmers by creating markets, providing training, and facilitating access to capital needs like seeds, equipment, and farm upgrades. To help sprout the next generation of small farmers, they operate farming and nutrition programs for youth.

Creating markets is key for Gail’s work because local markets benefit stakeholders on each side of the table. Improving black farmers’ access to urban food markets including schools, restaurants, and individual consumers helps the farmers stay afloat because they can make money. In the West Oakland neighborhood where Freedom Farmers’ Market is located the community members benefit by having access to affordable, fresh food as well as the other educational and health programs the market brings. (When I arrived around 2pm, I had just missed a Zumba class!)


Affordability is central to both the market’s success, and to understanding the particular historical circumstance of black farmers. Gail explains, “Black farmers are not about maximizing their profit… They are trying to get a decent price and they are making sure that people can afford to buy their products. They’re not going to charge something they can’t afford to buy. They are about feeding their family and feeding their community.”


Part of the reason why the black farmer can survive charging only $1-$2 per pound for organically grown produce reveals the same issues as Pigford v. Glickman: “For a lot of black farmers, they don’t have a huge input cost because they can’t get loans for equipment anyway. You have to have a high profit margin if you have a lot of expenses; minority farmers don't have those levels of expenses,” Gail explains. Interestingly, black farmers’ exclusion from mainstream resources turns out to benefit the land because they use fewer costly chemical inputs, and benefits the people because they can grow organic food at a low cost.


Gail concurs, “Maybe we have to figure out how to be outside of the policy…. Sovereignty means ownership in the hands of the community, decisions made by the people, benefits reaped by the community. We have the notion that the Freedom Farmers Market can be a place where people can be sovereign: we are deciding how we want to market, who we want to bring in, how to develop our program. The people who are benefitting are the people doing the work, building capacity, gaining skills so at the end of the day they are better off.”


Gail also wants the public to understand the black farming experience, the black ecological thought about farming, and what black farmers uniquely contribute to the agricultural history, practices, and landscape of our country. As the importance of affordability and sovereignty suggest, the logical thought of African American farmers revolves around “taking care of earth, seed, soil, and communities, and feeding family from a place of love.” 

Sovereignty and Savory Foods at the Freedom Farmers Market

Since 1997, Gail has researched and documented African American farm history. She is currently raising funds to complete post-production work of her documentary Rhythms of the Land, a film that preserves the stories, history, and life of African American farmers. As a cultural anthropologist and food and farming enthusiast myself, I believe this project is crucial to the cultural inheritance of our country, which is why I donated to help ensure the legacy of black farmers continues.