Award-winning journalist Sarah Henry, for many years Berkeleyside’s food writer, has just published her first book: Farmsteads of the California Coast. The book profiles 12 innovative farmsteads through an exploration of their sustainable practices, the delicious produce they grow and the food they make. The book’s photographer is Erin Scott, author of Yummy Supper (and an occasional Nosh contributor). The book includes 24 recipes courtesy of publisher Lisa McGuinness, an accomplished home cook. We talked to Henry about the thinking behind the beautiful tome, and what she learned while researching and writing it.
What led you to writing this book?
I was approached to write the book by Yellow Pear Press publisher Lisa McGuinness. Lisa had visited Harley Farms Goat Dairy in Pescadero, was charmed by the whole experience, and wanted to know more about the coastal farmers who grow and produce the diverse and delicious food we are fortunate enough to eat.
I was delighted to be asked to come on board for the project — the talented photographer Erin Scott was already in the mix and had recommended me — because it’s solidly in my wheelhouse. For several years I’ve been profiling local farmers for publications such as Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, Civil Eats and Berkeleyside, where I covered some awesome urban farmers and farms such as Joy Moore, Jim Montgomery, Novella Carpenter, Urban Adamah and the BUSD’s cooking and gardening program.
What was the vision behind the book?
The book is intended as a salute to and celebration of pioneering farmers in a region blessed with incredible natural resources. My goal was to give readers some insights into these growers and their innovative practices — whether on the land, in the social justice/food access realm, in the unique products made (hello water buffalo gelato), in combatting climate change, in preserving a way of life and protecting farm workers rights — and enticing readers to take field trips of their own to get to know their farmers and their food in a deeper way.
How do you know Erin Scott, with whom you collaborated?
We met through food blogging circles and I wrote about Erin’s then-forthcoming book Yummy Supper for my weekly Berkeleyside food column back in 2012. I followed up that piece with a story for Edible East Bay when her cookbook of the same name came out in 2014, and I’ve turned to her for context when I’ve written stories on gluten-free subjects.
That’s the work connection. Erin and I personally bonded over many things: We both have ties to the Edible Schoolyard, we both have boys at Berkeley High School, we’re perfectionists in our chosen crafts and we get pretty jazzed by whatever is in season at the farmers market. We are both hearty eaters, cook simply and enjoy the search for the next yummy something wherever in the world that may take us.
Erin’s gorgeous photography is central to Farmsteads, and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner on the project. Our days in the fields with farmers were pretty special. We learned a ton, hung out with some hugely innovative and often quirky growers and had a ton of fun. It reminded me what a privilege it is to do this kind of work.
How did you define a farmstead for the purposes of this book?
In addition to agricultural land, farmsteads include structures (barns, farmstands, creameries etc.) Farmsteads are also places where farmers make and sell on site what’s known as value-added products like cheese, wine, preserves, pickles etc. And for the purposes of this book, a farmstead is a place where a member of the public can interact in some way with the farm and/or farmers.
So Gospel Flat Farm in Bolinas has a beloved 24/7 honor system farmstand. That’s where farmer Mickey Murch sells almost all his produce, including lots of leafy greens, root vegetables and herbs.
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company makes their award-winning cheeses on the property. They have control over the cows, the creamery and cheese production.
At Hog Island Oyster Company in Marshall you can buy your own bag of oysters direct from the shellfish farmers, shuck on site or take home. Or you can have them shuck/cook for you at their lovely, rustic location. These oystermen are constantly monitoring the conditions for the oysters to grow and thrive in, right at the source.
At Pie Ranch in Pescadero you can take part in a monthly community work day, potluck and barn dance. At The Apple Farm in Philo you can take cooking classes and stay overnight on the grounds.
How did you go about selecting the farmsteads?
Implicit in the dozen farmsteads we feature, and the philosophy behind the work: these producers are growing and crafting top products made with quality raw ingredients that are grown or raised in a sustainable way. Also, the end result has to taste delicious.
We wanted diversity in all kinds of ways: location, product, size, structures, farmers. We feature family farms spanning generations, elder agrarians, women growers, newcomers, and include greens, berries, grapes, dairy, shellfish, citrus, coffee and flowers.
We had room for a dozen. The hardest part was whittling down the list. We could have easily written about a couple of dozen more.
What were one or two things you learned while researching and writing the book that were particularly eye-opening?
It’s not news that farmers work hard and are at the mercy of the elements and external forces. As Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm told me, farmers have to be smart, nimble and persistent in the face of adversity, like, say, an on-going drought.
I also appreciated how he mentioned that every successful farmer needs a bit of luck. You can have sound farming practices, treat your workers well, begin with healthy soil and seeds and some years can be good with bumper crops and some years can be bad through no fault of your own.
And, perhaps not eye-opening, but I was reminded of this at every farm stop: farmers are creative, risk-taking types who are up for the challenge of solving a problem, often in outside-the-box ways.
Book launch events:
- Saturday April 30, 3-4pm: Omnivore Books, San Francisco: Sarah Henry and Erin Scott talk about the book, with samples from the spring harvest to taste. Free.
- Wednesday, May 11, 6:30-9pm: The Cook & Her Farmer at Swan’s Marketplace hosts a book launch celebration with drinks, nibbles, and book signing, followed by a sit-down, family-style feast prepared by Chef Romney Steele inspired by Farmsteads. Ticket information.
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