Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “spring”

On aphids, or Why I’d Make a Lousy Farmer

It was a tough choice: Visit a farm or use the weekend to put in my own home’s garden. The latter seemed a little more urgent.

I started the process two weekends ago but was thwarted by aphids. Awful little beasts. In March, I’d held hope that powerful sprays of water from my hose and some choice hand squashing would take care of those beginning to creep in on my fava beans. By month’s end they were devouring them. I took out the whole crop in a flash of anger and panic, hoping to salvage the neighboring chard.

But the other weekend, when I was getting ready to plant some starts, I looked more closely at my chard and saw that they, too, were fully overrun with black aphids. Past the point – at least in my estimation—of hose sprays, soap or pepper insecticide remedies. It became a total chard clearcut, a heartwrenching, demoralizing, humbling mass destruction.

Being the modern gardener I am, I immediately posted a photo of the carnage to Facebook …

chard ravaged by aphids

… after which my friends’ gave me advice like “bring on the ladybugs!” and a link to a magical concoction of mouthwash and tobacco to try.

All good ideas for the future, but too late for me: My beautiful, lush, green garden had become a lonely dirt patch, my only consolation the artichokes and two remaining chard plants that survived.

“It’s a clean slate,” my husband offered annoyingly helpfully. “A chance to start something new.”

My neighbor Chuck said, “The chard was probably about to bolt anyway.”

But all I could think of was, “Man, I would make a lousy farmer.”

While crop destruction for me can be a chance at starting over, it’s life and livelihood for a farmer.

There are a lot of romanticized notions about what farmers do—I’m guilty of holding a fair amount of them. But their job is more than glorified gardening and delicious dinners out by the barn. They keep us fat and happy while sparing us the details of pests, weather, weeds, and fickle markets. And they do it while keeping a vigilant eye on their crops—before it gets to the destructive stage.

Next time I’m visiting a local farm – and it will be soon! — or biting into fresh-grown Delta asparagus or (I can’t wait!) a juicy strawberry, I expect I’ll remember my epic aphid battle and be a little more appreciative of what farmers do.

For now, I’ve replanted my garden. New soil. New seeds. New starts.

Squash seedlings

Spear factor: Asparagus at Capay Organic

Asparagus is not for commitment-phobes. If you are looking for instant gratification, perhaps lettuce or radishes are more your style. Those come up in just a few days.

Knowing about this commitment thing, I waited until we bought our first home before I planted my first bulbs of asparagus. I mounded up their beds of soil and tucked them in. Then I waited, patiently, as their slender stalks poked skyward. Since they looked mildly edible, I withheld every gardener instinct in my body to cut them that first year, allowing them to turn into a feathery mass of green instead. Then I did the same thing again—sigh—the next year. Waiting, waiting. But on that third year, they were ready. (We moved that very summer, but let’s not talk about that.)

Ever since, my attitude toward this vegetable is nearly reverential. It takes three years to grow, and then it’s here for just a brief time—which, by the way, is now—to grace our plates and make our pee smell funny.

That’s why I felt almost like a thief this weekend while standing in a field of asparagus at Capay Organic, slicing off spear after tender spear. Grant, Lily and I had come to this farm in the Capay Valley, about an hour west of Davis, for its monthly farm tour. We paid our entrance fee to the tour ($4 for CSA members, $8 nonmembers, kids free), but still, as we each came out of the muddy field holding as much organic, seconds-from-the-ground asparagus our hands could hold—about 4 spears for Lily, significantly more for me and Grant—I couldn’t help thinking, “Are they really going to let us take all this home?”

Capay Organic was letting us —and dozens of others—trample through their fields, play on their grass, and take the know-your-farmer, know-your-food mantra to heart.

Many here, particularly the kids, had likely never seen how asparagus grows. It’s one of the more curious vegetables around. Asparagus spears shoot straight up through the soil—like hands buried alive, or, less morbidly, like green fingers pointing at the sun with a shape that would make some women blush. The first time I saw this, I was amazed. It was like when I learned pineapples grow on plants, not trees.

Farm manager Thaddeus Barsotti held a Q&A session in a grassy area surrounded by Satsuma mandarin and fig trees, and overlooking patches of sweet peas, strawberries, and the newly planted crop of tomatoes.

He told the group lounging on picnic tables and blankets about how his parents, Kathy Barsotti and Martin Barnes, founded the farm in 1976 and turned it into the Capay Valley’s first organic farm. Martin helped found the Davis Farmers Market and was instrumental in the Davis Food Co-op. After 15 years on the farm, he and Kathy divorced, and Kathy took over Capay Organic. She died in 2000 from breast cancer, leaving the farm to her sons: farm manager Thaddeus, sales and marketing manager Noah Barnes, and Freeman Barsotti, who runs the accounting department. A fourth son, Che Barnes, died in 2009.

The farm delivers to grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants like the Bay Area’s French Laundry and Greens restaurant. But a key component of their business is their CSA –community supported agriculture—program, Farm Fresh To You. Farm Fresh To You comprises 450 acres in Northern California and 150 acres in Southern California, with about 500 year-round employees.

Kathy began the home delivery service in 1992, a time when most CSAs had a you-get-what-we-grow program. At other CSAs, customers signed up for a season or year-round commitment. If they were sick of bunch after bunch of kale in the winter, too bad—they chose to support the farm, with the idea the farm would make it up to them with more variety come spring and summer. That typical CSA model, though farmer-friendly, didn’t always work for customers. But Kathy recognized that to support her small organic farm in the long-term, she had to get and keep customers—and not give them a reason to leave.  So she created a no-commitment, customizable service—if you don’t like a particular food, you can ask for a substitute—with a range of prices and produce options, delivered directly to customers’ homes or offices.

Now, Farm Fresh To You makes about 25,000 deliveries per week and grows roughly 100 different varieties of fruits and vegetables.  Several of its members made up the farm tour’s participants.

“Our vision is not that this is a small, quaint system for an elite group of people,” Thaddeus said. “This concept is something everyone can have access to.”

Thaddeus broke it down like this: Roughly 60 percent of what customers get in their CSA box comes from a farm where Farm Fresh to You has full control over farm operations, such as at Capay Organic or their farms in California’s Imperial Valley. Another 30 percent is from farmers who live just a few miles from Capay Organic, like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm, and Good Humus . The remaining 10 percent comes from organic farms trusted in the industry but not in direct contact with Capay Organic.

“It’s important you all know we’re a real working farm,” Thaddeus told the group. “At the end of this partnership is a thing called trust. We’re totally transparent about what we’re doing and why we support other farms doing what we’re doing.”

But the best way to learn to trust a CSA is to come see where they grow your food, which is why Farm Fresh to You invites their customers and the general public out to these farm tours, which they hold monthly March through October. With arts and crafts, a big bubble station, hula hoops, and a petting zoo for the kids, wine tasting for the adults, and live music for everyone (roots-a-billy band Miss Lonely Hearts entertained us), they know how to do these farm tours right.


But the absolute highlight—appropriately at a farm—was the food. Getting out into the fields, moving delicately over spears of asparagus so as not to step on them, slicing their ends off with a knife, and wiping off Lily after her inevitable slip in the mud.  I, illogically, felt a little guilty taking these delicious little stalks that took years to get here. But, now that they’re established, they’ll be back next year. And with thoughts of asparagus frittatas, pizza and creamy soups in my head, I know we will put every spear to good use.


The next Farm Tour at Capay Organic will be Saturday, May 12. $4 members, $8 nonmembers, free for kids 12 and under. Learn more about Capay Organic, Farm Fresh To You and events at

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