Sowing Sadness 

An evening program on sustainable agriculture yields heartbreak, and faint hope.

A woman passed out a small Tupperware bowl half-filled with rust-colored cherry tomatoes. Row by row, she walked by and smiled as people helped themselves to the succulent fruit. "Some of the best tomatoes you'll ever taste," she beamed. Meanwhile, as folks popped the sun-ripened, pesticide-free fruits in their mouths, another woman talked to her companion about a farmers market that was rumored to be selling fresh garbanzo beans. "Really?" asked her incredulous friend.

About twenty people were seated on the hard wooden pews of the Old Montclair Presbyterian Church in Oakland, but despite the wholesome goodness of the tomatoes, they weren't here for treats. The event was "Cultivating Healthy Farms, Foods and Communities in the East Bay," a slide show and talk by farmers' advocate Gail Wadsworth and noted local farmer Rick Knoll. It was the fifth installment in a yearlong program of monthly talks and field trips organized by East Bay project Close to Home, whose participants -- sorry, it's all filled up for this year -- learn about native people and plants, local wildlife (what's left of it), geology, hiking trails, and creek preservation. "It's an in-depth exposure to East Bay ecology," explained Sandra Lewis, one of the program's directors.

Wadsworth, our first speaker, is a grant writer for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a Davis-based advocacy group that promotes local, sustainable agriculture. She's not a farmer herself, but resembles one, with thick brown hair and strong capable arms that look as if they have plowed a few fields in their time. Folks of your grandma's generation might describe her as "strapping."

Wadsworth smiled, cleared her throat, and spoke about the advantages of supporting small farms: fresher produce, benefits to the local economy, and preservation of local farmland that would otherwise be swallowed up by huge evil conglomerates.

She told her rapt audience that most of the food grown in the United States is owned by three agribusiness giants: Cargill/Monsanto, Novartis/ADM, and ConAgra -- the latter owns Armour, Butterball, Wolfgang Puck frozen food products, and, and ... forget it. To simplify matters, just imagine that ConAgra owns everything the average Safeway shopper puts in her mouth. That's close enough. The company also sells seeds to farmers, including one type infamously nicknamed "The Terminator" because the plants produced by its progeny can't germinate, ensuring that the farmer will have to keep buying ConAgra seeds forever after. The small crowd gasped in their pews at the idea of something so blatantly evil. The antidote, Wadsworth explained, is for people to join community farms, shop at farmers' markets, or grow their own food.

Next up was Rick Knoll of Brentwood's Knoll Farms. In the tight-knit world of farming, Knoll is a rock star, a self-described anarchist and rebel who scorns many so-called "organic" practices. He and his comrades-in-hoes believe many big organic-foods companies have developed business practices similar to those of the corporate farms they once denounced.

Knoll charges that these companies fail to pay competitive wages, do little to support social programs, and grow food out of season, a practice that particularly rankles him. So, instead of utilizing the overused word "organic," he describes his brand of farming as "Tairwa'." This is the phonetic spelling of the French word terroir, which can be translated as "the essence of place." In that spirit, Knoll grows herbs, greens, and only seasonal vegetables and fruits, all without the use of chemicals. "Oh, he's wonderful! He is so smart and he knows so much about farming, you really have to hear him speak," gushed one female audience member.

And finally, there he was: The maverick farmer stood before the small crowd, his long sunbleached hair pulled back into a tidy ponytail. He wore a righteous expression of hurt and indignation, the look of a man who has been screwed by the system.

"Who knows what this is?" Knoll beckoned as a slide came up showing a leaf. "There's something in the middle of the photograph. Most children are able to see it, but adults lose the ability after a while," he continued, almost wistfully. Now that he mentioned it, there was a tiny blurry form in the center of the leaf. A hushed murmur came from the audience as we desperately tried to be children again, but not one of us could figure out what was in the damn leaf.

"Okay," Knoll said, with a hint of resigned disgust. "There's a spider in the middle in the photograph." Ah yes, there was a vague arachnid outline. In short, it was a fully contained little ecosystem, or so we guessed, not knowing exactly what the point was. "Ohhhh," we said in chorus.

Click. The next slide was a black-and-white Dorothea Lange shot of a farmer harvesting actual walnuts in Walnut Creek, circa 1939. There was a kind of "those were the days" sigh from the crowd. This slide was followed by a latter-day photo of Walnut Creek with all of its gleaming modernity, an endless warren of office parks and computer stores.

Click. A barren field, with a large swirl of dust filling the right-hand portion of the screen. "Who can see what this is?" Knoll asked. No one could. "Underneath this swarm of dust and chemicals is a tractor. I'm sure the driver isn't wearing a dust mask and in ten years the soil will kill him," he said solemnly. Again, the audience gasped in disbelief. "Oh no," someone said. Then there was a long awful pause as we waited to hear what terrible Cassandra-like pronouncement would come next. "After a while, the earthworms will leave this field and nothing will grow here," he continued with finality. He then pursed his lips and looked like he wanted to punch a wall.

Although Food Fetish endeavors to find the humor in the food world, there was a veritable famine of comedy at the Montclair Presbyterian. The talk and slide show was beginning to take on the apocalyptic tone of a holy-roller meeting, but instead of a crazed, foaming-at-the-mouth, Bible Belt preacher reading from the Book of Revelation, we had Rick Knoll and his slides of doom.

Knoll explained to the class that he'd started his farm 23 years ago, after returning from Vietnam. "I really wanted to get out of the country," he said, in that resigned and hurt tone only a Vietnam vet can properly get away with. Instead, he settled down with his wife Christie in Brentwood, a pokey little farming community on the fringe of the East Bay. Its claim to fame: was that of their world-famous "sweet Brentwood corn."

By the way, Brentwood was -- still is -- one of the most fertile areas in the nation. The Knolls started growing fruit trees on their plot and realized they were actually good at it. They started selling their excess fruit at farmers' markets and before long customers were clamoring for more.

One of the last photos showed another sterile, fallow stretch of brown soil. "Europeans and Americans love to denude, and weeds are 'pioneer' plants," Knoll said. "When something -- a field like this, for instance -- is denuded, ironically more weeds sprout up because Mother Nature doesn't like to see something cut up."

He went on to say that for the first time in US history, the occupation "farmer" was no longer included on the census. Things were just getting sadder and sadder. If some entrepreneur had thought to show up and sell Kleenex, he could have made a quick fortune.

But then came that faint glimmer of hope, a slide depicting trees thick with ripening fruit in stark contrast to the previous photos of barren wastelands. "This is our farm," Knoll said proudly. "It's like a perpetual motion machine, and we're perpetually trying to get it to slow down."

And with that, our speaker finally managed a smile.

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