The O Word 

Kristie and Rick Knoll were early pioneers of organic farming. So why are they now rebelling against organic?

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Over the years, Rick and Kristie have settled into distinct roles in the business; she's the yin to his yang. Kristie serves as the office manager, now spending more time in front of a computer than on the farm. Actually, the "office" doubles as her house, where she takes refuge to get away from the real house out front, which she grouses is always under some kind of construction. Her partner, she notes, always has a dozen projects going at once. "I like order," she says. "I think he thrives on chaos."

Kristie views herself as the no-nonsense hard-ass of the two, which seems to be an overly harsh self-assessment. If anything, she possesses a folksy and delightfully foul-mouthed Texan charm. Still, she insists, Rick is the smoother salesperson. "You know, he schmoozes people, he blows smoke up their ass and bullshits 'em," she says. "When I call them up, it's like, 'Hi, it's Kristie, what do you want to order? I got forty people to call, just tell me whatcha want.'"

Rick is much more than a salesman, though. He's the hippie-farmer guru who looks much younger than his 54 years. His straight platinum-blond hair falls to his shoulders; his fair skin is reddish from working outdoors. He looks as if he just rolls out of bed in his plaid pajama bottoms, laces up his red high-top Chuck Taylors, and goes to work. In contrast to Kristie's Texan twang, Rick talks in California hippie-speak, communicating slowly and deliberately as if to make sure he is properly expressing the Big Thoughts on his mind. "My job," he explains, "is to be intuitive enough to know what to do next."

Three years ago, Rick knew what to do next: Drop the organic label and find another word.

The Knolls went so far beyond organic that they actually coined a new word: Tairwá. The word is inspired by terroir, a French term usually associated with wine. There is no adequate English translation for the word, which the Knolls say loosely translates into "the essence of place."

The French use "terroir" to describe why a wine from one location tastes different from wine from another. The soil, the local climate, and how the grapes are grown all combine to create a wine's unique terroir.

In the late '90s Paul Bertolli, chef and co-owner of Oakland's Oliveto restaurant, started broadening the term to apply to farms in addition to vineyards. Bertolli says that in his years as a chef, he'd noticed that some Bay Area farms could produce certain crops but others couldn't. He recalls one farmer in Santa Cruz growing better radicchio than anyone else. When he thought about why, Bertolli concluded a lot of the radicchio farmer's success had to do with the farm's terroir in its location near the sea, which helped the plant thrive.

The Knolls, who sell produce to Oliveto, were captivated by the word. It seemed perfect. Their location in Brentwood, near the Sacramento River Delta, had blessed their farm with a relatively high water table, allowing, for instance, thirsty fruit trees to thrive. At the same time, Brentwood's climate, with plenty of heat and wind, helps protect the trees from being oversaturated, Bertolli says. "The figs do extraordinarily well out there," he says of the Knolls' farm.

"We have decided over the years that this farm makes distinguished things," Rick says. "When you taste the arugula, you can tell if it came from here. And it seemed like this was one of the examples of organic farms that actually had a unique terroir. ... We kept looking at the word, and we wanted that word associated with our farm."

Kristie, however, didn't want to totally drop the word "organic." For two years, she and Rick argued over whether to remain certified. Rick never liked the idea of the government regulating organic farming; he preferred to keep the industry self-regulating. When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 (which took the USDA twelve years to implement), "I knew we were screwed," he recalls. "If you get capitalism and the government involved in something, it gets co-opted so somebody can make money off it."

But Kristie felt that it was important to support the organic movement, not to mention the fact that the organic label would assure customers about the sanctity of their farming practices. Still, she had to admit that organic farming was becoming more corporate than ever before. The final straw for her came when she got three packets in the mail to fill out for 2002: One from the private certification agency, registration papers from the state agriculture department, and, for the first time, forms from the USDA. The latter packet was an inch thick. That was when she finally agreed to drop "organic" once and for all.

The Knolls agreed to use the word "terroir," but worried about Americans having trouble pronouncing it. So they decided to spell it phonetically. Thus, Tairwá Knoll Farms was born and Knoll Organic Farms was put to rest.

Kristie says they didn't intend for Tairwá to replace organic as a generic catchall for postorganic eco-farming. It's simply the name on their label. But it does encompass their farming philosophy, which goes beyond organic to encompass the mystical.

A farm's terroir is determined by more than just its geographic location. The farmer has a pivotal role in creating the terroir through his growing methods. In the Knolls' case, they believe in nurturing rather than manipulating their farm. To put it another way, they listen to the farm instead of telling it what to do. So they use no chemicals, and they grow foods in their natural season. "Instead of going into an area and tearing it up and saying, 'This is what I'm gonna plant,' you actually interact with the farm and get a sense of what wants to grow there that particular year or that particular succession," Rick explains. "Say, if you grow green garlic, the next thing you plant, it's really affected by that. Like tomatoes love to grow after garlic."


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