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Fostering a Love of Farming
"Playing a role in how food goes from growing in our fields to feeding someone’s family is the reason I’ve dedicated myself so wholly to this job and industry."
By Emily Sinsky
My earliest memory of Schaner Farms is probably from my third birthday party in the back event room of Filippi’s Pizza Grotto. This was the kind of restaurant, with its plastic-y plaid tablecloths, ancient arcade games in the corner, and ambiguously Italian decorations, that exists for exactly three occasions: Tee ball team dinners, awkward high school first dates, and birthday parties for three year olds. My godparents, Peter and Kayne Schaner, arrived with their eight kids and my birthday present: a shoebox with a bow and air holes poked through the top. I opened the box, and spent the rest of the party ignoring everything else to play with the three chicks my Aunt Kayne and Uncle Peter brought for me. I named them Jessie, Woody, and Buzz after the three main characters in Toy Story and kept their cage and heat lamp in my bedroom until they were old enough to join the rest of our flock. My childhood is peppered with similar memories: helping milk goats at the Stehly’s ranch, building trellises in our garden for our pole beans, and lots of chicken raising. The most significant experience for me, however, was getting to tag along and help out my Aunt Kayne at the Little Italy Farmers Market in downtown San Diego every Saturday. I will be honest: I think I was more of a liability than an asset at this market. I was ten years old and would leave the table constantly to talk to other vendors about their farms. The Schaners' enduring patience speaks to how willing they were to foster my love of food and farming. I was able to meet chefs who built their menus around what they found at the market that week, and got to know customers who voted with their dollars to support family farms.
After working for the Schaners throughout middle school and high school, and learning more about the globalization of our food system, I decided to study politics in college. I still hadn’t left the U.S. before, but figured if my major included studying other countries’ governments I might be able to go visit at some point. I was accepted into Loyola Marymount University’s new International Relations major. I remember excitedly telling Uncle Peter about my plans to move to LA for college, and that I unfortunately couldn’t keep working for the farm after high school. After my freshman year, I decided to stay on campus for the summer to be a teaching assistant for a class on peacebuilding. I found a shared room in an apartment to sublease, and soon realized that buying groceries for myself was ridiculously expensive and subsisting on a part-time TA income in LA would be impossible. I called Uncle Peter and asked for my job back, this time working at the Schaner stand at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. “Oh that’s great! We’ll have you start this Wednesday. Love you!”
If you haven’t been to the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market before, here’s a brief rundown: the market covers four blocks and runs from 8am-1pm. Unlike most other farmers markets, SMFM does not host resellers, craftsmakers, or prepared food vendors. There are only farmers, fishers, ranchers, bakers and cheesemakers. Sellers come from counties all around Southern and Central CA, and it’s often regarded as one of the best markets in the country for year-round, highly seasonal produce. Starting around 7am, chefs and wholesalers will arrive to pick up pre-ordered crates of produce while we set up the tables to start selling to the general public starting at 8am sharp. The market can get pretty busy. Usually the table is lined with customers asking questions and wanting me to weigh the produce they’ve picked out and chefs are coming up behind the table to see if they can add an extra crate of arugula to their order or to get a receipt.
When the line of customers dies down later in the afternoon and after most of the chefs and buyers come by to drop off their checks, we get a chance to chat with our neighbors at nearby stands and check out what’s in season at other farms. This is the best part of the day for me, especially since I’ve worked at the Schaners stand in Santa Monica for the better part of five years now. I’ve gotten to know chefs, farmers, and customers, while learning the ins and outs of the LA food industry. Most of our customers are regulars, and many of them I’d consider friends. It’s such a special position to be in: seeing people every week and hearing the recipe they made using only things from our farm, how they used our edible flowers and lavender to make their daughter’s birthday cake from scratch, or that they saw our farm’s name on the menu of one of the restaurants we supply to. There are couples I met when they were just dating who are now married with kids. I’ve witnessed chefs go from buying only a few bags of produce for small dinner parties they’re catering to placing huge orders to be delivered to their new restaurant that’s booked out a month in advance. As chaotic as the market gets sometimes, playing a role in how food goes from growing in our fields to feeding someone’s family is the reason I’ve dedicated myself so wholly to this job and industry. The feeling of tending to, harvesting and enjoying what the farm has to offer has taught me the importance of supporting family farms, and working to make sure everyone has access to fresh and local produce.
My workday at the farm typically starts at 7am, meaning I’m up around six and driving over to Schaners as the sun is coming up. My commute takes me through the “valley” of Valley Center, passing pastures with horses, mules, goats, sheep. It's currently lambing season and if I’m not in a rush I’ll turn off onto the shoulder across from one farm to see if any new lambs were born during the night. Thanks to the rain this winter, all the hills are a dark green, dotted with yellow wild mustard and the pinkish granite boulders that are seen in similar settings across Southern California. They’ll eventually break down into the sandy loam soil farmers plant in. The biodiversity here is spectacular. I can spot three or four red tailed or red shouldered hawks, kestrels, guinea hens, roadrunners, and coyotes just on my morning drive to the farm. If I leave work at dusk I’m usually just in time to spot an owl or two flying soundlessly from the trees, and a colony of bats flying out to hunt for the night. In the morning I pass grids of citrus trees and bushes of wild lilacs before turning off the county maintained route and onto the road that leads up to the farm.
Weeks are rarely typical, but generally follow this formula: Mondays and Thursdays are for picking fruit, working on projects, planting trees, deep watering in the nursery, and general maintenance of the farm. Wednesdays and Saturdays are market and delivery days. On Wednesdays, because of the Santa Monica Market, the day starts with leaving the farm around 3:45am and ends around 5pm.
Tuesdays and Fridays follow a tighter schedule. Restaurants and wholesalers will send us their orders from the list we email out on Monday, and from there we tally up how much of everything we should pick to fill orders and bring enough to sell at market. Armed with a piece of scrap paper listing the quantities of each herb to pick and a pair of garden clippers, I grab a handful of rubber bands for bunching and get to work. It’s usually something like: 250 parsley, 20 bunches of lavender, 30 rosemary, 30 thyme, 30 sage, and then specialty items like flowering sage, lilac branches and geranium. Usually, I’m picking by myself so I can listen to a podcast or a book on tape. I’m currently listening to American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. My Goodreads goal for this year is to read or listen to 50 books, and so far I’m on track because of the hours I’ve spent picking herbs. The farm, although always picturesque, is extraordinarily beautiful right now. Our ranunculus are finally blooming between rows of violas, the citrus groves are blanketed in clouds of blossoms, and the rain has turned what are normally dry, scrub-covered hillsides into lush green rolling landscapes. This won’t last long so I try to always take a second and enjoy the fleeting feeling of spring before the sun bakes nearly everything into a crisp in the summer.
After I finish picking, I load one of the ranch’s two Honda CRVs, and drive down to the packing barn to rinse and pack the herbs into crates. After this, I’m cleaning and bunching green garlic or onions. At this point my fingers are black with residue from the herbs, and smell like a mix of sharp alliums, soil, rosemary and lavender. Usually this will be a two-person job and we can chat while we toss garlic peelings into a pile to compost and make bunches for market. When you’re cleaning green garlic, the trick is to take only the outer layer or two – the yellowed husk that was in direct contact with the soil– and leave the purplish or reddish layers intact. The color is absolutely stunning, and once you see the bunches all piled together on the market table you decide that smelling like an Italian kitchen even after you shower and scrub under your nails was worth it.
Working in and adjacent to agriculture has been the most formative and eye-opening experience of my life. It has taught me the value of produce from smaller sustainable farms and the impact that access to high-quality food has on a community’s well-being. It’s given me a unique and life-altering perspective on the diverse slew of issues concerning the food industry: immigration policies supporting migrant farmworkers, water use policies that support small farms, legislation concerning urban and rural food deserts, and more. The health of our communities depends on the future of small, independently-run farms and the knowledge of the farmers who steward them.