Mike Madison lives with his wife, Dianne, in Winters, California, where they operate a small truck farm in the Sacramento Valley.
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We eat like peasants, whatever’s at hand. An hour before dinner, I find myself rummaging in the garden, a few fennels tucked under my arm, my hat full of beans, tugging leeks out of the ground — ought to be able to make something out of that. On our place we grow olives, lemons, and figs; persimmons, mandarins, and apricots; prunes, nectarines, and grapes; tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant; fennel, radicchio, and artichokes; lettuces, carrots, and beets; squash, okra, and pumpkins; and a number of other things which I can’t recall at the moment. Some is intended for commerce, some for the use of the house. A manager with an MBA would be appalled by the seemingly haphazard plan of our farm, and by the unfathomable calendar according to which we operate. But he needn’t worry. It’s more or less under control.
Continue reading We eat like peasants »
To plant a vineyard is easier than to tear it out five years later when you’ve changed your mind. I’ve been reflecting on this lately while digging out grapevines. A few years ago I decided to add a vineyard to my farm, with the idea of growing commercially some of the unusual grapes that are seldom seen outside of specialist collections.
The usual market grape in this area is Red Flame, a quintessential industrial grape. Its virtues, from the grower’s perspective, are great vigor and productivity, good appearance, and fruit that is famous for its durability in cold storage and long-distance shipping. The flavor and texture? Crunchy sugar water.
Continue reading The road to Venus »
There is no greater pleasure on a stormy winter evening than to sit in a comfortable chair in front of the fire with a stack of seed catalogs, the way a sensualist settles down with his Playboy and Penthouse.
Look at this unblemished skin, radiant as if lit from within (I’m talking about a tomato). Or here, where the low angle of the light illuminates a fine fuzz of downy hairs disappearing around a plump curve into the shadow of an alluring cleft (I’m talking about a peach). And look at this turgid morsel of luminous pinkness; one could fairly lick the page (I’m talking about a raspberry).
Continue reading Perfect tomato »
One Wednesday I noticed that there was a new farmer at the market, and when business was slow, I wandered down to introduce myself. “Meredith’s Organic Produce,” said the sign. “Are you Meredith?” I asked. She was. She was a sturdy woman, 30-something I would guess, wearing hiking boots and shorts and a long-sleeved jersey. Her hair was in a braid down her back. She wasn’t beautiful in a Cosmopolitan cover girl sort of way, but she was handsome as robustly healthy people sometimes are.
Meredith had set out a small display of carrots and beets and radishes, bok choy, lettuce, escarole, green onions, and a few other such things. The root crops were scrubbed clean, and the produce was presented with care and obvious affection. There wasn’t much of it, though; it had all fit in a little Honda hatchback. Meredith told me that she had rented an acre of ground, and that this was her first attempt at farming, and her first market, and she was nervous. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Your produce is beautiful. You’ll have no trouble selling it.” She told me where her farm was and gave me permission to visit sometime.
Continue reading Meredith »
In August and part of September, when apples are in season, an apple grower is next to me at the market. About every 10th customer holds up an apple and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” as if this profound observation had never been made before.
If I’m free at that moment, I tell the apple joke. I say, “Yes, and an apple every eight hours keeps three doctors away.” The customers regard me strangely. I seem to be the only one who finds it funny.
One Wednesday in late September, I pulled into my spot at the market and noticed that the apple vendor wasn’t there. Apple season was over. In her place, a woman was setting up a display of beautiful dried fruit. There were the usual sorts of things — dried apricots and Mission figs and Thompson seedless raisins. But she also had dried white nectarines and yellow nectarines, and half a dozen varieties of peaches, and pears, and apples, and Calimyrna figs, and golden raisins.
Continue reading Marika »
The reason why I am sometimes tempted to quit farming in disgust, and the reason why I can never quit farming, are the same. The reason is a little burrowing rodent called the western pocket gopher. The word “pocket” in his name refers to a pouch on each side of his face in which he can carry his lunch. I have trapped gophers with their pockets stuffed with grains of wheat and oats, or chunks of radish, or half a tulip bulb.
The gopher is a vegetarian, and lives by eating the farmer’s crops. He prefers the most expensive ones, and will always choose Casablanca lilies over mere tulips. He lives underground in a maze of tunnels. There is generally just one gopher to a system of tunnels, which makes me wonder how it is that they breed so prolifically.
Continue reading Gophers »
Mission figs turn dark purple about two weeks before they’re ready to harvest. I check the orchard every day, sliding my hand around a fig and giving it a gentle squeeze. When the figs are soft and have begun to wilt at the neck, it’s time to pick them. You don’t pick a fig by tugging and twisting, as you would an apple or a plum; you slide your thumb along the branch and press against the side of the stem to push the fig off.
We take figs to market in shallow trays. Some of our customers are so greedy for figs that, having bought a tray, they stand in the market, eyes closed, face turned heavenward, dropping figs into their mouths and groaning with pleasure while the crowd swirls around them. But better yet is to eat a fig from the west side of the tree late in the afternoon when the sun has been warming it, intensifying its wonderful fragrances.
Continue reading Figs »
We don’t grow sweet corn on our farm — it takes too much water, and it’s a finicky crop, and in the past when we’ve grown it we’ve been inattentive and failed to harvest it at the critical moment. So we leave corn-growing to the specialists, and when we want corn we buy it, or barter for it.
This year we tried the varieties of sweet corn available at the farmers’ market — So Sweet, Milk ’n Honey, Even Sweeter, Candy Store, and Sweet Heart. All of these newer varieties have the sh-2 (supersweet) gene, which causes the kernels to develop an extremely high sugar content. To me, they taste too much like candy, and not enough like corn.
Continue reading Eat bitterness »
Bruce runs an organic vegetable operation a few miles from me. His farm is bigger than mine, and busier. Flocks of minimum-wage workers toil in the fields while Bruce is inside, striking deals on the phone or tidying his website. He trucks his fruits and vegetables to San Francisco, where the citizens are accustomed to being fleeced, and he asks outlandish prices with a straight face.
In the theater of direct selling, he is a great actor and he has studied every detail. The carefully battered hat, the trace of an English accent, the way he holds a bunch of kale close to himself and makes the customer reach for it, teases her a little, acts as if it is a prized possession with which he is reluctant to part — all these are calculated to give an impression of heightened value. He calls eggplant “aubergine,” which he takes as license to charge three dollars a pound instead of a dollar like everyone else.
Continue reading Bruce »
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