• Posted by Jacquie Bellon on May 26th, 2008, 11:34 AM

    There’s a farmer’s dilemma here at Mountain Bounty Farm —how to move swiftly in order to avert disaster. Today, in late April, the temperature dips as an Arctic air mass moves over Northern California; 22 degrees is predicted overnight. The rows of tender broccoli shoots, lettuces, and newly planted greens need to be protected.

    The farmers unfurl lengths of Remay, a white polyester cloth that lets light through but protects plants from cold and critters until they are strong enough to survive adversity. Robust seedlings, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, and precious melons in their four-inch pots need to overnight in the greenhouse, with the wood stove at the ready. John Tecklin fertilizes, tills, seeds, plants, nurtures and harvests Mountain Bounty’s nine acres. He’s been at it for eleven successful years. The farm is nestled among ponderosa pines, oaks, cedars, and madrones on an old homestead in the Sierra Nevada foothills at an elevation of 2600 feet. Before the gold rush, Maidu women ground acorns and seeds in mortar stones now half buried beneath giant oaks; during the gold rush this land fed prospectors.

    Today it is a CSA, a Community Supported Agriculture farm. From May until November, Mountain Bounty’s “subscribers” are delivered a weekly selection of over 150 organically grown vegetables and herbs picked that day. Larger shares provide enough vegetables to feed a family of four, or possibly a couple of mega-vegetarians. These veggies travel less than ten miles from the farm to the pick up site, while most food in U.S. markets travels an average of 1,300 miles. CSA farming is an elegant idea: people connect to their food, the land, and those who tend the soil by placing money directly into the farmer’s hands early in the season, when it’s needed to jumpstart the farm. Through this alliance, subscribers participate in the risks and rewards of farming as well as in the sharing of the harvest. Contrary to a popular story linking the CSA system to one in Japan, it was originally conceived in Europe, growing out of the Biodynamic agricultural movement and championed by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in 1920.The two original CSA farms in this country are Indian Line in Massachusetts  and Temple Wilton in New Hampshire, both independently started in 1986, both still thriving.

    Both John and his partner, Angie Tomey, are gifted with opposable green thumbs. Angie’s passion for flowers is on display along the main path through the farm which is lined with lavender, tansy, yarrow, asters, nicotiania, and penstemons. She cultivates a flower field in nearby Nevada City, which provides a profusion of organic bouquets for local weddings and restaurants; and, in 2007 Angie started the Grizzly Hill School Garden Project, a school garden used to teach science, art and nutrition to students. The two are also gifted cooks, and their research and seasoned palates have led them to farm varieties that are most suited to the farm site, resulting in robust flavors and prodigious yields. Risk takers in their private lives—both are also accomplished rock climbers—they nudge their customers into experimenting with sexy Italian radicchios and romanescos, sensual French melons, fiery Mexican pepper families, all-American corn varieties, and irresistible tomatoes with names like Pink Beauty, Black Krim, Green Zebra, and Sungold. Those suspicious of rutabagas, parsnips, and turnips are urged to stride with confidence into new gustatory territory.

    Sharing in this CSA is an adventure in eating, a weekly sybaritic experience, and an investment in health. Recipes are included with every box along with an update on farm activity. Imagine fennel and blood orange salad with walnuts; parsnips cooked in butter and doused with maple syrup; sumptuous soup made with winter squash and coconut milk. Some items never make it to the stove—who can resist shelling young peas and popping them meditatively into the mouth, or eating handfuls of tiny tomatoes with nibbles of fresh basil?

    John leases the farmable land, located in the community of the San Juan Ridge, from Steve and Yahdi Beckwitt who have owned these 15 acres and the farmhouse since 1976. Forged in the spirit of Berkeley in the ’60s, they escaped to the foothills with their youth, idealism, and young children to join other like-minded urban refugees. They brought the seeds of the environmental movement, political activism (“think globally, act locally”), love and respect for nature, and a willingness to sacrifice comfort for the exploration of sustainable lifestyles.

    Steve and Yahdi raised three boys on homegrown food, while also keeping bees, goats, and pigeons. The boys became experts in biology, ecology, and agriculture, spouting off the Latin names of the species in the native plant nursery they started. The youngest boy, appropriately named Kale, could toss off words like Eriodictyon Californicum (Yerba Santa) as soon as he could speak.

    John grew up in this community; he left home in 1986 to study at Reed College majoring in history. He stayed in Portland, Oregon, got a contractor’s license and specialized as a stonemason. The idea of farming took hold after a budding interest in gardening grew into an obsession. The vegetable and flower garden planted in the backyard by a roommate became an essential part of his life and compelled him to farm.

    This new interest led to a two-year stint on a collaborative CSA farm in Portland, where he farmed alongside Mark Boucher-Colbert, who had apprenticed with Trauger Groh, a pioneer of CSA farming in America. The internship was a swift and profound lesson on the intricacies of growing fine food. When the farm group dispersed, John returned to the San Juan Ridge to practice his newly acquired skills.

    By the time John approached Steve and Yahdi with his vision of a farm, two of their boys had grown and left home, the oldest had stayed, built a house on a separate parcel and was raising his own young family. The plant nursery and land had lain fallow for a decade. Blackberries had regained their stranglehold, the grapes gone wild, and quail proliferated beneath the cover of brambles.

    The Beckwitt homestead jumpstarted John’s vision. The land was fenced, there was a fine tractor; a large, sturdy greenhouse; some of the richest loamy sub-irrigated soil in the area; access to a 60 gallon per minute nearly artesian well; a well laid out and functioning water system. Mountain Bounty Farm was born. The Beckwitts were provided with all the vegetables they could possibly eat, John realized his dream, and the community got its CSA.

    Eleven years later, John is still hooked on the process, the beauty of place, the magic inherent in growing, the miracle of tiny seeds evolving into giant pumpkins, and melt-in-your-mouth melons, a livelihood that gifts his customers with the quality of food they will never find in a supermarket. He shares this love with his four-year-old son, Noah, who knows the names of all the vegetables, is possessed by the love of flowers and tractors, and can already carefully transplant baby broccoli.

    John says that he can’t imagine doing anything else, even at the lowest points, when exhaustion and stress peak with the heat of August, when the responsibility of it all comes storming in like this spring’s Arctic front, when the first planting of broccoli freezes, the spinach comes in too soon, and the new crop of interns needs to be patiently educated. Spring is the most beautiful and the most difficult season for John on Mountain Bounty Farm—everything wants to grow and he wants to grow everything. There’s just so much to do, even as the days grow longer.

    This summer, John is expanding his goals and now farms nine acres, spilling over into nearby tillable land. He has added other tractors, and an antique Allis Chalmers cultivator that he has converted to battery power. He now lives next door to the farm on a piece of land bought from a longtime neighbor who moved away. The artesian well is on his new land. Angie is moving in with him. They can walk to work. Together they penetrate deeper into their dreams.

    Jacquie Bellon, an artist, has lived and worked on the San Juan Ridge for the last 39 years. She presently teaches the practice of the illustrated journal (a process involving writing, collage, drawing, painting) to cancer patients, their families and caregivers. Her other discipline involves looking out at the view of the South Yuba canyon from her house, which she built from scratch with her ex-husband.

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