When I go grocery shopping — until recently, a foreign concept to me since I lived at home after graduation — I usually head out to Costco or Safeway with my housemates. When we hit the produce section (okay, mostly the frozen food aisle), we usually grab whatever we think looks edible and not-too-healthy, mostly a plethora of canned and iced greens and yellows. Needless to say, I had no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to do a LifeSwap with a farmer at Webb Ranch in Portola Valley. I don’t even really eat fruit. I was an Urban Studies major, for cryin’ out loud.
Deano, my guide for the day, didn’t look anything like I had imagined he would look. He didn’t wear overalls or a bandana around his neck; he didn’t chew on a wheat stalk or say “y’all”. He wore a Stanford baseball cap and a shirt from a scuba diving company in Hawaii. It looked like there weren’t any hay bale rides and banjos waiting for me at the end of my session, and I was feeling a bit gyped.
At first, my agri-Virgil walked me around the humble produce stand at the front of the ranch, set where the 280 freeway meets Alpine Road, right behind Stanford University. Compared to the mega-market chains I visited, Webb’s selection was limited: where were the gargantuan watermelons and celery stalks I was used to seeing every two weeks? Deano explained that they only carried what was in season because Webb always wanted to put their best produce out at all times. I was skeptical; sounded like marketing speak to me. It turns out (and Deano told me this too) that they couldn’t grow the seemingly-mutated, off-season fruits and veggies; the weather and growing conditions wouldn’t let them if they tried. He went on to explain the difference between organic and pesticide-free produce (because there is a major difference) and the politics that pollute the “organic” label. After thirty minutes, my head was spinning from all the detail he spouted at me: I could only remember him mentioning something about red wine vinegar, blueberries, and live honey.
As we walked and drove around the ranch, Deano explained all the thought that went into running a farm that size, which was small by comparison to other agro-giants in the United States. Webb took the environmental and social impacts of its production very seriously, and it showed in its operations. For example, instead of flooding or sprinkling fields, Webb used drip irrigation, which only required around a hundred or so gallons of water per field per few days; the former two methods wastes millions of gallons per week, while Webb would save at least half that in the same time span. The farm also pays all of its laborers at least $10.75 per hour (most workers are paid more, and all are paid more than Starbucks pays its baristas); all receive medical, dental, and vision benefits; and all are offered rent-free housing on ranch property for them and their families.
Walking out of one of the fields, Deano pointed out José Solis, who’d been working at Webb for around forty years and was now in his seventies. For forty years, Jose worked ten hours a day, six days a week, and even on a hot day like it was then, he was going at it with a backhoe, swinging like it was his first day at work. Unlike some of the other workers, Jose didn’t drink or smoke — he just worked diligently and saved his earnings, occassionally ribbing the the young guns for not working hard enough and not keeping pace with an old man like himself.
“I’m convinced he has a million dollars stocked away,” Deano remarked. I didn’t doubt it, given the way the guy was plowing.
When we finally got back to the produce stand, Deano handed me a huge box and let me take my pick from whatever was around me. After loading the box with goodies, I pulled my wallet out and Deano and his wife (who also works at the stand) told me to put it away. “I put you to work for two hours in the hot sun, and now I’m paying you,” he said with a smile.
Before I left, Deano made sure to give me some white nectarines, similar to the ones we saw at the ranch’s modest orchard. “Try these. When you take a bite, it’ll blow your mind,” he said as he placed them into my box. We shook hands and I promised to come back very few weeks to restock on fruit (even though I don’t eat any!), and Deano said he would love if I worked with the team at a couple of farmer’s markets during the summer (hell, why not?). I drove away from the ranch grateful, and frankly, eager to sample the fruits of my labor. (See what I did there?)
Deano was right. When I bit into that nectarine, I smiled. The flesh was firm yet tender, the juice just slightly sugary. I learned rather recently — both through a drastic change in diet and a week-long defiance of said diet in New York — that good food, truly good food, can nourish both body and soul, and not just because of the nutrients they provide. It wasn’t just the taste or the texture of the nectarine that had me grinning; it was thinking about what it took to produce that perfection. For once, I could enjoy what I was eating, guilt-free, which made it all the sweeter.
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