Embracing Failure: Arborist Patrick Schafer

Embracing Failure: Arborist Patrick Schafer

This is the seventeenth in our series “Connecting With Local Food.”

Embracing Failure

By Tom Melcher

Many of us tend to think of arborists as technicians who cut and prune ornamentals, but according to the OED, the definition is “one who cultivates or studies trees.” In short, an arborist is a lover of trees. If Patrick Schafer’s love is indicative of what drives an arborist, the passion is inborn. He traces his lifelong interest to a visit he made to Golden Gate Park when he was ten years old. One moment lingers from the day—coming upon a tree set out from the rest. He describes it as something Dr. Seuss might have drawn, a tree unlike anything near his boyhood home on the flank of Marin County’s Mt. Tamalpais. A light went off and no matter what else Patrick has done, growing trees has been a constant in his life.

The tree in Golden Gate Park was a palm, and driving into the twenty-five acre property on the brow of Signal Ridge where Patrick and his wife Anita Soost now live, one sees that palms abound. That’s right; palms in the Anderson Valley, standing alongside Douglas fir and Redwood. Ironically for us living here in the driest year in decades, it was the drought of 1975 that inspired Patrick to relocate from Marin County. Water having to be piped across the San Rafael Bridge to fill bathtubs made life there seem unwise. Jobs in the valley being as rare then as they are now, he worked the obligatory stint with wineries until he came up with the idea to create the trash hauling business known as Great American Waste. As a one-man company, Patrick did a lot of grunt work, but in the beginning his contracts were light enough to allow him time every day to, as he says, “play.” That’s his assessment of an arborist’s work. And the trees he played with were not those that already grew here, but ones that didn’t, the exotics, trees people said he was crazy to try growing.

Fear of failure is not part of the arborist’s heart. Like that person who planted a palm tree in Golden Gate Park, Patrick wanted to see what exotics could survive and thrive here in the Anderson Valley. He and Anita were lucky to find their land; a parcel with water, fairly level—being on the top of the ridge—and not so large a piece that the cost or the taxes made it out of reach. Seeing the size of the trees encircling the five acres where he grows his experiments, it’s hard to believe that in the 60’s this was a sheep ranch. He holds a hand level with his chest. “Nothing was taller than this when I got here.” In the middle of the five acres is a large house with south-facing windows, a greenhouse addition and a few outbuildings. Like many of the valley’s inhabitants, he and Anita built it themselves, unafraid to use whole tree trunks for posts. As you might suspect, this is not the kind of place where one finds a lawn. Exotics grow right to the front door.

Only a minute passes before one realizes the heart of this form of play is an insatiable curiosity. And making promises or setting concrete goals would distract him from the questions: Could that tree grow here? Does it grow here? Is it attractive? Does it bear fruit and seeds? Can it resist disease? In league with other varieties, can it stretch the season? Is it consistent from one generation to the next? If not, what variables need to change to make it grow here? If everything fails, why? And lastly, could it be crossed with another variety to make it thrive? If the answer to this last question seems plausible, the process begins again. Given that it takes most trees five years to begin to bear, one can easily understand that these experiments take a lifetime. For arborists, patience leads to beatitude.

Patrick sold the trash hauling business in 2000 and now this is how he spends his days. At first he seems almost apologetic that his interest deserves an interview, though for his side he loves to talk trees. We begin our tour at a short hybrid palm tree that he grew, not by grafting, but by crossing from two varieties at the seed level. Neither parent plant would do well here, he says, but together the result appears to thrive. But ever the scientist, he’s quick to caution that you never know. Then again, this particular variety is sterile; it’s like a mule. When asked what’s the point? he responds that mules are valuable.

Along the way he learns the qualities of each variety—how they respond to light, and to frost, and to too much water or too little, and to the vagaries of a shifting climate. Before we move on, Patrick has already invoked the words of a horticultural genius that happened to be our third president. “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘If you can add one plant to the human existence, that’s a really good thing.’” This, then, is one of the marks of the passion: helping humanity, particularly with providing food. Except for his palms that he grows, “because they are cool, aesthetic, beautiful” and one tree from Australia (because it flowers in our winter) all the other varieties here have some food to offer.

“I’ve killed more plants than anyone I’ve ever known,” he says with a smile. He learns a lot from failure. But usually the experiments fall somewhere between success and failure and this is much harder. “There is always the choice to give a plant another year to see what happens. That’s frustrating.”

Oddly enough, too much success can also lead to failure. He laughs, describing an astringent cherry that grew beautifully. It failed only because the birds loved it so. “The pigeons know my address. You’d be surprised what twenty birds can do in an hour.” Hazelnuts are indigenous to this region, but so far nothing seems to get them to produce except every third year. And then the blue jays wipe them out.

The Catalina Island cherry (Prunus Lyonii), a southern Califonia native, is a good size fruit but the seeds are large and the leaves prickly, both of which make it undesirable. Patrick is interested in crossing it with another variety to make a cherry with a smaller seed and smooth leaves.

Part of this pursuit necessitates importing seed from all over the world. Though seed doesn’t produce virus, some plants escape to become invasives, like Scotch broom here on the coast. “You have to be careful and watch things. The problems with invasive plants come from ignorance. Like when we try to use one plant as a quick fix for having ruined the land. A perfect example was using kudzu to mitigate the effects of the dust bowl. Quick fixes are not compatible with long experiments.”

Next is a citrus tree loaded with fruit, most of which bear spots. It does fairly well, but every third year the weather seems to hammer it. And the kiwis are susceptible to frost but are generally successful here.

“I love pushing the envelope of what’s possible. I love different. I love the excitement to the eye, to the nose. It comes down to the color of the flower of the taste of the ear of corn, the color of the potato. The idea of a vineyard is boring as hell to me. That’s where every plant is built to be exactly like every other—same height, same width, same genetics, same number of grape clusters. They do that for mechanization, for production, like a wheat field. Work there is like being in a factory.” He explains that was what caused the Chinese and Soviet systems to fail. Create one thing and tell people they have to use it.

Often time he will run trials comparing many varieties of a fruit. He points to a cluster of twenty mature figs crowding each other, then waves a relaxed hand at them, saying they need to be pulled. Only one did well enough to keep around.

Though the importance of new plants and new characteristics increases in a time of global warming, like most acts of creativity, this play isn’t rewarded financially. Patrick says he breaks even, maybe does a little better. For a number of years after selling the hauling business, he partnered with a friend from the Bay Area to create a business venture selling bare-root fruit trees. The first crops had the misfortune of being ready for market in 2008 coinciding with the financial panic. But it wasn’t only that. To proceed in scale, they had to farm out some of the process to a commercial nursery in the Central Valley and the availability of rootstock was limited and created headaches. It got to a point where he couldn’t recommend the plants he was growing. Not liking things mediocre, he gave the company to his partner. It was a learning experience that confirmed he didn’t want to be part of sales and the hype that goes with it. Now he seems clear that trying to make money with what you love can kill it. To make a buck, the standards get lower. And from here he slips into philosophy—or is it sociology? What seems to be wrong with society is that so few are happy with their work. Life is a struggle and to adjust their fates people turn to drugs, to travel, to adrenaline highs, sex and pleasure of all kinds.
There are thousands of varieties of apples, but if you go to a store, you’ll find maybe six, and these same six are being sold from sea to shining sea. None of them are particularly tasty; they are farmed for shipping. Well—you think—if people were educated, large numbers of consumers requesting beautiful and delicious new fruits would turn the market around, would get us away from the very mediocre food and limited varieties available in stores. Patrick shakes his head. His experience is that educating people about food is a monumental

[emphasis his] task, for the simple reason that, by and large, people eat what their mothers fed them. Well, then—you counter—let’s get a grass roots movement going to create varieties. More difficulties: trees take five years or more to begin giving back. Some people aren’t willing to make that time commitment. Still others that might want to plant trees don’t own the land where they live and can’t muster the effort to plant for a future tenant.

How does one manage hundreds of trees in varying stages of surviving or in need of removal? With trees there is rarely a job that can’t wait for a day. But like all gardeners, in spring Patrick has to push to get the trees established before the drought months. That’s a busy time. The biggest ongoing chore is watering. Whenever possible, he chooses varieties that are hardy without watering, though most any tree needs close attention in the first years. Still, one of the main expenses on the property is for electricity to pull water from the two wells. Though, as already noted, the land is on the top on the ridge, his access to the aquifer there is better than most homes. The gift of geology. The other main job here is to keep the forest at bay. The chainsaws are sharp. To keep track of the other things, he tours his land and makes note of how things are doing and handles what the day allows. By watching, he files things in the back of his mind.

As for climate change, he notices that it has been warmer the last five to seven winters, but one doesn’t sense this worries him. After all, his view is wedded to adaptation. He’s always evaluating. His understanding of the change to come is that it will not be simply warmer than before. The droughts and periods of rain (when it comes) will be more accentuated, as if the environment will release more energy as the earth warms. This will make farming more difficult. What we’re dealing with now is mild compared to what it could be. Ever the optimist, he imagines that our current drought may be a wakeup call to everyone, regardless of political party. He stresses what we should be most concerned with as a planet is the shortage of potable water.

Toward the end of the visit, he waxes philosophical. “If you want to do something, you can’t be afraid of failure. It’s where knowledge comes from. I learn more from failure than from success. In this country we’re very lucky. There is nothing here to stop us from doing things.“ When asked why he loves trees, loves exotics, he gets quiet, reflective. “I love watching the magic happen. Some people are musicians. Some are plant people. It’s who I am.”