This is the seventh in our series “Connecting With Local Food.”
I Was Born At a Very Early Age
By Mike Brock
I guess you could say the idea of Brock Farms started at an early age. I was hooked at twelve by the magic that you can plant this little seed and you get a watermelon, or this one a carrot, and this one a corn stalk. I think for most folks seeing a seed you have planted and germinated is always a good feeling. I soon raised a garden and built a mini barnyard with chickens and a billy goat. I liked selling some of my veggies at a small lemonade-style stand outside our driveway. I wanted to be a farmer. Someone guided me into 4-H where I entered my produce and raised sheep and showed them at the Monterey County Fair. I have always wanted to be a farmer and wishing I could be a rancher from the get-go. I wasn’t in line to inherit any land, so after years of saving my money and after schooling, I went looking through Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado for the right place to set up shop and farm. In 1978, I came down Highway 253 into Anderson Valley. It was all ranches and apples with a good winter climate and ocean nearby. Plus, it was relatively close to my paternal family. I was sold. My first wife and I were fortunate to buy a 4.5-acre spot with good water next to master homesteaders, Jan and Flick, who were a huge source of knowledge of living off the land and raising food. We followed their lead. Perhaps you could say it was a domestic, controlled way compared to the savvy locals who hunted and fished the Valley’s bounty without the feed and fences.
In 1982 and ‘83, I was blessed with two beautiful daughters, April and Maia, who, in 1992 rode in what I think was the only Farmers’ Market parade float convoy ever. They rode with a twelve-foot paper Mache carrot we had made. The leader of the pack was George Gowan and his incredibly designed apple market rig. George’s rig (welded by his son) was a farm stand on wheels, ready to go the minute he pulled into a market. It was a very brilliant idea. Perhaps this was the birthplace of fixing the starting times for farmers’ markets. This allowed everyone to catch up and be on the same playing field as George, who was probably sold out by the time you were just pulling in to the market!
I had started raising hogs with three sows and a boar, and sold weaner pigs. It was a touch and go operation: selling at the Ukiah auction yard sometimes was rough, at times having to buy my own stock back to save them from being sold too cheaply. I took them to the Petaluma auction and did better. Having children around the farm and keeping them safe was always paramount. The pigs made me nervous with children, so I sold them off. Growing organically just made good sense for a lot of reasons also.
Around 1986 when I was single again, I met Vickie Stone, who swears that one our first dates consisted of holding a piglet while I castrated it. It’s possible, but what the hell was I thinking? Vickie also liked farming–a match made in heaven and how can you let a cute girl like that go? We started working and planting and began vending at various farmers’ markets around 1989 with strawberries, raspberries, potatoes, and tomatoes. We also had planted a large area of asparagus. We hit markets in Ukiah, Cloverdale, Willits, and Healdsburg and finally settled with Ukiah and Willits at that time. We definitely kept our teaching jobs. Regardless of how much experience at play- farming I had, we made lots of mistakes and missed moves. Pretty much the list of things to deter your efforts is long. Growing organically sometimes seemed like throwing things to the wind and if it lands right you could get a crop. Sometimes it’s like that. It’s tough, but not all that dramatic. Hell, our great grandfathers were pulling it off and it was their norm. A lot of soil amendments were free back then. Now it’s big business for a lot of reasons and pricey.
Luckily for me, Vickie and I got married 1992, and with her hard work ethic and extreme talent at weeding (seriously, she is a machine) it was a major, major help for a farm that didn’t use herbicides. The insect and pests seemed to balance out after a while, the good ones eating the bad ones. Our biggest problems are the weeds.
Brock Farms started to get stronger and began to expand. Farmers’ markets were just getting started around then and seemed to be everywhere. Markets were extremely slow in the beginning, but were catching on with the public who seem to want a fresher, local product. The Boonville Farmers’ Market started around 1991. Great! No drive time or gas. This market was real slow out of the chute. We still needed to go to the Ukiah Saturday market. So Vickie would attend Boonville and I went to Ukiah. We put a trailer hitch on her Sentra coupe, and the car could act like a truck. We were hitting four markets a week back then.
Personally I like small towns, but the smallness of the Boonville Farmers’ Market makes it real tricky. How much do I pick to take, so I don’t lose my socks? This phenomenon also makes it nearly impossible to attract and keep the wide variety of vendors’ offerings that the larger markets can support. Vendors from outside the area may pop in for a while, but soon the economics don’t add up, and they drop. It seems really easy to outgrow our little market and search for other areas to sell your product. Our best years in Boonville seemed to be the “green bucks” era. In reality, that was subsidized with a grant, but the market picked up in activity. Now days it’s just simply a sweet place to meet and get fresh veggies.
In 1993, baby Hannah joined the family. It was then we decided Vickie was more suited for teaching and I for farming, so we juggled the two worlds and tried to make ends meet. Around then, that dang Dave Gowan introduced me to the giant pumpkins, which led to a huge farm distraction but a helluva ride “playing” farm style. We traded back and forth winning some pumpkin contests and prize money. As Nancy put it, “ You boys had a lot of fun with that pumpkin stuff.” Heavy emphasis on “boys “. I didn’t care, it was paying for fifty yards of compost each season for the farm and I was having a lot of fun.
Around 1995-96 we cut back on markets and shifted more towards the coast. We went to Fort Bragg, Mendocino, and occasionally doubled Saturday duty with Gualala, and always Boonville.
In 1996, our neighbors Jan and Flick and Brock Farms were knocked off their feet with a fire. The fire pretty much took out barns, livestock, and farming equipment, but spared our homes. We were dazed, to put it lightly, but rapidly were set back on our feet with inspiring support and help from friends and just plain good people in the Valley community and outside it. We came back stronger and better with all their inspiration and help.
Along came baby Julia in 1999. There are a lot of funny stories about juggling children, farming, and markets. Building temporary corrals in the area you’re working in or using your truck cab as a playpen only to find pennies from the ashtray from here to China in very odd places–the worst place being my radio cassette player. I don’t think they missed a button or knob. Everything blasted on the minute you started the truck, though basically it worked – somewhat.
The years fly by with raising young children and the challenge of juggling all the dependent living things on a farm and off. The challenges of farming organically all seem mostly a game of defense, and in the end it’s what you want to do but you still have to pay the bills.
Along the way we have had a lot of support and this a great place to says thanks to: the fire recovery team; Dave and Nancy Gowan for their help tracking down items of need and selling them near cost; Regina Schwenter for major well support; the Valley’s own version of Alice Waters, aka Lauren, for her solid, consistent support, and willingness to take our bitten seconds; all the Boonville Farmers’ Market managers who mostly volunteer time to keep our market afloat: the support from our customers; and the AV Foodshed Group: a heartfelt thanks to all!
If you need something during the week, swing by the farm at the bottom of Peachland. If you go to the 2013 Fair, check out the giant pumpkin enthusiast exhibits and the new long gourds and giant pear gourds… maybe a new contest in the making?
In two weeks the next in the Connecting With Local Food Series will feature Lauren Keating and Lauren’s restaurant in an interview by Terry Ryder.