Ryan Power (right) and Adam Davidoff are childhood friends who run the New Family Farm, a 15 acre plot in their hometown of Sebastopol, a few miles from the northern California coast. The New Family Farm grows a variety of fruits and vegetables sold at farmers markets in the region, but their intensely-flavored, dry-farmed tomatoes are the thing that gets people talking.
I met Ryan while working on a story about dry farming – a technique that forgoes conventional irrigation in favor of natural rain cycles and water held in the ground. We talked on a hot afternoon, sitting on tree stumps under a willow while his young daughter played nearby. Ryan is warm and informal, the kind of guy who shows you around without bothering to put a shirt on first. His approach to work and life are underpinned by meditations on consumer society and its devotion to farming at scale. When explaining who he is, what he does, and why he does is, he tends to flit between the practical and the philosophical in the same sentence. Here’s what he told me.
"1% of people in America are farmers. The other way of saying that is 99% of Americans are just consumers. Does that feel right to you?"
The history of this area is that all the valleys used to be planted with potatoes and corn – and they were dry farmed. The old timers I’ve spoken to said they grew corn 14 feet tall without using water.
Here we dry farm tomatoes, corn, pinto beans, potatoes, melon and summer squash, and we also have irrigated crops like broccoli, cauliflower, beets, kale, lettuce, cilantro, parsley and chard.
The main thing to know about dry farming is that it makes things taste better. It’s fascinating because the logic is that plant plus water equals magic. The idea of taking water away to enhance something is counterintuitive. But think about it this way: when you irrigate you are watering the crops down. Do you want a plant that will give you more, watery tomatoes, or less, super tasty tomatoes? That makes sense to people. I had a guy who came out here to write an article for a magazine, and I gave him some of our tomatoes and he nearly shit his britches. Seriously, he couldn’t talk for a while.
The thing that I am most excited about is quinoa. Last year we got over 2,000 pounds per acre without a single drop of water in the worst drought in California’s history. Most of world’s quinoa is grow on the Altiplano in Peru and Bolivia, and it’s really expensive. We’re one of like 10 people growing it in America. The industry is definitely coming to the states and we aren’t sure where it’s gonna settle. Sonoma is the ideal place for it. But things are pretty entrenched here. To the west of me is vast amounts of acreage that are all cattle and sheep; everybody out there is doing dairy. And the rest of the land is grapes. But we’re starting the mission.
Adam and I met in the 7th grade. We grew up in Sebastopol and both went to Santa Cruz, which is where we learned about dry farming. We were both students of Steve Gliessman, who taught agroecology. It means is the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems. There’s a deficit of that kind of thinking in farming, and I’d say across the board. I think if we realized we are all ecological creatures we would all be a lot happier. Especially if we could understand the ecology of the human soul, and start thinking about the way that personality traits, patterns and addictions grow and develop and what happens if we don’t prune them and water them … well, the metaphor is endless.
"There is only so much that one dude can do. But one dude is better than 100,000 acres of cotton"
I think the holdup with the organic versus industrial debate is the notion of “if I do things organically I’m gonna get less, then I won’t make money, and how am I going to make a living?” I’m not saying we should be less productive. But productivity shouldn’t be the only lens that we use to evaluate success. When big companies say “well does it produce a lot? That’s all that matters!” I think, woah. Is that really all that matters?
Hubris is what I’m talking about. That system will bankrupt itself in time. 1% of people in America are farmers. The other way of saying that is 99% of Americans are just consumers. Does that feel right to you? If you want there to be sustainable agriculture then more people need to farm. There is only so much that one dude can do. But one dude is better than 100,000 acres of cotton.
Have you ever read any Wendell Berry? He is like the prophet-grandfather of sustainable agriculture. His seminal work is The Unsettling of America. He tells the story of humans leaving the land and moving into cities and becoming careerists – and what that did to the concepts of home, marriage and the economy.
What is a city, anyway? It’s a hive of people that imports resources. The opposite of urbanization would be ruralization but we don’t even have a word for that. We don’t have a concept of leaving the city. The impact of that is something we have never had to process before.
Both Adam and I want to grow the best food we can, and one of the ways to do that is by dry farming. There’s something cool about not having to water a crop. Other farmers in different parts of the country can’t do it, but here we can.
Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet that one should be a writer only if one cannot imagine a life without writing. That’s how farming is to me. It just comes out of my hands. It’s as natural to me as breathing.
You wanna go see some quinoa?
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Quinoa photos by Michelle Davidoff, lead portrait by Gary Ottonello, all courtesy of the New Family Farm. Portrait of Ryan Power beside the white sack of quinoa taken by Feeder.