Monday, August 3, 2009

More Urban Farmers: The Patch in Sonoma

Walking down The Path in the town of Sonoma (it runs east to west from Sebastiani Winery to Highway 12), you can’t miss The Patch. It is a 5½-acre piece of land filled with thriving plants of all kinds: tomatoes, squash, onions, eggplant, corn, cucumbers, beans, and more. There’s a farm stand on the 2nd Street East edge of the plot, open every day from about 10 to 5, July to November. A rickety sign marks the spot. Where else but Sonoma would there be a huge plot of land, next to a vineyard, growing vegetables? I fell in love.

The first time I visited the farm stand, it was on the honor system with a scale to weigh your produce and a metal canister with a slot in the top for your money. I was amazed that whoever ran this enterprise considered his customers honest and trusted that they would pay for their vegetables. I found this extraordinary. Clearly something special was going on here.

The next time, I met Leo. He always sits on a white plastic chair at the far end of the stand. Sometimes he’s listening to a baseball game (the Giants and the Red socks are his teams) on the radio. Sometimes he’s waiting patiently for the next customer. Always he asks, “What’s for dinner?” and really wants to know. He is a man who knows his way around the kitchen. He watches Jamie Oliver and Rick Bayless on television and regularly makes ratatouille and Mexican green chile stew for himself. He also really knows his vegetables and recently has been complaining loudly about our need for more heat to bring in the sweetness of the melons and the tomatoes. I always look forward to seeing him on my regular farm stand visits. So how did he get here?

Leo Salais was born in Los Angeles in 1932. His mother was a Mexican from New Mexico and his father was from Chihuahua. He moved to San Francisco in 1941 and says that he was always crazy about the city: the people, the food, and the environment. He worked for the School Department for 18 years as a maintenance foreman and then drove for Regal Delivery for Macy’s for 10 years before retiring in 1999 and moving to Sonoma where one of his daughters and grandkids live. He says, “I left San Francisco and reinvented myself.”

He started working at the farm stand for Betty Kolstad about seven years ago and stayed on when Lazaro Calderon took over in 2003; currently he works about five days a week. He is full of admiration for his boss, Lazaro, and for the team who “work their asses off” to grow the vegetables he sells. I was surprised to learn that he is also passionate about jazz, in addition to food, his family, and baseball. He studied the saxophone at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston from 1955-57. He loves the music of saxophonists Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Art Pepper, and Stan Getz and listens to their music most every night.

So that’s Leo. He was my initial introduction to The Patch but there is a second equally important story.

There are two Farmers Markets in Sonoma: Tuesday evening and Friday morning. One market day I noticed a produce stand with a large sign reading The Patch. But Leo, the only face I associated with The Patch, was not selling. The fellow in charge was gracious, knowledgeable, and friendly. He handled the vegetables with great care. Once I had established myself as a regular customer, this fellow would occasionally add an extra tomato to my sack. He mostly worked alone, but occasionally would be joined by another man who looked remarkably like him. I learned that his name was Lazaro Calderon and the second fellow was his brother. Lazaro is on the left, his brother Fernando on the right.

Lazaro was born in 1974 north of Mexico City, the sixth of eight kids, four brothers and four sisters. He moved to Petaluma with his father when he was 14. After high school he worked with his dad in a nursery and on the side grew hydrangeas which he took to the city to sell. He also sold wreaths which his uncle taught him to make. Lazaro moved on to Skylark Nursery in Santa Rosa, working with fresh cut flowers, and then to Oak Hill Farms where he worked with Paul for a couple of years. In 1994 Paul referred him to Betty Kolstad, who was then running The Patch, and Lazaro signed on to work for her. The Patch at that point was mostly planted in corn with a few vegetables on the side. In 2003 when Betty decided it was time to do something new, Lazaro took over the operation, leasing the land from the Castellanos family, who raise Clydesdale horses down the block.

He made some changes. He started growing more tomatoes and less corn. He increased heirloom tomato production from two varieties in 2003 to 16 now, in addition to Early Girls and Beefsteaks. In a couple of weeks, Xochimilco tomatoes—his new favorite—will be ripe and in great demand. He also started growing a wider variety of squashes, onions, cucumbers, and eggplants as he saw what his customers wanted.

He started selling his produce at Farmers Markets in Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol. During the growing season he goes to more than five every week, in addition to organizing the work in the fields.
He brought his two brothers, Fernando and Vicente, to work with him and has a great team in the field harvesting the produce. In addition to The Patch, he grows flowers and peaches on 2½ acres that he and his family own in Santa Rosa where they live.

During the winter when The Patch doesn’t need his full attention, he finds other projects to keep him busy. Recently a large private school building across the street from his mother’s house in Mexico where he was raised came up for sale. He and his siblings as kids used to clean and sweep around the property for a little money and a Coca Cola. The owner of the school had always told them, “One day this could be yours.” When the owner was ready to retire, he offered them the school saying, “You are the right people to have it.” They bought the property and are now in the process of turning the school into a night club. He goes to Mexico at least twice a year to work out the arrangements and oversee the remodeling. He expects it to be open in a year or two.

Several things are clear from my conversations with him: in spite of the hard work and long hours, he loves what he does. He is in love with tomatoes. He loves to work this land which is so filled with history. He loves maintaning the tradition noted on his card which says The Patch: No Chemicals since 1870. He will continue to farm the land as long as the owners are willing to lease it to him.

We are the beneficiaries of Leo’s dedication, patience, and good humor, of Lazaro’s entrepreneurial spirit and huge capacity to learn and grow, and the team’s immense effort to nurture and tend this special plot of land. I, for one, am immensely grateful to all of them.


Holly said...

I fixed Menu 8 (Chicken Marbella, Coconut Rice and Roasted Tomatoes) last weekend for a small dinner party and everything turned out great! The chicken got rave reviews, and I personally loved the coconut rice. Such great flavor. The tomatoes are always a favorite this time of year, and they went along really well with all the wonderful flavors of the chicken and rice. This will be a repeat menu for sure.

Anonymous said...

yay! more about urban farmers!

Julie Rodriguez Jones said...

What a wonderful story!