Over the two weeks I was fortunate enough to stay with friends on maybe half a dozen farms or ranches in Mendo, I visited as many folks as possible during the days. Because I was not driving, rather relying on pure hospitality, and this was the winter holiday season, some farms and ranches I really wanted to see but had to settle for mulitiple phone calls as we tried to coordinate, what with kids' playdates and myriad social or business obligations.
"Lamb prices are insane,” said Adam Gaska over the phone, when I finally surrendered to Fate, and called to say I couldn't make it. He was out stringing up electric fence for his flock. Adam, of Mendocino Organics, rents all the land he farms or grazes, producing meat, eggs, vegetables, and grain. “The regular, run-of-the-mill market price for lamb or mutton is the same as I get for grass-fed, organic. I can pretty much name the price. Anyway, sheep are cheap to maintain. I never figured out how to make money growing vegetables, though. I mean, not REALLY make money."
"Me, either. Not out here. You got too many strikes against you. The biggest one is you're on marginal soil in frosty hills, right next to the fruit and vegetable cornucopia of America.” I probably didn't say, “fruit and vegetable cornucopia of America,” but that's what the Central Valley is.
"I just keep thinking less vegetables, more with the grazing."
"Well, that's what I went for eventually, the last few years in Boonville,” I said. “Figured I'd rather have a garden that looked good, with pastures on most of the land.”
For the previous decade many of these folks had not only been friends of mine, but neighbors and possibly competitors for land or local produce markets. This time, they were only friends, as my family's farm is the other side of the continental divide, 2000 miles east, so my point of view was more objective, maybe, though everywhere I went I couldn't help wondering, would I want to be in these peoples' shoes?
The only farms or ranches/communes I visited that are going to “make it” as farmers are the ones “making it” now. The families that are making wine from their own grapes, the ranchers in Potter or Round Valley with their pastured, organic beef, the orchards like the Apple Farm and Gowans selling fruit and vegetables at the farmers' markets, pressing cider, are “making it.” All these folks are either sons of the soil, grandfathered in to water rights, or they are of my parents' generation, the Baby Boomers, who jumped in the organic game when land was still cheap enough to purchase for agriculture.
I didn't visit or talk to one member of “my generation” who really, in my relatively objective opinion, had a prayer of growing crops to pay off the land they'd purchased. At this point I can include cannabis as one of the crops that probably won't be a mortgage lifter.
"They've basically legalized it in Michigan,” said a Mendo native about my age who, with his wife, purchased an expensive chunk of dry ranch land about five years ago. He started a grower's supply business where they mix ammendments or soils and actually do only wholesale, shipping all over the United States. “Michigan is our number two customer, behind California,” he said. “They came out of nowhere. Those guys are going to out-compete the NorCal growers. They got the advantage of being closer to the markets, and those guys are just a little rougher around the edges, the type who'd probably fight you in a bar."
Hearing my fellow “X Generation” pioneers give their stories, express their plans to take out loans to put in olive trees, ponds, do grass-fed beef, in the hopes of servicing hundreds of thousands in debt on mortgages, I had to bite my tongue. After living for a year in the truly fertile valley where I grew up, where farming is way easier, land way cheaper, I looked around at the fragile, mudslide hills, the manzanita, madrones, the firs and redwoods, the fog lifting, and the same observation hit me every time. Mendocino County is beautiful. The hills are full of groovy people who really know how to throw parties and cook gourmet cuisine. After a decade of scratching around, trying to earn a legitimate living as a farmer in Anderson Valley, I am certain the only way a homesteader is going to “make it” in the future is to put together a wholistic scene with the goats, chickens, pigs, gardens, fruit trees, on basically a kitchen scale, hire or become a gourmet chef, set up simple yet epicurian lodging for guests, massage therapists, and legalized prostitution.
I'm not joking about legalized prostitution. It logically follows if you insert the variables, “wine,” “weed,” and “bed and breakfast,” on one side of the equation. What Mendocino County has to offer, finally, is hospitality, radical originality, and a blissfully high concentration of what I learned on my last trip are known as “Gro-Hoes."
The Gro-Ho is easilly spotted at the Ukiah Co-op, they told me on Christmas Eve, and I instantly knew what they were talking about. I'd seen thousands of Her manifestations. She carries a stylish, hemp shopping bag, and embodies the organic, vegetarian-leaning, lifestyle. She pays for groceries with stacks of Ben Franklins. And with the marijuana glut, with outrageous land prices, with the legalization in Michigan, she's going to have to look elsewhere for cash, as her dreadlocked sugar D is like, broke and brainstorming about how to turn the arid hillsides into CASH.
God bless the Gro-Ho, I say, in this Dire Economic Age. She is the next Gold Rush, what Mendo has to offer, except not to be sexist, I guess He as well. With organic certification, perhaps licensing and training, regular testing. 99% organic, free-range. Medicinal.