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Mendocino Talking: Stephen & Gloria Decater

Author's Note: The Decater family runs Live Power Community Farm [] in Covelo, a diversified, solar-powered CSA [community-supported agriculture] farm that for 27 years has supplied its 200 member families here in Mendocino County, and the Bay Area, with fresh, high-quality biodynamic/organic food. They plow and till the land with their six draft horses. Besides growing almost fifty varieties of vegetables, they raise sheep, cows, chickens, and pigs. 

We sit on old wooden chairs in the flower garden as the afternoon sun passes its zenith and heads toward the Pacific, miles west of us. Gloria has been flitting around the farm on a bike with a class of third graders from Marin County. Camped out for a four days of hard labor, they are absorbed in various projects organized by several farm apprentices and parents. Stephen has been out around the barn and pastures, working with apprentices who are planting and harvesting greens. Gloria has on old Levi’s and sandals with heavy wool socks; Stephen is in a worn green plaid flannel shirt, heavily soiled Levi’s, and deeply scuffed work boots. Despite their long hours and heavy schedules, they are relaxed. They begin by describing the beauty and love they found in a garden…


Stephen: I met Alan Chadwick in 1967 at his garden project at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a young, idealistic person I saw Alan as an older person doing something that was totally positive for the world… and this was during the Vietnam War with all kinds of awful things happening around us. The adage of beating your swords into plowshares felt real when I was putting my energy in that direction, growing food and flowers. Working in the garden opened this whole world of beauty and culture: the history of different flowers, where they had come from, how they needed to be taken care of, this whole world of activity, with the human being in nature, working in a supportive way. That took my heart and interest and eventually became what I spent all my time doing.

The garden was so vitally alive, and we were immersed in that life. When you are with the flowers for a couple of hours morning after morning, they have a kind of soul expression of the Earth, an expression of love. In Alan’s creation of a garden for people to come into and be immersed in, he was actually trying to create a healing. Those were “back-to-the-land” times, when people were wanting to reconnect with nature. Alan was doing that in a very conscious and cultured way. It wasn’t ”go back to nature by going wild” but rather, go to nature by recognizing the life there and working with the cultural skills that have been humankind’s heredity for centuries. For me it was the raw life-force connection, but at the same time, it was the cultural and artistic beauty a human being could create in the world as opposed to the ways humans destroy life.

So I’ve been trying to create the garden in my own life ever since then, and create it as a garden that is open to people so they have contact with nature, see it, feel it. You can talk about experiencing nature forever, but when someone comes in and their nose is immersed in a living flower, it suddenly hits them with the true expression of life. You are meeting other “beings,” not just human beings. It’s like when you are in relationship with someone and feel the love and caring that comes from them…. that is something that is real and has an impact on your spirit and heart. In the garden you experience nature as being alive.

I followed Alan here to the Covelo Garden Project, where Gloria and I met, and we eventually began running our own farm. Everything in nature serves something else: the earth serves the plants, the fruit of the plants serves the animals, the manure from the animals serves the earth. We can learn those relationships by becoming part of them. It was critical back in Santa Cruz… I was bringing my friends into the garden there, and it continues to be critical in this urban-separated world to experience the bounty of food as a Gift.

When we talk with the kids who visit us, we ask them, “Where did this farm come from? Where did the animals come from? Did we make any of those things?” These things come from the wild world, nature, creation, to begin with, but when we bring them into the farm, we begin to culture them. You don’t have a farm without a human being. Without the human being, Mother Nature is taking care of the culture. So on the farm, we are being cocreative with nature, and we experience that relationship. Even though most people are not living on farms today, we are still eating food from farms that are occupying land somewhere. The problem is that now it’s an anonymous relationship. But in order to have real appreciation for the gifts of nature, our relationships with those gifts need to be more conscious. People eating food need to recognize that their partners are the Earth and the people growing the food — not some factory somewhere.

Gloria: Our school classes, which include parents, are here from the Bay Area for four days, and they only fully “arrive” on the farm about the second morning. They may not be able to verbalize their experience necessarily, but at some point in time, for some people immediately and for others after they leave, even ten or fifteen years later, they look back and say “that was the first time I really experienced life, living, the gift of life” — and they’re grateful for it. I’ve heard that from so many. That’s why we continue to share this farm. If I couldn’t feel that, and if there wasn’t that appreciation, I couldn’t do it. But I see the impact. I’ve heard from quite a few college kids in their twenties who came here in third grade; they say it was the most intense experience in their school education, and they remember everything. When they come as kids, they can succeed and thrive on the farm in a way they can’t in school — and it can change their relationship with their classmates and teachers. The work they do here is not something made up for them. It’s real, valuable work that helps the farm go forward. It has an impact. They can feel it. They develop a sense of worth that they didn’t have before. And parents, realizing that their spoiled children are very capable of doing things if they’ll just let them, say: “Oh, they can be responsible! Oh, we’ve spoiled them rotten. We’d better change that. The way we’re raising them isn’t right.”

Stephen: Out of that they can see that shoveling up that manure to make compost is something human beings have devoted their lives to for thousands of years. [As Stephen begins to ruminate, Gloria moves nearby for some spontaneous weeding.] I once had an experience where I was totally distraught, worrying about different things, and I couldn’t really work, and finally in frustration I went out and started shoveling manure. All of a sudden it was like hundreds of thousands of people from centuries back in time were standing right there beside me, and I was shoveling manure with them as they had been doing for thousands of years. And it was like, “Okay! I’m not alone. I can do this!” This is where life is at, doing these mundane tasks, but they’re not separated out of time — they’re continuous with the whole of human experience. Our modern world separates us from that connection and that relationship. And the beauty of farming is this universality of life and activity that is flowing through the whole world. When we become part of that we lose our alienation and our separation; we can come together and recognize our relationships.

Gloria [returning]: A farmer’s life is so rhythmical, and that is why farmers can continue to work on and on through the days and years. When you’re doing something in rhythm it’s so much less tiring. For example, scything grain is really a dance form, and when you get going it is so beautiful, so enjoyable. You think to yourself how farmers in the past would get together and scythe all day, and sing, and be joyful, and how they loved it. When you milk a cow, you’re milking two teats at once. If you milk only one teat, you are twice as tired than if you milk two teats at once in rhythm. There’s just no comparison. That rhythm is so joyful.

Stephen: Hard, physical work can be enjoyable and rewarding. The bad rap in agriculture has come because people worked so hard and still couldn’t make a living — they weren’t economically compensated for their work. Eliminating people from agriculture has disconnected us all from the soil and the land. A farmer has two tasks: growing food that is nourishing is one level, but on another level there is a spiritual nourishment that comes only from being in a farm and experiencing the work of a farm. We need farms that can create that opportunity. Even if we could produce all of our food with corporate industrial organic production, although it would be better for the environment than conventional farming with chemicals, it would still leave people largely out of agriculture — we would still not have a culturally or socially conscious agriculture. If it’s going through a regular market system, there is a disconnect with people using that food, knowing where it comes from, how it is grown, whether the farmer’s needs are being met, and if the growing methods are sustainable long-term. This is cultural nourishment and spiritual nourishment that people are missing out on. [An apprentice stops by to ask advice about the harness they will be putting on the draft horses for the afternoon plowing.]

We need a new kind of farm, one that is not only market-oriented, as simply a producing unit, but a farm that is also an oasis that people can come into and experience the culture of their agriculture. It is too fundamental a part of human life to be left out of one’s existence. Large machinery and monocropping blocks that potential. In a given area of land that one large farm occupies, many small farms can produce equally, if not more food per acre, with more energy efficiency. It’s been proven over and over. If we human beings are to reconnect with the Earth and the life of the Earth, and sustain and heal that life, it is going to mean we need to create smaller farms that the community can have relationships with.

We run what is known as a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, farm. Family members pay a monthly or annual fee and then divide up the weekly allotment that comes from the farm. I view the CSA concept as a completely different economic process than we are used to thinking of traditionally as “market agriculture.” Historically, in market agriculture, we can see that the “market” has not maintained its farmer population. If the market system worked for farmers, you would see more of them prospering. [Several jabbering kids hurry by, on the way to their next project. They pass two of their classmates, who are pushing wheelbarrows stacked high with freshly scythed hay.]

When someone goes to the supermarket to buy food, only ten cents or less goes to the farmer. The only way to survive on that is to grow ten times more product, which is not possible without large capital inputs. So farming has become a system run by banks and large industrial corporations, subsidized by our taxes, that keeps food artificially cheap, driving out the small farmer who is not subsidized and can’t compete with their prices.

There is no future for the family farm under that system. So we need an approach where the people eating the food work directly with the people growing the food. If we want to create a local agriculture that is not so totally dependent on banks for capital, fossil fuels for energy, toxic chemicals for pest problems, and chemical fertilizers, and not burdened by the environmental destruction that comes from all that, we need to bring it back to a food system that works locally. We will need local farmers who have economic support that can sustain them and respects the Earth. We worked in market agriculture for several years. We had a small farmer’s market locally in Covelo and sold to natural food markets in the county. There were not enough stores for us to be sustainable. We were only able to squeak by on limited income because we were growing all of our own family’s meat, milk, and produce. But it was impossible to do any of the capital improvements — build fences, lay pipelines — that we needed to take it to an economically viable level…

In 1988 we heard about the CSA approach. As soon as we heard that idea, we knew that this was the way it should be: having a relationship with the people eating our food rather than a market relationship where we come to market with our produce, get people excited enough to buy something, and have to move the prices around to compete with our neighbor or other growers. In the conventional market the most important thing is that the food is cheap. That’s the best deal. But if that means the Earth gets shafted producing it, and the farmer gets short-changed and disappears, have we really gained any advantage? Farmers become an expendable resource, unrecognized as critically valuable people in the community. When the community supports the farm and farmer directly, then instead of getting ten cents from a dollar spent on the food, the farmer is getting eighty or ninety cents that can really be utilized on the farm. And that makes all the difference in the world to create economic viability. Even going to the farmer’s market makes it difficult to survive because we have to load all the food, get it to the market, sit there and sell it, and if it isn’t sold, we have to take it back to the farm. So we’re really absorbing some of the middleman’s and retailer’s costs, which makes it difficult.

Gloria: When we grow for our community members, we aren’t looking out in the field of lettuce and thinking, “That’s a dollar a head; next week it may be fifty cents a head; what is somebody going to pay for it?” Instead, we are getting away from the idea of what the vegetable costs, and instead we’re thinking, “Terry Nieves is going to eat this, Marla Anderson is going to eat this.” Their money for that lettuce goes to support the farm, environmentally and socially, and to have a relationship with their food and the farm, to support a farm that invites school kids into the farm. Alan Chadwick used to call it “finding your affinity with nature and life.” Kids visiting a large corporate farm get to see a farmer drive off in a large tractor on a hundred-acre field — not much to interact with.

A unique community supports our farm. We have the farmers, the farmers’ family, the apprentices, the member families from the Bay Area and Mendocino County, and the plants and animals. We have 200 member families. Maybe half have been with us the whole time. They have raised and educated their families around the farm, changed their diet, changed their budgets. There are things they don’t buy anymore, habits they don’t have anymore because they get their basket every week and learn to cook and eat according to what’s in season, and they have been thrilled with that — particularly in how that develops their relationship with their children. Many of the families’ children come to the farm, make compost, work on the farm, and develop a different relationship with food, and vegetables, and money. When they get their basket, many of the families lay it out on the table and think about what they’re going to eat for the next few days.

Some people can’t adapt to that of course. They’d rather go to the store or the farmer’s market and pick what they want, when they want it, and the quantity they want, and that’s perfectly fine. But we want people to be concerned about community and coming to the farm and seeing the farm and working with us and being concerned about the challenges and successes on the farm.

Stephen: We need that flexibility on the farm because we don’t know what nature is going to do each year. One year we planted fifteen hundred plants of broccoli and cabbage right before a late deluge of rain hit. In all the years we’ve been growing here, that had never happened. We got so much water in an already saturated ground that the rootlets just sat there smothered in water, unable to grow. They were dead! We’ve never before lost a whole crop like that at one time. In a market format, the farmer is just out of luck at that point. If you are monocropping, with only one crop like corn, instead of a diversified farm of many crops, and you get a bad year where you lose a crop, and you’re on a weak economic footing, that can be the end. It can mean the foreclosure of your land. [A parent stops by to ask Gloria when they will need to have the evening meal prepared. Another parent is cutting flowers nearby for the table.]

Instead, CSAs humanize the economic process. Schumacher called it “economics as if people matter.” In the market, everybody is trying to find a new niche, a niche that works — which is great for a year or two until every other farmer finds the same niche, and then it’s off to finding another new niche to compete with. In this county, hops were the niche, then it was sheep, then pears for awhile, now it’s wine grapes. I don’t want to constantly fight that process; I simply want to grow good food. And I want to have lots of other farms around us growing good food, too. I don’t want to be in competition with them, finding niches or underpricing them. I just want to serve our community, meet their needs, and meet my family’s needs out of that relationship.

It takes only 200 households to support a small family farm. This is the opportunity for people today to make real change. Community farms can be initiated by a group of eaters finding a farmer to work with or by a farmer seeking out a group of eaters. We could be much less dependent on fossil fuels from the other side of the world by farming this way locally. By growing a lot of the food that is now coming from other parts of California and the world, we could have a healthy, diversified agriculture that feeds us. Being on the farm helps each of us understand the agricultural process, what our part in it is, and what is healthy for us all in the long run.


[Author’s Note: There are those who denigrate the sixties and seventies as worthless excursions into mindless hedonism and excoriate the flower children and everything they stood for. The organic food movement and the small organic farms we are blessed with here in Mendocino County started with the flower children dropping out from what was… wanting to live healthier, more peaceful lives. They’re the ones who felt the problems, went back to the land, and relearned how to work with nature. And it will be their little islands of sanity and health, now matured into productive farms through hard work, that are being revealed to have been the better, more sustainable way after all: the "poor" inheriting the Earth. — DS]

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