I gave a presentation recently (virtual) to a group of women leaders in agriculture and did a quick version of the story of how I became a farmer. It’s a path I have mapped in various interviews and I have always given the short, sound-bite version but I was thinking about that journey more deeply and thought I would share it.
I grew up in Stockton, California, in the Central Valley - a place where the richness of the soil and long growing season made it the source for a huge percentage of the food for the State. I grew up smelling the not-overly pleasant odor of sugar beets being processed, sneezing from the peat dust raised by the asparagus harvest, and painting and drawing the fields and fields of blossoming almond and cherry orchards with my Mom. Stockton soon became over-built and over-developed and the sweet rural feel gave way to homogenous strip malls and ugly subdivisions. Plus there was that pull of the big outside world, so, as a teen yearning for culture and excitement, I moved to live with my Dad in San Francisco when I was 16.
I loved San Francisco, but the cool summers and constant coastal breeze that would rob a sunny day of its warmth drove me nuts. That and the inability to see the sky unobstructed by overhead wires and buildings. I only lasted a few years in San Francisco before I was moving to Maui with my boyfriend so we could be more in nature (and hopefully work less, as city living required many hours of work to afford).
On Maui, I soon shed my boyfriend (that’s another story), and found a home in the jungle on the North side of the island that was no more than an elevated shack. Up a dirt road that turned to slippery mud in the constant rain, into a simple structure with no telephone, no television, no hot water unless I lugged in a tank of propane, eaves open all around so the breezes freely cooled the cottage, and a bathroom made of slatted wood floor and screen walls, completely surrounded by my lush thick jungle. I lived in sarongs and flip flops, and spent my free time reading, writing, hiking and writing letters to family and friends describing the daily gifts I received from nature --- a beautiful sunset that I swam in as the ocean turned the golden pink of the sky, a bird of paradise flower blooming outside my window, a hike thru the jungle to a waterfall where I picked gauvas that was nearing fermentation and their zingy tiny bubbles danced on my tongue.
On a quick visit home to San Francisco to visit family, I was discovered as a model and offered a contract with an agent in Paris. I was ready for a change, and went for it, packing up my few belongings and soon boarding a plane. On Maui I had barely owned shoes, but soon I was wearing sleek pointed leather heels and pounding my way around Paris going from audition to audition. I had good luck, and landed some sweet gigs, like being the house model at Lanvin, Valentino and Givenchy. I would sit in a lab coat and stockings, hair and make-up perfect, waiting for a client to require a gown or ensemble to be modeled. Carefully slipping on the hand-sewn haute-couture creations of Claude Montanna at Lanvin (I still think about those pants, covered in thousands of bird-feathers painstakingly sewn on), I would slowly walk around the small salon, while people like Joan Rivers would nod and note down which creations she wanted made for her. It was fairly easy work, and I was paid very well. I only did a couple shows that were actually on the runway, but the steady work of the house model was good and allowed me time to explore the city, read, and travel a bit.
The most exciting job I was booked on was to travel personally with Pierre Cardin to Pakistan. We would be participating in the very first European-style runway shows in three of the major cities there. This meant we would be wearing short dresses and exposing skin - quite a scandal in a fairly conservative Muslim country. We dined at the mansions of Ambassadors and high-ranking politicians, including the Prime Minister’s residence, drank champagne on the deck of a massive French battleship with the Admiral of the Navy, always dressed head to toe in Cardin, and always being carefully chaperoned. I was invited by one of our chaperones to attend the wedding celebration for one of the wealthiest families in Pakistan’s daughter - a huge event that lasted days and days and that was held inside a gorgeous tent the size of a circus tent. There were piles and piles of food, the wedding party (except the bride) dancing out scenes from Bollywood movies, and so much beauty to absorb and wonder at….that is until we arrived back at our hotel to be greeted by a seething Cardin, who screamed at us and told me I would never work as a model again because I had jeopardized the entire project by risking leaving the hotel and possibly being kidnapped. The French government and Pakistan were opening up trade and manufacturing agreements and Cardin lobbed the entire weight of this serious business at me. Of course I was shaken, but assured by the other models and handlers that nothing would come of it.
Still the beach girl but now on a billionaire's yacht in Ibiza
Nothing did come of it and I continued to work in Paris but became more and more unhappy as the months went on. I felt so lonely, sometimes so tired of hearing only French that I would spend the day at the cinema, watching American movies all day so I could have a sense of ‘home.’ I did enjoy the beautiful clothes I modeled (and the ones I bought), and loved all the new tastes and quality of food I had never experienced. I lived in an apartment above a cremerie, a fromagerie and a boulangerie, and loved learning about the different types of cheeses I had never heard of. I dined at expensive restaurants, but still felt empty. Walked through stunning little streets and grand avenues of this beautiful city but felt a longing for something. I adored Paris, but it wasn’t enough somehow.
Transforming from Maui girl into ...?
I realized my longing was for nature when I happened upon a book about the Findhorn community in the UK. The beautiful black and white photos of ferns and cabbages and trees made me teary - I hadn’t realized how much happiness those things had brought me - the simple beauty and daily gifts of nature, until I had been away from them. I felt my very soul had been damaged by my modeling life in Paris. The daily rejections at auditions, the extremely harsh judgement for my appearance generously given to me by House Madames (the women who run the models at the houses of the haute-couture designers), the look of disgust on my agent’s face should I arrive with a pimple, the constant harassment from chauvinistic photographers and rich playboys, it all began to wear me down. I felt destroyed and leached of happiness. I wanted to be that barefoot girl on the beach again, soaking in the golden sun and warm salty water.
My agent in Paris wanted me to be edgier and less "All-American"
I had made friends with a Waldorf school teacher on Maui and she had told me about biodynamic farming methods and about the Steiner approach to education. I was interested in learning more so I did some research (I don’t know how I did it pre-internet actually!). I found Emerson College in West Sussex, England and made an appointment to visit. There, I fell in love with the ideas espoused by Steiner and decided that taking a course in biodynamic farming would be my next step. Unfortunately, I had no resources to fulfill this goal, and instead, returned to California, very depleted from my year in Paris. I felt a bit lost and directionless. I knew I wanted to work in nature, but it wasn’t clear to me how to get there.
As the years went by, I explored different creative outlets, including owning a small catering company in San Francisco. I became a single mother, and when I found the most beautiful Waldorf school for my daughter to attend, I jumped at the opportunity to intern at their large farm in Sonoma County. I learned some good skills at the farm, and re-instated my desire to farm. I kept the dream alive for many years while doing so many other things.
It was 2016, my daughter was preparing to leave for college and at the urging of friends, I decided to start dating again after a very long hiatus. I met Simon, my husband, online in August of that year, and our first conversations were about the desire to farm, to live on the land and become stewards of a special place. We both felt like we had finally found the partner we had been waiting for to do something as crazy as start a farm together. Flash forward to 7 months later - after the last several months spent searching for that special place and seriously researching what type of crops we would want to grow, we found the most perfect farm in Lake County, and the niche crop we were looking for, saffron. A radio program on NPR about the University of Vermont’s saffron research project led us to saffron, and a widening of our radius allowed us to find this gem that is now Peace and Plenty Farm.
The first year and a half, I continued my job in tech as a program manager while Simon got the farm going. Those were tough months - the work of transforming the weed-covered 7 acres into a usable piece of land was extremely daunting and Simon did it on his own while I kept the mortgage paid with my full-time tech work. I would drive up from the city on weekends and help as I could, but it was all Simon for many months on his own here toiling dawn till dusk. We got our first batch of saffron planted that fall, and the following summer, I was able to quit my day job and become a full-time farmer.
Now I have those daily gifts from nature that I so loved during my time on Maui. One day it is a murmur of Starlings over our heads, the other its the way a baby head of romaine looks as it turns more and more into a rose made of green and purple leaves. We have worked very hard these last few years, and some days I think about my easy living in the city and pine for a perfect croissant, cappuccino and a pencil skirt and heels, but I would never trade my fancy clothes and fine food for this life. Home-made bread eaten with a soup of vegetables that you grew yourself are very fine indeed.