December 16, 2007

From the farm to our patients

Recently, I had the privilege to visit 2 of the 22 local farms that provide food for Kaiser Permanente’s inpatient meal trays. The fields that grew succulent melons and ripe cherry tomatoes that graced 6000 meals per day last summer, when these crops were in season, are located in Yolo County, about 90 miles northeast of San Francisco. The Durst and Riverdog organic farms have many acres of prime dirt that has been studied, analyzed, and nurtured for years. While listening to the farmers talk about the complexities of farming organically, the word “synergy” kept coming up for me. They plan their crop rotations up to two years in advance to take the best advantage of the soil chemistry. Seedlings are started in solar heated greenhouses, so they are strong enough to compete with indigenous flora (aka weeds) when transplanted into the field. Movable spacious chicken coops house a good source of nitrogen needed by tomatoes. Perennial crops are appreciated as a gift that just keeps on giving like asparagus. It comes up in mid March, about two weeks later than in the Fresno area.

Organic farmers face so many unknowns. An extreme cold spell may be devastating for citrus, if it hits when the trees are flowering. But this same cold can be great for stonefruits like peaches and nectarines, as those trees need 800 hours of temperature below 45 degrees to produce a good crop. They have to decide whether or not it’s worth the risk to plant a broccoli variant that is known to be an “aphid magnet” because some big city chefs are asking for it this year. It seems that the only thing certain in the day-to-day lives of organic farmers is the need for the flexibility, creativity, and wisdom to make it all work so we get fed.

These farmers grow food that is good for us, our children, our patients, and the earth with respect, and appreciation, for the workers who help them.