In the summer of 2003 my son Aaron and I left our farm in British Columbia and embarked on an extraordinary journey across the US and Canada. We traveled to see fruit growers, meat producers, cheese makers, and vegetable producers, farmers who had mastered the production of certain signature foods and who were using their farms as platforms for education and social and ecological change, folks who were happily married to a place.
There was the Willamette melon grower who was “militant about flavor,” the Wisconsin sheep-cheese producers who had built their own culturing caves, and the Chicago farmer raising heirloom tomatoes in abandoned lots. Some of our moments were sentimental (when we visited the farm my great-grandfather bought when he immigrated from Russia in the late 19th century); others were humorous (when we asked a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Indiana to fry some eggs and bacon we had just brought from a nearby farm and, after they finally agreed, threatened to bring them a cow next time).
Our road trip also took us into the darker side of the American food scene, to feedlots and fast food restaurants, into spray helicopters and through vast landscapes planted only to corn and soybeans. This was the contrast for our story of hope and possibility, hope brought forth by a passionate, creative, and resourceful group of food artisans who were replacing the stereotype of farming as a lowly form of drudgery with a powerful image of refined art and craft and honorable profession. The narrative and photographs that follow are just a small sampling of our journey, a glimpse of the return of local food and agriculture back to its rightful place—the heart and the center of our society.
“I am the only one in Washington State that grow penis,” Hilario Alvarez tells us in his broken English as we trail along next to him while he meanders through his fields. “We have green penis, salted penis, and roasted penis. You want to try?”
Green, salted, and roasted what? I look back at Aaron, who looks as puzzled as I am. Hilario walks a little farther, bends over a row of plants I am not familiar with, and pulls one up. Then I get it. Peanuts!
He strips the peanuts off the roots and hands them to us. I hesitate for just a second, like all those uninitiated folks over the years who have accepted my spontaneous offering of uncooked sweet corn or a carrot with soil still clinging to it. We peel the soft shells and savor the taste of fresh peanut for the first time in our lives.
In a neighborhood where many speak only Spanish, the funky plywood sign in front of the farm says, in English, “We Grow a Hundred Types of Vegetables.” This diversity is a source of great pride for Hilario and his family. It’s also his calling card in the marketplace.
“Eighty-five varieties of chilies, 45 different summer squashes, 15 different winter squashes, 10 corns, eggplants . . .” Hilario had rattled off this list, unprompted, when I first called him to arrange our visit.
While Hilario expounds on the remarkable scope of his operation, I am thinking how remarkable it is that he is even standing here in his own fields, planted with his personal vision. In this country, almost all the hoeing and harvesting and milking and pruning are done by Hispanic people, many of whom risk their lives to travel illegally across the border, like Hilario did, to grow nourishment for a nation that will no longer work in the fields. I consider the absurdity of a policy that guards the borders to keep out the very people who produce our food. I imagine what would happen if the borders really were sealed and if all those who had crossed illegally were removed. Food would go unharvested, cows unmilked, and eggs uncollected. I imagine, instead, what would happen if these workers were welcomed and respected for their contribution, and encouraged to expand on their expertise and imagination.
The Alvarez pepper field is like some kind of out-of-control block party. Eighty-five varieties, most hot and many from Hilario’s own seed, collide in an eight-acre burlesque of color and shape.
There is humor in this field, a former migrant farm-worker’s subconscious commentary on the ultralinear, monocultural, totally predictable fields of America’s industrial agriculture.
I tell Hilario he is crazy, that I’ve never seen anything like this before, that he should quit harvesting peppers and open the field up as a seasonal museum. I imagine docents giving tours, stopping to discuss the history and culture and use of certain varieties, the arrangement of color and shape, what the farmer was going through in his life when he planted this section or that, as if they were standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, analyzing a Matisse or a van Gogh. But, even as I picture this, I can’t imagine how Hilario’s exuberance could possibly be contained for contemplation or analysis.
Hilario’s 80-year-old mother, Necolasa, and his 85-year-old father, Antonio, sit behind the house under an umbrella with a freezer box, two barbecues, and a battery charger, carefully removing the green husks from piles of corn in preparation for a day of tamale making.
Boxes are stacked everywhere, all full of a dizzying array of variously colored, shaped, and sized chilies, tomatoes, and eggplants. Behind the main refrigeration and loading area, a cluster of plum trees provides shade to a group of women and children making wreaths out of chilies. They work late into the night, using a single halogen spotlight jerry-rigged on a makeshift stand. A small electric grill sits on a nearby table, hot and active from early morning to late into the night roasting chilies, heating beans and tortillas.
I get the sense that from early spring until winter, this is a round-the-clock operation. I see the shadows of men harvesting by moonlight, the white of their plastic buckets marking their movements in the dark.
Maybe this urgency is the work ethic of someone who once had nothing. In Mexico, Hilario made five dollars a day working in a feedlot. Now, he owns his own land, he’s built his own house, and he employs more than a hundred people, growing just about everything he can think of.
For Hilario it is all irresistible, reaching out eagerly into the universe, where he can never gather enough in, never try enough experiments, never grow enough varieties and colors and shapes. I remember when I felt that way myself, when I wanted to try everything, touch everything, and express myself in vivid and unmistakable abundance. Hilario’s world is an immigrant’s dream, where anything is possible.
As a full moon rises, it is finally time to eat the tamales. The process took all day, a carefully executed ritual from the harvest of the corn and the husking and grading and removal of the kernels to the grinding and filling of the husks.
Hilario and his two brothers, his grandson, and a nephew sit around the kitchen table with Aaron and me. The women either work in the kitchen or watch a Spanish soap opera that blares on the TV. Each time we finish a tamale, another mysteriously appears on our plates. There will be no refusal here. We eat them with fresh chili salsa and a little sour cream. When I ask Hilario’s mother what’s in the tamales, she looks at me with surprise and says, “Puro maíz! No mas,” in a tone that says, “Why would we need to add anything else?”
Aaron and I are stuffed from the late-night tamale orgy. We exchange glances and signal each other that it’s time to leave. I thank Hilario and his family for their hospitality. He offers us a stern warning: “Do not go to bed on a full stomach.” We take his advice and walk the perimeter of the farm several times. As we walk, we scan the flat, sandy, moonlit fields intently, searching for glints of color or infrared heat emanating from the peppers, imagining in their unseasonal company that summer could have just begun.
Michael Ableman is a farmer, educator, and founder and executive director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens where he farmed from 1981–2001. He is the author and photographer of From the Good Earth (Abrams, 1993), On Good Land (Chronicle Books, 1998), and most recently Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It (Chronicle Books, 2005). He is currently farming on an island in British Columbia with his wife and two sons. For more information visit fieldsofplenty.com.