By Karla Milosevich
On a sunny Northern California morning in April, volunteers gathered at picturesque Baia Nicchia Farm in Alameda County to plant heirloom tomato seedlings. When the tomatoes are ready to eat, we'll enjoy knowing that we had a hand in the process, as well as eating them.
Baia Nicchia is a small farm and nursery located in Sunol, California on farmland leased from the San Francisco Water District. Fred Hempel and Jill Shepard own and run this organic farm, with help from Jill's son Zach who is studying agriculture and economics at U.C. Santa Cruz. Fred and Jill are best known for breeding fabulous gourmet tomatoes. They grow a variety of crops using innovative sustainable farming methods.
We started the day with some hot tea made from mint and other herbs grown on the farm, and met the other volunteers. Diem Ho, a FruitGuys customer from IDEO, was there with his brother and cousin, as well as a crew of FruitGuys. The FruitGuys supports Baia Nicchia by purchasing their unique organic produce for our TakeHome boxes.
We planted the tomato seedlings at a relaxed pace, and basked in the beauty of the land and the sunshine. The first thing I noticed while planting was that the dirt was full of plant matter—big bits of Daikon radish, basil, stems, etc—and there were ladybugs and earthworms that I tried not to disturb as we put the plants into the ground in neat rows near irrigation drips.
After the planting, Zach gave us a tour of the farm. He explained to us that Daikon is a great cover crop for a number of reasons: the roots take up space and when they are pulled up, they leave a nice area for water and new plant roots. The plant matter feeds the soil and creates a sort of “glue” as it decomposes, which makes the soil clump, so it does not blow away with the wind in between crops—a big problem for farmers in some areas that use chemicals instead of cover crops to replenish their soil. Plus, the flowers of the Daikon are delicate and a delicious addition to salads! Same goes with the flowers of arugula. The other main cover crop Baia Nicchia used this winter was Bell Beans, which take nitrogen from the air and transfer it into the soil, leaving the soil rich and fertile. Together, Daikon and Bell Beans make an ideal cover crop so the tomato plants should grow happily there without the need for any chemical fertilizers.
Cover and complementary crops also attract beneficial insects that keep the harmful insects at bay. Zach showed us a tall post they put up to attract hawks, which will help keep down the squirrel and rodent population, always troublesome because they eat the roots and plants.
After this informative and interesting tour, we had a delicious lunch of bread and brie cheese with herbs, squash soup, a beet and grain salad, and pumpkin bread that melted in our mouths.
After lunch Fred showed us some plant innovations they are working on with an Ethiopian chef and talked about their tomato breeding projects. They have an internship program that sounds perfect for city dwellers that want to connect directly with where their food is grown. For four hours on a Saturday, you spend the first hour learning about food, the farm, and farming practices, then get your hands dirty with the rest of the crew for the next three hours.
You can read Baia Nicchia's farm blog to learn more about their projects.
We left with herbs, lettuce, and a seedling to grow in our home gardens. Being at the farm and taking an active role in the growing of delicious and healthy food on a sustainable farm was a rewarding experience for us volunteers. It can be a big help for the farmers too! If you'd like to join The FruitGuys on a future farm trip to lend a hand, just send an email to email@example.com and let us know you're interested in signing up for future Farm Steward volunteer projects.
Baia Nicchia has a few rows of special "FruitGuys" tomatoes, bred especially to delight our TakeHome customers. Sign up in time for summer at fruitguys.com so you can enjoy these tomatoes at their peak ripeness.