Just as Napa Valley has become known for its wines, the Petaluma Valley has become known for the quality and diversity of its food. Within a day's walk of Petaluma are dozens of small-town dairies, farms, orchards and ranches. While many are organic, the vast majority have discovered that you don't have to be certified organic in order to embrace sustainable practices or achieve the attendant profitability.
Petaluma, by both happy accident and intention, has preserved enough open space and agricultural assets around itself to potentially feed its population and then some. More importantly, the farmers and ranchers surrounding the city see the potential to do so without the use of pesticides and with a reduction in the use of fossil fuels.
Tara and Craig Smith, who own Tara Firma Farms, are committed to offering healthy, chemical-free, all-natural produce and raising grass-fed, pasture-raised pigs, cows and chickens. Tara Firma Farms gives tours of its operation and hosts what is fast becoming the hottest ticket in town: its farm-to-table dinners. The menu features ingredients raised or grown on location, from potato leek soup and cucumber and tomato salads to roasted chicken and braised short ribs.
Tara Firma is at the forefront of a movement to feed the planet through sustainable, community-supported agriculture, known widely as CSA. Community-supported agriculture means that you, the consumer, pledge to buy a share of the farm's produce. By financially supporting the farm, it helps to keep the food supply local, support sustainable practices and lower fossil-fuel usage by reducing the need to import food. At Tara Firma, customers can buy CSA packages of meat, produce or a combination of both.
At Progressive Pastures, located just north of Petaluma, Leo Ghirardelli (no relation to the chocolate family) runs a herd of Black and Red Angus with a Black Wagyu bull, creating a crossbred named American-style Kobe beef. Leo divides his 60-acre ranch into as many as 10 different fields, explaining that pasture management is the key to reducing overgrazing. Leaving a good covering of grass or clover allows the land to hold its topsoil, reduce runoff and generally makes for healthier pastures, which in turn makes for a healthier herd with higher weights, better marbling and tastier meat.
He plants native perennials, and last year was able to cut enough hay on-site to substantially reduce his feed costs. When selecting animals for slaughter, he uses a local slaughter yard, specifying the method for slaughter because factors like stress and adrenaline affect the taste of the meat. The meat then goes to a local company, where it will hang for four weeks and then be made into different cuts and delivered to Leo for distribution to his CSAs.
Just west of Petaluma is Canvas Ranch, where Deborah Walton and her husband Tim Schaible sell CSAs of culinary and medicinal herbs, Asian pears, lavender and Araucana chicken eggs. They also raise cashmere goats for their coats and lease 24-four inch tall Babydoll Southdown sheep to vineyards for weed control, thereby reducing pesticide use.
If you eat fruits or vegetables, you have a duty—a responsibility, even—to know and care where your food comes from. If you eat meat, you should care how your meat is being raised and processed. Can you, as Leo Ghirardelli claims, taste the fear in your meat? If we are to flourish in the coming years, we need to reduce our dependence on pesticides and fossils fuels. We will need to look locally for unadulterated food and wean ourselves from foodstuffs that burn shiploads of fossil fuel. We will need to learn Tara Firma Farm's motto: "Know your farmer, know your food." Change is coming. Embrace it, support it, and enjoy it by getting to know a local farmer and buying a share of bounty.
Art Kusnetz is a freelance writer living in Petaluma. For more on local farms near you, see www.localharvest.org.