NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

A very dairy New Year
Life slows down at Mariquita and, as another year begins, Andy reminisces about the 42 hours of exhausted delirium on a fateful New Year's Eve that inspired him to farm vegetables.

By Andy Griffin


Photo by Keith Weller

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

January 7 , 2005: When I’m bent over in the rain pulling carrots from the mud with streams of cold water trickling down my backside, it can be difficult to remember why I originally wanted to go into agriculture rather than, say, make a career as a underwear model. But it’s easy to remember the moment I decided to get out of the livestock business.

I was working on a dairy ranch in Marin County, north of San Francisco. We milked a string of about 250 Holsteins with some Jerseys thrown in to raise the butterfat content. I say “we” but what I mean is that other fellows milked the cows; my job was to herd the cattle into the milking parlor, feed them, take care of the calves and fix the fences. There was plenty of work to keep everyone busy ten hours a day, sometimes twelve, with a day and a half off each week.

We started at three a.m. bringing the herd in from the hillside pasture where they slept to the barnyard. It wasn’t hard. The cows would hear the chugging motor of the three wheeled motorcycle we used and begin to drift down the slope towards the barn. The same bossy cow always led the herd and the same hand full of laggards always needed encouragement. Milking was well underway by four a.m. and over by seven thirty. Then I fed the cows and we would all take breakfast; we repeated the routine at three p.m.

Winter brought rain. Instead of scraping the pens clean it seemed as though we were trying to sweep back an advancing ocean of liquid manure. Work started in the dark, ended in the dark. At times life seemed to lack sparkle and novelty. We decided to break the monotony with a New Year’s party and watch the ball drop in Times Square, New York. Well, we’d watch the ball drop on T.V. There was no time to fly to the Big Apple between milking shifts.

The dairy farm was situated on the shore of Tamales Bay. A straight, sloping drive lined with wind twisted cypress trees led straight down to Highway One. There was so much brine in the air that every battery in every truck or tractor was perennially conked out. It was our custom to park the vehicles in a fan at the top of the drive, facing downhill, so that roll-starting their motors would be easy. Of course, if the motor didn’t catch by the time you coasted across the Highway, and if the brakes failed, you’d roll into the salty drink. Unless the tide was out. Then you’d end up mired in stinky, sticky, tide flat mud.

The ranch house was a creaky, white, two story Victorian that had weathered a lot of storms. Lichens encrusted the flaking paint. If a glow from our upstairs windows hadn’t warmed the house up it would’ve appeared haunted that last, rainy night of 1978. Inside we had a fire going in the hearth and cold beers in our hands. We played pool on an old warped pool table and kept the television on. At exactly twelve o’one we saluted the new year with a last swallow of beer and tumbled into our beds exhausted. It had been a long day and morning was just around the corner.

As soon as I closed my eyes my boss was pounding on the door. “Get up. We’ve got problems.” I crawled out of bed, a little drunk and already half asleep. “The Highway Patrol just called. The cows are out on the highway.” We found our raincoats, grabbed our flashlights, pulled on our rubber boots and stumbled out into the night.

But the cows weren’t on the highway. The tide was out and the cattle had decided to celebrate the new year with a walk by the seashore. Or, shall I say, a walk in the seashore. Led by the boss cow, the whole herd of cattle had stomped into the mud flats and was wallowing about sniffing at the sea weeds. Our bobbing flash lights confused the cattle. Where was the comforting putt-putt of the motorcycle engine? Icy, little wavelettes from the incoming tide alarmed them. Where were their pleasant, turfy beds? The cattle sloshed about in circles, lost in the mud. Where was their bossy leader who’d led them into this morass? Mooing and swearing harmonized in the night rain.

It was three in the morning when we crowded the last cow into the barnyard. You can’t get clean, white milk out of an udder that’s been dipped in tide goo so we washed black mud from black cows in the dark, beast by beast, and when we had finished cleaning, we began to milk -- slowly. Excited cows can’t let their milk down easily. Cows need to be lulled with soothing music and comforting routines.

We finished the first milking by two p.m. There was just enough time to clean out the parlor before we began the second milking. At eight in the evening we finished the second milking, then fed the cattle and retired for our own dinner. We’d been up close to 42 hours with no sleep. I looked down at my pants and boots all caked with manure and tide mud and knew I’d never fit well into an office setting. Even a career modeling underwear seemed distant. But maybe, after a bath I could consider farming vegetables. Carrots don’t panic in the night. “Andy,” I told myself, “It’s a big decision. You can sleep on it.”

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