NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Your Farm, Hilmar CA

Flying the coop
A deep desire to continue farming family land coupled with a need to break free of old patterns leads to a new beginning.

By Mele Anderson

Farm-At-A-Glance

Your Farm
Hilmar, CA

Farmers: Mele Anderson and Alec Benz

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables

Marketing strategies: Farmers’ market

February, 2005. My move into farming as a career has been a two-and-a-half year ongoing journey. I grew up less than a quarter mile from where I now farm, on my parents’ 20-acre organic almond farm. During the past hundred years, my family has farmed over 200 acres in this area. Now my parents and I are all that remains of the 14 members of my family who lived within a 1-mile radius during my lifetime. I’m the final member of my generation farming in this area.

I returned to Hilmar in the fall of 2002 to farm my parents’ almond orchard with them. My dad is 70 years old and ready to spend less time on a tractor and on the phone and more time doing activist rabble-rousing. His later-life crisis Toyota Prius sits in the garage just begging to hit the open road. I moved back to my hometown with the intention of giving him the free time he surely deserves, to semi-retire and spend more time traveling.

When I left my last ‘real job’ with Sony Electronics, I thought I’d be leaving politics (office politics, specifically) behind me. It turned out that I’d just traded one form for another. Family politics became brutal as I tried to negotiate a fair farm transition and inheritance plan with my parents and siblings. Meanwhile I was working on the farm with my dad, a master farmer to be sure, trying to learn how to run our family farm. Unfortunately, communicating to me just how to hitch implements, maneuver the tractor through trees, and when to schedule tasks didn’t come quite as easily to him as doing the work himself. Ten years older and wiser than when I’d last lived with my parents, I found myself back in old patterns of poor communication with my dad – digging in my heels, grinding my teeth, and stomping off in frustration. Something had to change.

During my time farming with my dad, I was researching, reading, taking classes, and going to conferences to learn as much as I could about organic farming. I studied Permaculture, biointensive farming, took a master gardener’s course in a neighboring county, and found myself gravitating toward models of diverse farms serving local markets. In the spring of 2003, a shallow water table in our area drove my cousin to sell 60 acres of his land and move to a neighboring community to continue farming almonds. When he moved, my grandparents’ place where he and his wife had been living became available, and suddenly I was given the opportunity to farm an open piece of land all my own.

I jumped on it, knowing I’d want to buy this 18-acre farm from my cousin when the time was right. I’ve been farming here now for a year-and-a-half, renting the house and approximately 2 acres on the back side of the property. The first year was spent creating a garden to feed myself, fixing up the house, cleaning out old trash (along with the dirt gene in my family comes a pack rat gene), coming up with a plan for making enough money to buy the farm, and making friends who support my vision for it.

Now in my second year, I’ve leveled (sort of) the open piece where my cousin had cleared the trees to build a new home. My boyfriend moved here to farm with me this fall, and together we created six beds that we planted cover crop in. The property came equipped with flood irrigation, so we opted to flood the beds after planting. That was a rookie move for sure – we ended up with cover crop in all the places we didn’t want it. We had our best vetch and bell beans growing in the walkways. Painstakingly, we dug up the bell beans and moved them into their proper beds, but the vetch remains as a reminder that we’ve got to come up with a better plan for irrigation in the next couple of months.

So for now we have bell beans, favas, vetch, annual rye, clover, canola and field peas growing as cover crop on the “back two,” as we call it. They’re not a vision of health since our location on the edge of the Merced River floodplain makes our soil incredibly sandy. Our challenge is to build tilth this next year, and we’ll likely only put one of the beds into production for farmer’s markets this season.

In the next few months, my ‘to-do’ list includes buying this place from my cousin, planting the crops that I’ll take to our local farmers markets this summer, learning what canola looks like full grown and pressing it to make biodiesel, and watching the red tail hawks that nest in my tallest tree fledge their babies. I look forward to sharing it all with you.