Slow food Sonoma
From square tomatoes to Oak Hill Farm
Oak Hill Farm field with Candi Edmondson, Paul Wirtz and Anne Teller (with Jinx).
Let’s talk tomatoes, love apples, pommes d’amour.
A staple in the global food basket, the tomato could also be the poster child for a worldwide movement that has been distilled into two words: Slow food.
That’s because tomatoes represent everything that’s both good and bad about the food industry. Picked and eaten ripe, a tomato is a very good thing. Picked green, trucked a thousand miles, gassed with ethylene to artificially ripen it, even the best tomato is a tasteless, starchy blob of industrial agriculture.
Consider the square tomato. Developed by legendary UC Davis professor “Gordie” Hanna to survive mechanical harvesting, the square tomato (which isn’t actually square, although it might function as a useful building material) has the texture and taste of cardboard and can be picked by machine and loaded onto a truck.
The alternative to square tomatoes is local tomatoes, picked near the peak of ripeness and transported, let’s say, five miles, maybe from the fields at Glen Ellen’s Oak Hill Farm to the farmers market on the Sonoma Plaza.
And that leads us to slow food, a movement born in Italy in the 1980s and based on three cardinal principles: Good—meaning that it tastes good and comes from healthy plants and animals; clean—meaning it’s grown sustainably without threatening ecosystems or biodiversity; and fair—meaning that its production doesn’t exploit people or their land.
Increasingly, slow food is coming to mean local food with the smallest possible carbon footprint, which means it hasn’t had to travel from Florida, or Mexico or even Kern County to arrive in Sonoma Valley.
Candi Edmondson and Paul Wirtz manage produce production and sales for Oak Hill Farm, which is now merged with Paul’s Produce, a sustainable and organic farming operation on Arnold Drive Wirtz has owned for some 20 years.
They know as well as anyone the answer to the fundamental slow food question: Is it possible for us to feed ourselves? Could Sonoma feed Sonoma?
“There may not be enough good bottom land left,” says Paul, who farms a total of 25 acres, growing about 100 varieties of vegetables. But that’s more a question of agricultural priorities than usable space. “Some of the vineyards might have to go. But it certainly seems like it could be done.”
Candi has eaten her way around the same question, literally. “As an experiment, I tried to eat only from Paul’s Produce. It does mean giving some things up, like no onions in winter. But that’s the way we always used to eat.”
Luther Burbank, the plant wizard who settled in Santa Rosa, called Sonoma County “the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned.” For Paul, that translates into year-round farming. “We don’t have a whole lot of limitation. You just have to find the right season for the right crops.”
In many ways Oak Hill Farm is a slow-food model of what local agriculture could be. And that’s no accident. It was founded by Otto and Anne Teller on land Otto purchased in 1957 and on which he adamantly refused to use, as Anne puts it, “any chemical, of any kind, ever.”
Otto was a fierce and persistent conservationist, a wealthy man who used his wealth wisely, helped found the Sonoma Land Trust and placed all of his 700 acres into a conservation easement precluding any future development. Otto died in 1998 and Anne, a landscape gardener, continued the legacy.
She and Otto had a guiding hand in starting the Sonoma farmers market, so it’s fitting that’s where a good part of Oak Hill produce ends up. Some of the rest of it is sold at the Red Barn, on the Oak Hill property just off Highway 12.
“Here we’ve been doing this for 30 years,” says Anne, addressing the decades-long overnight success of slow food. “What we wanted to do was be part and parcel of the community. And we are. Being adopted by Glen Ellen and Sonoma is the great reward.”
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA