Thirty years ago, Craig Thomas had toiled over a specific French drain for his raspberries, hoping to eliminate any standing water, and improve drainage. It wasn’t about the bees pollinating or the rabbits eating the canes in winter. Soil structure and organic nutrients were not the problem in this meticulously tended garden. Insects and pests simply didn’t have a fighting chance because the ground was teaming with beneficial microbes. But his clay soils harbored a common soil-born fungus that made organic raspberry farming a challenge.
While grappling with the raspberry problem, Craig decided to call El Dorado County Agriculture Department about the poor performance of the berries, and was surprised to hear back from Dick Bethel himself, then El Dorado’s county Farm Advisor. A personal visit was the next surprise, and if three is good luck, Dick diagnosed the difficulty quick as a wink. “You’ve got phytophthora”, he told Craig. “Pretty common around here, a systemic condition that makes some berries tough to grow in these soils”. What you’ve got to do is hunt for and try disease-resistant berry varieties. But that wasn’t all Bethel confided to Craig. “You have done a remarkable job with your place, here.” he went on. “This is what an organic farm should look like.”
Craig set about to plant blackberries and almost by accident found a successful variety as part of a free trial variety sent by an Oregon nursery. This variety, “Triple Crown”, is a product of research and trials done in partnership between USDA and the University of Washington and offered to the public to grow and propagate without patent restrictions. The rest is history so they say, since now, each season, the small farm sells berries in stores in Placerville, Auburn and Grass Valley and to folks who come to the farm. On the 7.5 acres parcel, 2 acres are farmed organically with a variety of vegetables, 60 orchard trees including stone fruits, figs, apples, basil, lettuce, kale, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, onions, and garlic and then there are the lovely flower bouquets you often see at Placerville Co-op. “This year, we might direct some effort toward CSA subscriptions, or a larger farm stand,” Craig said. “Right now we are happy selling directly to locations such as the Placerville Co-op. Generally, what we pick and what a customer buys is enjoyed by their family within an 8-hour time period. It is very satisfying to be able to provide that degree of local organic produce to the community.”
Three years after moving to El Dorado County, Craig began farming in Kelsey, and by the mid-1980’s it was El Dorado County’s first certified organic farm. Craig was proud of finally achieving what had been his vision for some time. In late 1970’s Craig taught the first sustainable agriculture class at Chico State University, popular with the younger generation of Peace Corp and first-time farmers. Craig also earned an anthropology degree from Chico State with an emphasis on cultural ecology, a program that reinforced his own philosophies around the spiritual, social, economic and ecological relationship between people and Mother Earth. In the late 1970’s he decided to call El Dorado County home and organic farming a way of life.
Seven Grandfathers Farm was named one day when Craig was in his field, enjoying a beautiful day full of sunshine and the ridge-top vista when he looked up and saw seven perfectly formed pure white thunderheads looking down on him. He thought of the Seven Grandfathers and the relationship with the land, a rich inheritance to be respected and passed on as caretakers, its quality fostered by his and his wife’s hands and enhanced by beneficial insects, tons of compost, cover crops, soil tests, an old Kubota tractor, a suite of well-cared-for hand tools and a labor of love
Craig also has his hand in the Sierra Forest Legacy program, as its co-founder and Conservation Director. This is an independent coalition of 80 environmental non-profit organizations that work on Federal forest policy and how the national forests should be managed. This is what he calls his “day job”, a term often echoed in the farming community. His scientific background (and his wife Vivian’s, too, as a biologist), form his attitude about food safety regulations as well as the rigorous methods and practices they both use on their organic farm. “Regulations have a valid role in government to make sure our food supply is healthy and safe,” he said. Craig believes, based on USDA research, that many, many more people are turning to organic to insure their own family’s food quality and safety. “Organic farmers, like myself, demonstrate extensive procedures that are audited annually to validate compliance with the USDA, National Organic Program and quality. And people want that.”
These procedures include more than having your regulatory status in order and up to date. Paying apt attention to the health of the soil is a number one priority. “That soil organic matter and the right balance of nutrients makes for nutritious food,” Craig emphasized. This includes careful attention to crop rotation, soil testing, compost management, increasing organic matter in the soil, and whatever else a farmer can do to increase plant health and nutrition. Contrary in philosophy of big industrial farming, who mostly lean on unnatural, chemical sprays and fertilizers, it isn’t the yield or the weeds Craig is concerned about, it is making sure that soil is a happy city of microbes doing their job in his two acres of intensive farming. Certification comes via the California Certified Organic Farmer nonprofit organization (CCOF), committed to advancing organic agriculture through certification, education, advocacy and promotion.
The non-profit Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) supports organic integrity by developing clear information and guidance about materials, so that producers know which products are appropriate for organic operations. Only OMRI registered sprays or soil amendments are used at Seven Grandfathers Farm, “and more natural products are showing up for organic use that are targeted and quick to degrade due to intensified organic research,” Craig said. “For example, there is a spray that is used to paralyze the gut of the Coddling Moth larva, a common apple pest in the Sierra Nevada foothills and elsewhere, that is specific to the larva of this moth without harming other insects. This targeted natural product eliminates the need for widespread pesticide chemical use.”
Farming is not without its wildlife challenges. “It’s quite a sight,” Craig relates, “watching three grey foxes climb one of our cherry trees as they come ripe. But part of the relationship with the land is to foster a harmony with the critters that have lived here a lot longer than we have. So the deer, wild turkeys, tanagers, hawks, foxes, raccoons and my neighbor’s cat work out the agreement between maintaining habitat diversity, a reasonable level of “sharing” and a healthy level of organic food production for our community.”
Craig’s background includes a stint in the marketing and selling of fresh farm goods as well. In the later 80’s he started the Peoples Mountain Market in Garden Valley that runs June-October in Garden Valley Park, corner of Garden Valley Rd. and Marshall Rd. Local growers mix it up with musicians and crafters in a welcoming park environment. Craig started the outdoor market with a friend and managed it twice during its 30-plus year history.
Now, on the Board of Directors for Placerville Natural Foods Co-op, Craig hopes to help strengthen the relationship between local growers, and outlets like the Coop and the communities they serve. His article in the February 2017 newsletter spells out his heartfelt encouragement to buy/eat local.
Buying Local benefits include:
- The desire for food of superior quality—freshness, flavor, ripeness, and extended shelf life;
- Understanding food safety issues and learning about farming practices directly from the grower, including visiting the farm;
- Support for small business in the local community;
- Preserving farmland and open space while supporting sustainable economic activity;
- Access to unique and heirloom varieties;
- The ability to buy products that don’t survive long-distance shipping;
- Depending on several factors such as the farming system, the possibility of a lower carbon footprint and CO2 emissions from production through consumption.
- Natural food stores and local farmer’s markets have the highest level of consumer trustworthiness (USDA 2014)
“Good food does not come in a store shelf box.” by Unanimous