We are the most unlikely people to suddenly become passionate about farming and ranching. But, as Isak Dineson, who was in a former life a Danish aristocrat, said when she suddenly found herself mistress of a coffee farm in Africa, “A farm is a thing that gets hold of you.”
But back up you say, “How did you get from being a couple of City Kids who have never owned a lawn mower or even a house with a yard (not to mention your deplorable record with houseplants) to the enthusiastic owners of 40 acres in Sonoma with grand plans along the lines of Falcon Crest or at least the Ponderosa?”
Blame it on the San Francisco real estate market. We bought our first house together in a fringe area in the City. It was what we could afford and we figured we’d upgrade to a better neighborhood as we began to earn more. Flash forward more than 20 years later. We’ve spent so much time and effort upgrading this house, and the insane San Francisco real estate market had shot up so rapidly, that we found we lived in the neighborhood we would have upgraded to (at least according to the prices.)
But Andy was persistent. “Let’s at least do some real estate tours of Pacific Heights and see if we don’t want to live there.” (Pacific Heights is one of those neighborhoods everyone here aspires to. Although, to my taste, it’s kind of boring during the day. Just international nannies, Mexican gardeners and clutches of Soccer Moms.) I let myself be dragged through a few weekends of real estate tours.
Guess what? For about $4 million dollars we could buy a house not much bigger or better than the one we have now (which we bought for about what a tract home goes for in Iowa). But even a part of that kind of money could buy a lot of interesting land in Sonoma just an hour to the North. Actually a fraction of that kind of money could buy you good Sonoma land for about five minutes just after the Dot Com Bust which is when we showed up with our life savings. Not only that, interest rates were at historic lows. How often does this happen? We were in a buying frame of mind right AT THAT PRECISE FIVE MINUTES and snagged a loan we’re still marveling over years later. It had to be real estate destiny.
So that gets us installed in Sonoma. And as Dineson says, “A farm is a thing that gets hold of you.” Except it wasn’t really a farm. It was forty acres of never developed land, up and down a large hill, with one dirt road, covered with mesquite and Manzanita and home to a large population of deer, rabbits, foxes, skunk, coyotes, at least one bobcat and a mountain lion.
Did I mention the wine cave? The previous owners had put in the road, cleared a bit of the brush and tunneled into the hill to build a wine cave. Then they got overwhelmed at the shear scale of it all, bought a Victorian in town and unloaded the place on the first buyers who showed an interest (us). We weren’t as smart as they were. And having a wine cave sort of demands that you start making wine. It all just snowballed from there.
Perhaps because we’ve never had land to develop, we did it all backwards to what is normally done. There is sometimes genius in ignorance.
We decided to work the land first and build a house last. Years later, we’re still years away from having a house here.
We started by clearing brush and building a network of nature trails throughout the property. Then we built a tent cabin. (If you’ve been to Yosemite, you know this one: a wooden platform and framework with canvas stretched over it.) Then we started planning the vineyards and orchards.
We had a couple of landscape architects come around because, well, it never hurts to kick tires and see how the other half lives. We ended up standardizing on a motley freelance crew of hippies, displaced artisans and free spirits who gravitate to Sonoma County. We’ve never regretted that decision. Our crazy extended Sonoma “posse” includes Pasha the Mad Ukrainian (here and here), and Bug the Tree Man. Then there is our “Vineyard Manager”. Before you get visions of an effete Frenchman in a beret, Clarence is a farmer. He rides a tractor. He’s shows up about four times a year with all the heavy equipment. We made the mistake with him of trying to hop on the latest trendy thing and ask if we could dry farm our vineyards. His answer: “Well, if you don’t want no grapes.” (Relax, those of you concerned about irrigation in a semi-arid region. Grapes are just given drips of water in their youth and cut off when they reach maturity. So most wine grapes are dry farmed anyway.) But you get the idea. Our “posse” is helping us keep it real.
So here we are living the dream. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that they are two different dreams. I’m thinking about farming sustainably and doing it with my own dirty fingernails. My British husband is of the age and class where farming is approached quite another way. I remember watching a movie about Winston Churchill with him. In one scene, Winston steps out of his manor house and looks down the hill on his dozens of tenant farmers bringing in the harvest. At this point, Andy sighed and said, “Isn’t it great being a farmer like old Winnie?”
Unfortunately, we can’t quite afford that army of tenant farmers. So, for the time being, I’m it. I sold up my business, said goodbye to Corporate America, bought a pair of Tevas and committed to living here part time and bringing in our harvests. Andy pursued his kind of farming by directing the building of an amphitheater.
So where are we now? Well, we’ve brought in several crops of Rhone grapes and made some surprisingly drinkable Rhone style varietals. We’ve harvested and distilled lavender water and oil. And we’ve taken two crops of olives to the local olive press. We have grand plans for an extensive organic vegetable garden, horses, burros and heritage breed chickens. But in reality, we’re still doing George W. Bush ranching, which is defined as having no livestock but terriers. Hence the working name of our spread: Two Terrier Vineyards. Oh, and still no house. We’ve got a living space in the loft of the barn and a tent cabin for guests.
Our dream for the land has evolved, too. It’s a unique, practically untouched ecosystem that includes everything from endangered California wildflowers to a stand of 500 year old Redwoods. We’re now committed to keeping it a pristine Native Northern California habitat. Or maybe we just got shell-shocked at the price of landscaping. In any case, our wonderful crew of eccentrics is guiding us through a surprising approach to ecology which includes taking a flamethrower to non-native invaders like Star Thistle.
Might I add that we are learning by trial, error and hilarious misadventure. Which is the raison d’etre of this blog. It’s crazy, it’s a lot of work, and we’ve expended two million manhours between us in brute force and ignorance. It’s one part cautionary tale, one part updated Green Acres with a sprinkling of The Egg and I.
“A farm is a thing that gets hold of you.”
Join us for the tractor ride.