Sunol AgPark Growers Have Strong Kitchen Ties
Continuing our year-long series about relationships between local farms and restaurants
BY SARAH HENRY | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT PETERSON
Culinary chops can make for better crops. So say farmers with cooking and serving backgrounds who toil in the soil under relentless sun on the urban-rural edge of Alameda County. And they have the industry connections to back up such claims, growing their heirloom produce and uncommon herbs for standout Bay Area restaurants known for their creative use of produce.
This experiment in sustainable agriculture on a small scale—we’re talking one-acre, hand-sown plots—is happening in Sunol, a slip of a community just 30 minutes from downtown Oakland that feels a world away. Sunol gets frost in winter and serious sun in summer, making it ideal for growing peppers, tomatoes, okra, and other heat-loving plants.
Feral Heart Farm and Namu Farm are neighbors here. The farms are part of the Sunol Water Temple Agriculture Park, 20 acres of watershed farmland managed by Berkeley nonprofit Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE). The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission owns the AgPark land.
SAGE offers affordable plots in close proximity to major markets. That makes the AgPark attractive to novice farmers. These growers lease an acre of land for $1,000 a year; water costs $500 a year. In its first nine years of operation, the project on the periphery of suburbia has been home to more than a dozen farms. The AgPark is also home to a Beaux Arts–style water temple, designed by influential architect Willis Polk in 1910 to honor the water resources that then supported San Francisco and Oakland. The unlikely piece of architecture in the middle of ag country only adds to the funky farm charm.
And the farmers? Feral Heart is Sophie Bassin, also a server at Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, and Aaron Dinwoodie, who makes a value-added dip at Kitchener Oakland. They grow row crops for Juhu, as well as Farm Burger in Berkeley and Niles Pie Co. in Union City. Namu Farm’s Kristyn Leach is a former prep cook at the Oakland restaurant Camino. Leach grows exclusively for Namu Gaji, a modern Korean-influenced restaurant in San Francisco, whose owners fund her farm salary.
It’s the kind of arrangement that thrives when farmers on the edge team up with innovative chefs who do more than tout their farm-to-table cred. They put their money where their mouth is and back beginner businesses run by local growers.
Radical Farmers Build Restaurant Relationships Organically
Feral Heart Farm is in its second year at Sunol. Bassin and Dinwoodie bring a wealth of diverse farming experience to the new enterprise. For 11 years, Dinwoodie managed a farm on a private residence near Half Moon Bay. The gig sounds idyllic: His salary wasn’t contingent on production. He grew vegetables, cared for fruit orchards, and looked after goats and chickens.
Dinwoodie, who now lives in Sunnyvale, is gentle, soft-spoken and thoughtful. A former physicist, at one time he worked as an engineer at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center. The long and lean Filipino-Chinese-American brings a scientist’s mind to growing. The 38-year-old is also an avid seed saver and favors a holistic approach to farming. “We believe in letting plants live their whole life cycle,” says Dinwoodie. “In just one generation a saved seed becomes better adapted to conditions and the new crop is better than the previous one. Their flowers attract beneficial bugs and provide important nectaries for bees.”
The bubbly Bassin, who rocks an urban farmgal look complete with outdoors-inspired tattoos, spent the better part of a decade working for production growers on the East Coast. A transplanted Midwesterner, the 31-year-old comes from a food justice background, most recently collaborating with Oakland collective Phat Beets. The pair met at Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero in 2011, where Bassin was doing a six-month internship. “It was a random coming together but it’s become a pretty sweet partnership,” says Bassin, whose warm, easy-going manner is on display during peak service on weekends at the Indianish Juhu Beach Club.
The duo work the fields three to four days a week. They farm diverse crops: brassicas, lettuce, beets, and carrots in the spring; summer brings peppers, eggplant, okra, beans, squashes, sweet potatoes, and melons. At press time, the farm was in the process of obtaining its organic certification.
When not planting, weeding, or harvesting, Bassin, in particular, focuses on tending the business side of the operation.
The restaurant relationships the farmer has forged this year have been key. There’s a genuine mutual respect, says Bassin. She brings her boss at Juhu Beach Club, chef-owner Preeti Mistry, two deliveries of produce a week and says Mistry is an ideal partner: open to experimentation and a new farm booster. “We bring her produce not in its usual form, color, or shape, and she gets excited by it,” says Bassin. “It feeds her creative fire.”
The size is right, too. “These are small restaurants so the relationships are intimate and I think they need to stay that way for us to thrive,” adds Dinwoodie. “The farm and restaurant need to match up in terms of scale.”
The relationship works both ways. Mistry texts the pair and asks them if they can grow specific vegetables or herbs for the restaurant. Her latest request: fenugreek. And the farmers turn cooks on to their favorite varieties of say, squash, that ubiquitous summer crop. “It’s a dance—growing things that we want to introduce chefs to while also planting produce we know they can use. That’s what keeps us on our toes, says Bassin.
Juhu, she says, feels like home. “I don’t want to be a server forever, but there’s something about that space that feels right, it supports me financially and emotionally,” she says. “I’m exhausted; both jobs are pretty physical. But the culture of the restaurant is special; people are invested. They serve my food.… It feels good.”
Mistry gives a shout out on the menu to the farm and its pickled vegetables accompanied a summer special, dubbed a Feral Heart Farm Dog. Bassin is not above letting diners know where their food comes from. “To customers who I think might appreciate it, I’ll mention if there’s produce from my farm, like beets or greens, when I bring their order. It’s fun; some people really value that.”
The relationship has other mutual benefits. Mistry can work with produce that is a little bug bitten or misshapen. Such so-called imperfect produce finds a home in sauces. She’ll also give the farmers frank feedback. Bassin says that Mistry told her recently the farm’s lettuces weren’t sexy enough—though she’s fond of Feral Heart’s chicories. The farm’s salad greens go elsewhere. “At Farm Burger it is much more like: ‘Here’s what we need, can you provide it?’” says Bassin. “They’re different styles and we work with both.”
“Even though they’re new to the game in terms of growing directly for restaurants, they understand the needs of the industry,” says Michael McGuan, West Coast general manager of Farm Burger, a grass-fed beef burger chain with Southern roots. “We have good feedback going and there’s a real, personal connection there. That matters to me.”
Baker Carolyn Berke of Niles Pie Co. met Dinwoodie at an AgPark plant sale. She likes the quirkiness of Feral Heart, which supplies leeks, collards, chard, kale, carrots, turnips, and other vegetables for her savory pies. Their produce is first rate, says Berke, who concedes there’s also a feel-good factor in her decision to work with a fellow small business. “They challenge us to do different stuff based on whatever they’ve got,” she says. “At one point I was pickling a lot of turnip greens. They were fabulous.”
Mistry knows firsthand the challenges of getting a business off the ground. “It’s important to me to support young farmers,” says the chef, profiled in these pages in 2013. “There’s a level of trust that develops over time between a farmer and a chef. I have confidence in how and what they grow and I find them inspiring.”
The chef still gets produce from established growers like Full Belly Farm and Dirty Girl Produce. But she also values having a farmer she knows personally growing specific things just for her. “They planted okra that I’m excited about, they grow Italian frying peppers I just love, and baby Indian eggplant,” says Mistry, listing off recent favorites. “We’re a small mom and mom restaurant so we’re able to adapt more easily with supply issues, though I’ve also gotten to depend on them; sometimes I’m like: ‘Dude, heads up, I need more of that.’”
The farmers are looking for a couple more restaurant accounts. So far, personal connections have landed them clients and they would like that to continue. Case in point: They grow a lot of bunching greens, the kind that are popular for juicing. A queer female friend of Bassin’s is planning on opening a juice bar, Super Juiced, in Old Oakland and is interested in sourcing from Feral Heart. “That would be a great fit for us, that’s my community,” she says.
The farmers are grateful to their initial clients who took a chance on them. “These restaurant partners really support us. Buying produce from a local farm isn’t really key support to that farm,” says Dinwoodie, “just like going to a farmers market doesn’t really support an individual farm.” What does real support look like in this grower’s view? “When they say: ‘Tell us what you have a lot of, we’ll make a special.’ They’ll take something when it’s abundant and at it’s best and work with it.”
The jury is still out on whether the farm can provide a livelihood. “At first we weren’t even holding that as a value,” says Bassin, who lives in North Oakland, just blocks from the restaurant where she works. “In our second year we are generating revenue and feel there’s potential. It’s challenging on just one acre. Maybe it’s idealistic, but with community support and our relationships, we think we can contribute to the hyper-local economy.”
They’re diversifying. In addition to restaurant clients, Feral Heart recently launched a solstice-to-solstice CSA. About 25 people pick up fresh produce—along with their pickled vegetables, another farmer’s pastured eggs, and Dinwoodie’s beet dip—at Juhu and at Bassin’s home on Thursdays. The farmers would like to grow the seasonal program to around 40. As with most things Feral Heart Farm related, the CSA evolved organically. The farmers piloted a CSA with 10 friends in the winter. It went well, so they expanded. They’ve been able to build business in a financially low-risk way while figuring out what makes most sense for them.
The farm’s name seems fitting. “Our hearts are in this, first and foremost, interacting with plants, bugs, soil—that feeds our souls,” says Dinwoodie. “And the feral is because we’re a little wild. While everything is grown in straight lines, I appreciate what the weeds are telling us and what is wild that we can eat.” Adds Bassin: “We’re not textbook farmers—we’re in this collusion where the wild meets the domestic, we push up against the status quo and play with it a bit.”
It’s that kind of friskiness that risk-taking chefs hunger for.
Korean Crops Destined for Korean-Influenced Dishes
It all started with a perilla patch. Back in 2010, Kristyn Leach was managing Paradise Valley Produce, a lettuce farm in Bolinas, and she happened to be growing the popular Korean herb by her trailer. In Korean cuisine, perilla is a frequent garnish for meat and fish dishes and used in salads, shoju drinks, and iced tea. Fresh perilla leaves have an aroma reminiscent of apples and mint. The herb’s large, flat leaves are also pickled and used to wrap meats.
Leach was born in Daegu, South Korea, in 1982. Adopted by Irish-Catholic New Yorkers as an infant, she hadn’t been back to her birthplace until last year. She didn’t grow up eating kimchi as a child; she learned about Korean cuisine through crop cultivation as an adult. When she moved from New York City to Washington State, where she worked as a printmaker, she began growing her own perilla. Every old Korean lady in the area, she says, grew perilla.
Perilla was Leach’s gateway plant to discovering her roots. She had a hunch that interest in the cuisine of her birth culture was heating up and that maybe it was a good time to be growing Korean produce beyond her personal curiosity.
She was right. At the time, chef Dennis Lee, one of three brothers behind Namu Gaji in San Francisco, was having a tough time sourcing organic Asian vegetables and herbs—mainstays on their menu—in particular perilla. It was Russell Moore, the chef at Camino—and subject of our cover story about backyard bounty in this series in the summer issue—who suggested Leach and Lee meet. Both parties saw the possibility of a collaboration. The seeds for Namu Farm, launched in 2012, were sown.
But first, back to Moore. When Leach moved to the Bay Area in 2009, she surprised herself by landing a job at Camino in Oakland, despite having no culinary experience. “I feel so fortunate, some weird stroke of fate led me in there, it wasn’t on my radar,” says Leach, a sun-kissed, fresh-faced young farmer with closely cropped hair, a slight frame, and the weathered hands of a veteran working with dirt. Moore, whose mother is Korean, saw that her résumé was all farms, and, she says, told her: “You know how to work hard, I can teach someone to cook.”
Leach recalls her steep learning curve. She questioned why she was doing the job. She had no aspirations to be a professional chef. It was a lot of chopping and peeling and feeling badly about messing things up. “When I look back, that experience gave me something unique that is completely relevant to having a farm now,” she says. “Having literacy around food, which [Moore] helped ingrain in me, was such a missing part of my experience as a farmer,” says Leach, who has been growing food for 10 years. “It helped me understand what chefs need and what kind of partnership is required. There’s this creative give and take. They’re so good at what they do, that means we want to step it up and be really good at what we do. It’s a true collaboration.”
First the farmer-chef partners had to find a locale for Namu Farm. Leach, who like many newcomers to the Bay Area, was juggling multiple jobs, already had an in at Sunol AgPark. She was working on a founding farm there, Baia Nicchia Farm, a seven-acre operation specializing in squash blossoms, winter squash, herbs, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes. Leach inquired about a plot. She was delighted to discover an acre was available.
Leach has farmed for the Lees for the past four years. Currently, Will Santiago works with her on the farm: He’s a grower who shares her approach to farming. They met while both worked at Baia Nicchia. Leach’s interest in Korean crops and understanding of Namu’s cuisine informs decisions on the land. For example, she grows gochu peppers, which provide the heat for many Korean dishes. Chile peppers are another staple.
A seed saver and seed collector, Leach has inherited heirloom varieties from diverse sources, including Korean immigrants and the Lee brothers’ mother. Some seeds come from Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Co., the oldest seed business in the U.S. specializing in Asian vegetables.
At Namu Farm, Leach combines organic, biodynamic, and permaculture practices with traditional Korean peasant farming methods. No fossil fuel is used on the farm, for instance. It’s truly manual labor. There’s not a tractor or tiller in sight. Instead, Leach encourages the growth of indigenous microorganisms by incorporating fungus from nearby woods into the soil. She allows cover crops to decompose on their own schedule. She welcomes wildlife and weeds: Her farm is a habitat for birds and the odd volunteer plant, like the sunflowers that sprout in an ad hoc fashion. She favors an untamed aesthetic; tidy row crops aren’t her main concern. She’s all about cultivating the healthiest self-regulating soil she can in order to grow the most vibrant produce and herbs possible.
Chef Lee appreciates what she brings to the kitchen table. “In order to be a better cook it is important to learn and experience where food comes from and be personally involved and invested in how it grows,” he says. Lee, his brothers, and restaurant employees and their families have all spent time on the farm. During the summer, the chef regularly brings his daughters to lend a hand on the farm. “You don’t look at produce the same way after you’ve grown it yourself,” said Lee in a SAGE report on the farm project.
Leach’s restaurant experience is a bonus for Lee. “She understands the daily demands and inner workings of a kitchen and I can communicate with her more easily [about what I need] because of that,” he says.
On a recent visit, crops in the ground included Korean melons, okra, eggplant, Korean black soybeans, and several different varieties of peppers. And, of course, perilla. All will end up at Namu Gaji. Peppers are the chief ingredients in that signature spicy Korean paste known as gochujang. Other varieties are pickled or grilled. Radishes are pickled or fermented in the house kimchi. Black soybeans are the basis of a traditional Korean side dish. The farm grows about 50 different crops and harvests around 7,000 pounds a year. Leach sometimes has excess bounty that she shares, for free, with local Korean and women’s community organizations that help those in need.
Each year in September Leach has been holding a celebration of the Korean ceremony called Chuseok with traditional Korean folk drummers. The Thanksgiving-like festival pays tribute to the harvest moon, the land, and the food that nature provides. “This food has weight for people and personal meaning for me. I couldn’t lift my head up at first, I was focused on getting it right for the restaurant,” she says. But she has a bigger vision than simply being part of commerce within a community; she wants to be part of community engagement.
Does this restaurant-run farm make financial sense? “People ask us if this is replicable as a model all the time,” says Leach. “This is a unique situation, if someone asked us to break it down by the hours, if it was just any restaurant that came to us and dictated what to grow, that’s not a job I’d take. But we’re doing the work we want to do and they take care of us.”
It’s a hard life with a modest income but the rewards are many from Leach’s perspective. “It’s so physically rigorous, this practice—no till, no machinery—it can seem like torture,” she jokes. But her work ethic and farm philosophy are part of the greater plan of how she wants to live her life. “They bust ass all the time over at the restaurant,” says Leach of her partners, who receive two deliveries a week from the farm during peak growing seasons. “Everyone here loves what they do and are in it together.”
Leach has an open canvas to grow whatever she wants. In reality, she plants produce the restaurant can use, what they have a hard time finding elsewhere, and what does well in the Sunol climate and soil. Even given that, there’s a lot of leeway, she says, about what goes into the ground. She understands the vision behind the brothers’ menu. Sometimes it takes some dogged scouting to source seeds for specific plants. For example, Leach ended up breeding two different varieties of sought-after chiles they finally got their hands on. “We call them Lady Han and Lady Choi, after two leading characters in my favorite Korean soap opera,” she says. “They’re not peppers that have a reference point to most people, so we got to name them.”
The value to a 33-year-old farmer immersed in the specific plants and farming practices of her birthplace playing out in the heart of an agricultural oasis in her adopted homeland? Priceless.
Feral Heart Farm:
CSA at Juhu Beach Club
11am to 2pm Thursdays, $20-$25 sliding scale;
5179 Telegraph Ave, Oakland
The nonprofit hosts community field workdays at the AgPark six to seven times per year to encourage public participation in volunteer farm activities and natural resource stewardship. It also hosts an annual harvest festival, slated for September 27 this year, and other special events, including a spring plant sale and an April farm tour. sagecenter.org/sunol-agpark