First-Generation Farmer Erin Eno Finds Community
Through Growing Food on Mount Diablo
Story and photos by Austin Price
July 2019: The rising sun is just hitting the eastern face of Mount Diablo as Erin Eno pulls weeds on a half-acre plot near
Brentwood. She uses a stirrup hoe to cut through the more stubborn roots. Her chihuahua-terrier mix—and namesake of Cooper’s Harvest, her first farming effort—barks at a ground squirrel scurrying between rows of chard and golden cherry tomatoes on the vine. One of Eno’s farm mentors, Ellie VanHof, helps in the neighboring bed.
“When you’re working by yourself, you get done as much as one person can,” says VanHof. “But when there are two, you can get as much done as three people.”
Eno started working this half-acre diversified organic farm in January 2019 as a farmer-in-training with First Generation Farmers (FGF), an organization founded to train would-be farmers with little to no background in agriculture. Previously an accountant, Eno enrolled in a nine-month program at FGF, then quit her job and launched full-time into the community of small-scale farming.
After weeding, Eno and VanHof move to harvesting: a few tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and some shiso and basil. Eno’s life looks different now than it did a few years ago when she worked in the Bay Area’s unheeding, high-speed tech industry. Growing a farm and a small business has come with challenges: long days, increasingly hot summers, uncertain income. But it’s also given her a chance to dirty her hands in the soil at a time when the world needs more small-scale farmers producing diversified crops for local communities.
“Sometimes you just need to go all out, try your hardest, and not look back,” Eno says. Cooper lets out another bark as a farm truck rolls by.
Cooper’s Harvest would turn out to be a stepping stone. Eno and Cooper have now joined the effort at Castle Rock Farm in Walnut Creek, where Eno is deepening connections with people and place through food.
From Tech to Farming
A born-and-bred Hawaiian, Eno moved to San Francisco in 2011 to work as an accountant for a software start-up. “I’m a little bit of a workaholic,” she admits, adding that she often logged 60 or 70 hours at the computer each week.
Through seven long years, Eno harbored a dream: Before moving to California, she had picked up a book called Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land in which author Kurt Timmermeister, formerly a Seattle-based restaurant owner, chronicles his transformative journey from one side of the food industry to the other as he moves to Vashon Island and teaches himself to farm. “I never intended to be a farmer and yet it feels right,” Timmermeister writes in the opening lines. “I enjoy a connection to the land, to the animals here, and I am endlessly thrilled to make food, to feed people.”
Eno wanted that same connection for herself. In San Francisco, she often visited farmers’ markets and occasionally volunteered at Alemany Farm, the city’s largest urban farm, but she knew she could deepen the connection—physically and mentally. Timmermeister’s book inspired her to see that one does not necessarily need an ag background to farm.
An online search brought her to First Generation Farmers. The nonprofit had just been awarded a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and had created a program called Urban Edge Sustainable Farmers, which offered trainees nine-month residencies on the organization’s farm near Brentwood, about an hour from Eno’s home.
For Eno, enrolling in the Urban Edge program would mean quitting her job, moving out to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and stepping into the uncertainty of small-scale organic farming. She applied without hesitation.
Growing a Young Farmer
In 2013, First Generation Farmers founder Alli Cecchini carved out a few acres of her family’s Brentwood asparagus farm to develop a new vision she had for working the land. Having grown up surrounded by the monocultural farming industry that defines the Delta and Central Valley, Cecchini wanted to plant a sustainable farm with diversified crops, and she wanted to train others to do the same.
In the past few years, FGF has offered a variety of youth programs, on-site trainings, in-class lectures, and the Urban Edge residency program. Their goal of training all ages of newcomer farmers means reaching well below the average age of farmers in the United States. One-third of America’s farmers are over the retirement age of 65, and close to another third are within a decade of reaching that milestone, according to data from the USDA. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that mitigating and adapting to a changing climate will require rethinking our monocultural food system and implementing smaller scale, sustainable practices that prioritize soil health and diversified crops.
“We’re going to need to get more young people enthusiastic about small farms and growing food and organics for sustainability,” says VanHof, a Rhode Island native who came to California to learn how to farm before becoming the farm manager and beginner farmer resource coordinator for Urban Edge. (As of October 2019, VanHof has relocated to Michigan with plans to start her own farm.)
When Eno moved to Brentwood in early 2018 to train with FGF, she spent nine months working a full schedule: On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, she tended to the FGF farm and harvested for market. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, she staffed one of the FGF farmers’ market tables. In between, she weeded, seeded, and attended classes on topics from crop rotation, soil heath, and integrated pest management to business fundamentals and bookkeeping.
“You’re not just learning how to farm,” Eno says. “You’re learning how to run a business.”
As Eno’s residency came to an end in 2018, VanHof helped Eno prepare her own garden beds on a half acre of FGF’s six-acre incubator farm in preparation for a new endeavor.
Her Own Half Acre
In January 2019, Eno planted the first crops in her solo venture, Cooper’s Harvest. She started with mainstays: tomatoes, eggplant, kale, carrots, chard, and radishes, and also planted okra and collards, shiso, and two kinds of summer squash, one a thin-skinned yellow variety called zephyr, which can be harvested, sliced, and eaten raw. She added lemon cucumbers and a few other novelty crops, and, in a nod to her Hawai`i upbringing, lilikoi (more commonly known outside the Aloha State as passion fruit). Her fall crops included kabocha and butternut squash, beets, Kennebec potatoes, and bok choi varieties including tatsoi.
“I want to offer as much as it makes sense to grow,” she says. “I’m trying to diversify as much as possible.”
Eno started her marketing with e-newsletters and social media, but she also engaged in some old-fashioned, shoe-leather marketing, handing out flyers during rush hours at the Walnut Creek BART station. She launched her own CSA, got a spot at the San Ramon Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, and started selling produce to restaurants.
It didn’t take long for Eno to feel the weight of farming’s challenges. “Any day that it was over 95 degrees, I wouldn’t be out in the field,” she says. This was a barrier that didn’t seem to hinder the mechanized farming practices of her large-scale neighbors, and with the era’s promise of hotter summers, Eno started to realize one of the painful ironies of a changing climate: The effects are already starting to prohibit the activities needed to mitigate those effects.
Another challenge was Eno’s isolation. Some days, VanHof and other mentors helped her on the farm, and she always enjoyed conversing with customers at markets and events. But frequently, Eno was alone on her half-acre plot, save Cooper. “Being out there every day not having that interaction with people,” she says, “I didn’t realize how much I needed [community] in my everyday life.”
Integrating the Community at Castle Rock Farm
A new chapter opened for Eno last fall as she found herself talking with two other young farmers selling at the Concord Farmers’ Market. Alex Ellison and Tony San Marchi had started Castle Rock Farm in December 2017 as a three-quarter-acre garden within a five-acre parcel in suburban Walnut Creek. Their onsite farmstand was a convenient place for neighbors to stop daily for the quick-growing leafy greens and tomatoes they grew. But Ellison says they quickly saw the wisdom in Eno’s diversified selection, realizing their farmstand could become a one-stop shop. “We can emulate the farmers’ market on a smaller scale … people can come by the farmstand to buy their whole week’s worth of vegetables.”
They invited Eno to join them in farming at Castle Rock. She would help them expand their selection, and while the new arrangement wouldn’t necessarily erase the challenges Eno was feeling, it would add accountability and community to her farming experience. She planted and harvested her fall crops at the FGF farm in Brentwood and began working at Castle Rock a few days a week. As the calendar turned to 2020, she had joined Castle Rock Farm full-time.
Eno is optimistic about the coming year at Castle Rock Farm. “We really want our farmstand to be a go-to for a lot of the neighbors, and we want to be well-known within the community, so we’re trying to develop education and events,” she says. She’s setting up a partnership with Discovery Bay–based Delta Worms, which offers training in perma-composting and other gardening practices that increase soil health, or as Eno puts it, “those kinds of classes where the neighbors will be able to utilize the knowledge in their own gardens.” She’s also planning family-friendly activities and events at the farm for Earth Day and holiday weekends.
“Erin’s leading the way on integrating the community, getting the community here and involved and participating in something,” says Ellison.
Rich in Food and Happiness
Back on the original half-acre in Brentwood that early morning in July, VanHof and Eno decide to take a break. The sun has finally broken through the morning cloud cover, hinting at one of the first truly hot days in the Bay Area summer. Cooper lets out another sharp bark, a dog’s greeting for a neighbor walking along the two-lane road along the edge of the farm. “It’s gonna be a hot one today,” he says with a wave.
Eno picks up Cooper and waves back. “Run for cover!” VanHof jokes to the neighbor, but then, aside from the impending heat, she reminds Eno how lucky they are. “Farming definitely doesn’t make a ton of money, but I’m rich in so many more things,” she says. “I’m rich in food, in happiness. I’m out in the sun all day. That’s pretty phenomenal.”
Eno reflects on this. After her first year running a farm, she knows she made the right choice. Like VanHof, Cecchini, Ellison, Marchi, and Timmermeister, she has found an invaluable connection to land and people through produce, a connection she hopes to grow in the coming season.
“I enjoy being able to connect with people through the food I’m producing,” she says. “You’re putting everything into growing this food. It’s a part of yourself that you’re providing to people.” ♦
Castle Rock Farm is located at 700 Castle Rock Road in Walnut Creek. Visit castlerockfarmstand.com to learn more about the farmers and what they are growing this year, or to sign up for their CSA or the farm’s newsletter mailing list. The farmstand is open most Tuesdays and Saturdays, but it’s best to double check hours on the most recent Instagram post @castlerockfarmstand.
Berkeley-based journalist Austin Price covers wildlife, ecology, fish, and farms—anything to do with our relationship with nature and place. Find his work for Sierra, Earth Island Journal, Yale Environment 360, and other journals at austinmprice.com.
Lilikoi Chia Seed salad Dressing
Lilikoi (aka passion fruit) is in season from July/August through November. Packaged purée can be used if you want to try this now, but tuck this recipe away for a summer salad.
Makes about 1 cup salad dressing
2 tablespoons lilikoi purée*
1 clove garlic
1 pinch salt
2 teaspoons good quality Dijon mustard
¾ cup grape seed or light flavored olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon honey
Blend all dressing ingredients (except chia seeds) in a small food processor until combined. Add chia seeds and store in the fridge until ready to use. Pour dressing over salad greens right before serving.
*Erin Eno says, “With the fresh fruit, you just cut it in half and scoop out the flesh, seeds and all. You could take out the seeds, but I like the crunch.”
Tatsoi with Spicy Thai Sauce
Many local farmers’ markets, especially those hosting Asian farmers, sell tatsoi during the cool season. It might be labled with any number of other names like tago choy, tah tsai, spoon mustard, spinach mustard, or rosette bok choy.
¼ cup honey
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
2½ tablespoons lime juice
2-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Thai chile, seeded and thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons olive oil
½ red onion, thinly sliced
14 ounces tatsoi
In a small bowl, whisk together honey, fish sauce, water, lime juice, ginger, garlic, and Thai chile until blended. Add salt and pepper to taste. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in onion and cook for 1 minute. Stir in tatsoi and cook until wilted but still bright green, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Spoon sauce over tatsoi and enjoy!