A Taste of Biointensive Farming at Cloverfield Organic Farm

By Claire Bradley | Photos by Rachel Stanich

Susan Truscott stands in the Cloverfield Organic Farm shed among drying herbs and wheat. She’ll get help from interns, mostly ag students from programs at UC Davis, to package the herbs and sell them alongside the fresh u-pick produce.


It’s a farm like no other. Hidden well out of view in a forested hollow, its entrance at 501 La Paloma Road in El Sobrante is marked with a small sign at the top of a narrow gravel driveway. When you arrive, you may be greeted by a free-ranging horse.

At Cloverfield Organic Farm, the vegetable beds are fenced in against ravenous deer. Terraced orchards rise up on the surrounding slopes, set off by a backdrop of eucalyptus trees. The only structure is a small storage shed. Heads of garlic hang from its eaves to cure.

I’ve visited plenty of u-pick farms before, but never one like this, where anything and everything is available to pick. Owner Susan Truscott gives out snips, points out crops ready to harvest, and rings up folks at a folding table. At $36 a basket, it’s not a bad deal for unbeatable freshness.

As far as Truscott knows, this business is unique in the Bay Area. “It’s educational, too,” she says. “People like to bring their children, and you can learn a lot. It’s a model of what you can do in your [own] garden.”

She gestures at a densely planted row—rhubarb, Peruvian golden berries, garlic chives, and various mints—and tells me that I, too, can become a biointensive farmer. “Start with a bed this size, a hundred square feet. Even with that, you can produce so much food.”

My balcony garden area is considerably less than a hundred square feet, yet I appreciate that the staff here do not jealously guard their methods. With every visitor that arrives, they share how they’re able to produce such a staggering variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in a compact space. They cultivate only 1.5 acres of the 4.5-acre property.


A postcard of Cloverfield Farm’s resident mascot, Magic Ben the medicine horse, gets tucked into picking basket at checkout.


Letting Nature Do Its Thing

There are many words for this style of agriculture, but Truscott concedes that “biointensive” best describes what they do. In the back of her truck is a book she has kept since college that sums up the approach: How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine by founder of the biointensive movement John Jeavons.

By interplanting a variety of annual and perennial species, building soil health through composting and mulching, and encouraging wildlife, biointensive farmers foster diversity, maximizing yields from minimal surface area. Compared to the monocultures and tilled land of conventional farming, the biodiversity and healthy soil here make the plantings more resistant to pests, diseases, and extreme weather like the recent winter’s record cold and rainfall.

“We’ve amended the soil, so water infiltration is really good,” Truscott says. Though the rains brought blight to some of the fruit trees, she won’t be using any toxic treatments: “I guess if I were a farmer that had, like, three acres of one variety, I’d probably invest in the fungicides. But here, I just let nature do its thing. The fungi this year are having a glorious time. It’s their turn.”

Between Magic Ben (the “medicine horse” met on arrival), the fungi, the plants, the soil, the insects, and the 30-plus species of birds spotted by ornithologists on a spring visit, Cloverfield Farm pulses with life. The team proudly and gently stewards all the organisms in their care, including some that predate the farm.

The Cloverfield Apple

Before Truscott bought the property in 2011, a family lived on the land. The house that sat in the one spot that regularly floods had been demolished by the time Susan arrived, but there is one esteemed remnant from that last human habitation: Up on the hill, a large apple tree presides over the orchard. Planted from seed by the grandson of the previous owner nearly 30 years ago, it received a recent visit from that same grandson, who was especially happy to find the tree thriving. Though unable to identify the variety, Truscott describes it as “kind of like an Orange Pippin … of all the trees, it’s really disease resistant. It just does really well. It’s super acclimated to be right here.” She and her staff dubbed it the “Cloverfield apple.”

Truscott spent nearly a decade transforming the land into a fully operational organic farm. For the first five years she worked alone on Saturdays while holding down her full-time job in the patent department at the nearby Chevron Corporation. The last three to four years have seen an uptick in visitors, who come from all over the Bay Area. Truscott now spends roughly half her time at Cloverfield, employs several staff, and oversees interns, many of whom are ag students at UC Davis. To get a little extra help and also build community, she hosts a seasonal volunteer workshop day for anyone who wants to get their hands dirty.

On an April visit, I watched farmer Michael Lancaster enthusiastically introduce visitors to his favorite delicacies—spicy horseradish leaves and sweet snap pea blossoms—and chatted with longtime intern Julie Hagelshaw, who comes up from the South Bay to work on weekends, having found nothing like this farm near her home.


The farm is on drip irrigation, but Cloverfield farmer Tomás Habtom gives the row crops an extra drink in the early morning as he checks on how the plants are doing.


The Real Thing

There is no greenhouse at Cloverfield Organic Farm, so the farmers sow a succession of seeds in small flats set outdoors right in the garden. Here, baby lettuces, Malabar spinach, and basil are getting their start.

When I note that there is no greenhouse anywhere in sight, Truscott shows how they start all their seeds outdoors in small wooden flats set around the vegetable bed perimeter. Sown weekly, these support the farm’s succession plantings, which lengthen the availability of various crops through each season. Since weather conditions will determine germination and growing times, customers may wait a little longer for warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers.

The orchard is on drip irrigation, but the staff hand-water the vegetable beds. “Because it brings you into the garden, you can see how your plants are doing,” Truscott says. To attract and feed beneficial insects, they keep at least 10 percent of the garden in flower all year round, evidenced in April by the swathes of calendula, yarrow, cornflower, and California poppies plus large elderberry trees then in full flower. Cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, and sunflowers keep the pollinators fed through summer and fall.

The farm’s only structure, the wooden shed, holds gardening tools and supplies and hosts a little shop, where customers can find dried herbs (many of them medicinal), local honey and olive oil, and seeds for purchase. A sign for the Real Organic Project hangs above the tools on a wall.

“We wanted to let people know that we’re doing the real thing,” says Truscott as she explains that while they were first certified by the USDA as organic in 2012, Cloverfield was one of the first California farms to add the Real Organic Project label, which they received in 2020. The Real Organic Project originated in 2018, when a group of frustrated organic farmers sought to establish a certification program they felt truly reflects essential organic practices like improving soil structure, raising livestock on pasture, and promoting biodiversity. Although many customers buy organic hoping to fight the environmental and social ills of industrial agriculture, many have observed how the loosening USDA organic regulations permit aquaponics, synthetic fertilizers, and other corner-cutting by large-scale operations, all environmentally questionable practices that don’t exactly work in harmony with nature.

Everything to Nourish

An amaranth plant mingles with the chamomile in Cloverfield’s biointensive growing space. Many of the pollinator-attracting flowers grown here are also edible

Truscott emphasizes that, as a rule, they don’t use any of the “-cides” at Cloverfield: “No fungicides, no pesticides. Nothing to kill, everything to nourish … You come here and you don’t have to even wash your produce; it was washed by the rain. Nothing’s gonna poison you.” Beyond any labels, what could be more reassuring than seeing how your food grows with your own eyes and harvesting it with your own hands?

Climbing up into the terraces, we walk past autumn berry, citrus, and fig trees, which will all fruit in fall and winter. A nine-year-old Pakistan mulberry tree is laden with premature berries, and I can’t wait to come back in a few weeks when the ripe berries will be shaken from the branches onto a harvest cloth.

And there is more to look forward to behind the orchard. The staff recently inoculated some felled eucalyptus logs with turkey tail mushroom spawn, and the fruiting bodies should be ready to harvest in a year or so. Underfoot, plants that would be considered prickly weeds by many are permitted to grow within reason, appreciated for their gifts. Wild artichokes have edible stems and buds, while milk thistle can be brewed into a tea rich in silymarin, a potent treatment for liver conditions.

“If you taste the flavors, they’re more intense, and that flavor is what tells your body it’s full of nutrition, too,” Truscott tells me as I munch on various leaves while deciding what to put in my basket for tonight’s dinner. I pick handfuls of large, glossy fava beans and the greens of Italian dandelion, chamomile, and fenugreek, the latter a surprisingly aromatic plant that Truscott says can be used to make a delicious pesto with cilantro flowers and pistachios. Few of the items I have picked would be easy to find at the grocery store, and I can’t resist adopting some plant starts—a sweet strawberry mint and a spicy Greek oregano—for the balcony.

At any time of year, Cloverfield Farm has at least 10 crops ready for harvesting, though during a recent visit, I counted many, many more than 10. This fall, you might find grapes like the dark, juicy Marechal Foch or locally discovered Emeryville Pink, an ancient Egyptian wheat called Khorasan or Kamut, amaranth, Cascade hops, multiple varieties of corn, tomatoes, and pomegranates, and an heirloom pie pumpkin called Winter Luxury. Truscott often tosses out ideas for each item’s use, such as popping amaranth seeds like corn for a snack and brewing hops into a sleep-promoting tea.

But along with the diversity of living things, it’s the diversity of possible experiences that makes Cloverfield special: educational, sensory, social, and therapeutic. Everything to nourish. ♦



Fall Succotash with Figs, Pickled Blackberries, and Popcorn

With arms full of Cloverfield Organic Farm’s corn, figs, berries, peppers, and tomatoes, we hopped over to Port Costa’s Bull Valley Roadhouse to ask Chef Anthony Paone if he could share a recipe to feature the bounty. He offered his succotash, a dish that’s a good example of the creative new spins he’s putting on the restaurant’s original “farm-fresh American fare” menu since he stepped into the kitchen in 2021. Succotash is an Indigenous dish that introduced Massachusetts’s 17th-century colonizers to the corn and beans of the Americas and the nutritional advantage in combining them. Paone uses some cool, modern hacks in his inspired rendition.

He starts by juicing fresh corn kernels and cooking the juice into a pudding, which he says “is great on anything, even the end of a spoon.” He dehydrates the leftover corn solids in a dehydrator and pulverizes them into a powder that he dusts over the popcorn garnishing this dish.

Another surprise (for us, at least) is Paone’s fig leaf oil, which he describes as “awesome: lightly fruity and floral, almost vanilla-like.” When we said we wouldn’t know how to use up the leftover fig leaf oil, he said to use it in a seafood dish, on top of grilled vegetables, or even over vanilla ice cream. Or make dressing (for salad or for fresh figs) by combining with good balsamic, salt, pepper, and mint.

Serves 4–5

  • 6 ears fresh sweet corn
  • Salt, pepper, and olive oil for general use
  • 4–5 medium fig leaves
  • 2½ cups olive oil (does not need to be highest quality)
  • 1 pint blackberries, cut in half (or whole blueberries as in the photo)
  • 1 cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 1–2 teaspoons high-quality extra virgin olive oil
  • A few basil leaves, cut in chiffonade
  • Popcorn kernels (as much as you want to pop)
  • 1 pint ripe figs
  • Honey
  • 1 pat butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup cooked Italian butter beans or other shelling beans (jarred beans are fine)
  • 1 medium pepper (any variety you like), roasted and cut into strips
  • 1 tablespoon each chopped basil and chives
  • Fresh ricotta (from Sonoma County’s Bellwether Farms or Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery)
  • Edible flowers of choice

To do in advance:

Shuck the corn and cut the kernels from the cobs. Set aside 1 cup kernels for later in assembly. Juice the remaining kernels in a juicer or purée very well and strain the juice. (Here’s where you could use Paone’s leftover corn solids hack to make the dust for the popcorn.)

Make the fig leaf oil by blending the fig leaves and olive oil in a blender and straining through a fine strainer. Set aside.

Pickle the blackberries (or blueberries) by heating up the vinegar and sugar with ½ cup water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then shut off heat and let cool to room temperature. Place berries in a bowl and pour vinegar mixture over berries. Set aside to macerate.

Before serving:

Heat the corn juice slowly in a small saucepan, whisking constantly as the natural corn starch slowly thickens the liquid to a pudding texture. Add a little salt and set aside.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and toss with high-quality extra virgin olive oil (just enough to moisten), pinches of salt and black pepper, and some chiffonade basil.

Pop the popcorn in a small saucepan with olive oil and generous salt and pepper. (Dust the popped corn with the dehydrated corn solid powder if you made it.)

Cut the figs in half and marinate lightly with equal parts honey and fig leaf oil and a pinch of salt.

To make the succotash, sauté the onion, reserved corn kernels, zucchini, beans, and roasted pepper in butter until the vegetables are soft and just cooked through. Finish with basil and chives.

To plate, divide and spread corn pudding among the number of plates you are serving and top with the succotash. Spoon small amounts of ricotta evenly around the succotash. Scatter a few tomato halves and some pickled berries around the succotash and add a few of the marinated figs. Ring the corn pudding with some fig leaf oil. Garnish the dish with the popcorn and edible flowers.


Cloverfield Organic Farm is open for customers to come pick Friday through Sunday noon to 5pm, but groups can request private visits during the week. A meadow above the vegetable patch doubles as a picnic area and corral for Magic Ben, who is more than just a friendly horse. His owner, Karen Rose Matthews, facilitates private therapeutic sessions with Ben to help people cope with trauma and stress. cloverfieldfarm.us

Claire Bradley gardens on her Oakland balcony and shares her experience with fellow small-space container gardeners in a blog called “Botany on the Balcony.” She is a lifelong student of Italian culture, food, and language, learning daily from her Italian husband and in-laws.