Why Petaluma Once Was So Rich

The land surrounding Petaluma is rich farm country, not only in Sonoma County but in Napa and Marin Counties too. With all that nearby agricultural land, grain, milk, eggs, cheese, and meat was produced all around it in abundance.

Getting these riches to market was solved by the Petaluma River that flowed from the town’s grain silos, mills and food storage warehouses into San Francisco bay. For a brief while Petaluma was the richest community in California.

Currently it’s a bedroom community for San Francisco with a lot of repurposed industrial buildings. It’s old affluence is gone but if you’re looking for good food, you’ve come to the right place.

Much Better Than The East Coast Version!

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The difference in how produce tastes between  east and west coasts often can be huge. Satsuma citrus is a good example. Before we left we bought a few at Whole Foods in Boston. They tasted good, much better than I expected. However, today we also bought a few at Whole Foods in Petaluma, California. Oh My God! They were astounding.

Even the peel felt fresher! I was almost tempted to take a taste of that too!!

Veggie Portrait

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Sometimes one’s home life presents colorful photographic opportunities. This was supper 2 nights ago. I couldn’t resist.

Pie and Antiques in Arcadia, FL

You won’t really understand what I’m going to tell you about our day yesterday, unless you are a dyed in the wool antiques buff and/or an occasional lover of country style, high caloric eating. Because, as a treat for both of us, we drove 2 1/2 hours each way to a little town in central Florida called Arcadia, where we poked around little antique shops (some featuring such choice “collectables” as barbed wire, old lunch boxes, coke bottles and electrical insulators) and ate an enormous lunch of fat juicy burgers, deep fried string onions and chocolate peanut butter cream pie.

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Arcadia came into being in the late 19th century as the economic and logistic hub of the cattle and citrus ranches in that area of central Florida. A lot of that activity still goes on today but what makes the town different in the winter, is that its main downtown area has been, more or less, taken over by small antique dealers, many from the midwest, who can’t afford the rents in the more upscale coastal communities. The word of their gathering has gotten out and on weekends the place is pretty crowded and a lot of fun.

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When we operated our antique shop in Camden we did quite a bit of buying in Arcadia especially at a sweet little shop called Maddy’s. So it was a very enjoyable walk down that particular memory lane yesterday to visit with Maddy’s daughter who remembered us fondly and just happened to be having a big show that day. (We were sorely tempted.)

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However, driving all that way just to revisit our old business stomping grounds wouldn’t have been enough, so in addition, we decided to completely ignore our usual efforts to eat responsibly and have lunch at Wheeler’s Cafe.

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Wheeler’s is one of those places that simply exudes ratty, rustic charm. The formica on the counters is worn thin by many thousands of elbows and randomly framed little photos of past rodeos and farm fairs hang haphazardly on the walls behind the booths. The women waiting on tables are briskly (one could say brusquely) efficient as they bark their orders to the cooks in the back and the food is well cooked, fresh and simple country fare.

There is one notable exception to all this however. Their pies are – drop dead – over the moon – better than your grandmother’s – terrific. How they got that good, I don’t know. The lady behind the cash register claimed their peanut butter cream pie was in existence when the place opened in 1929, but she didn’t know its origin. 

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No matter….Wheelers serves many different pies each day and runs out regularly. While we were there I saw a number of obvious locals come in and order pie, only pie, to go. Sarah, who bakes a terrific pie herself, concurred that these creations were well worth falling off the caloric responsibility wagon for.

5 hours on the road for a nostalgic visit to Maddy’s Antiques and 2 pieces of Wheeler’s peanut butter cream pie? You bet!

We returned full of fond memories and the best chocolate peanut butter cream pie on the planet.

You Want Healthy? I’ll give you healthy.

R0300649smallWe went to the farmer’s market here in Delray last Saturday. This one seemed to sell a higher percentage of finished  foods than we were used to in Maine. Don’t get me wrong, everything offered was fine and there was still plenty of nice produce to be had.

One “finished” product that I particularly enjoyed was a smoothie from these guys.

A Very Smart Small Farm

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Here in California, land of mega-scale corporate farming, there are still wonderful examples of small farming enterprises that practice agriculture very differently and survive very well. One of these is Green String Farm right down the road from us here in Petaluma.

If you do nothing else today go to their website right now and check them out. I can wait.

http://www.greenstringfarm.com/

At Green String they farm in a way that initially looks odd to the first time visitor. Their crop rows don’t look clean and tidy like most farms. In fact one would be hard pressed to even see some of their vegetables because often they are covered with weeds. For instance here is some lettuce. If it wasn’t a red leaf variety it would almost entirely disappear in the grass.

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The theory behind this messy looking farming is really quite simple. All plants, whether weed or vegetable, compete with all other plants for survival. This competition is a battle of the fittest. A vegetable that is able to overcome the hostile treatment by its weed neighbors is an all-round better vegetable for having to compete this way. All Green String does is to stack the deck a little to insure the veggies triumph in the end. So if it appears the weeds are winning too much they will get lopped down just enough to make sure the vegetable ultimately wins. Below you can see a worker weed whacking a plot to insure this outcome.

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There’s more. Sheep graze in their vineyard to keep weeds down in the early spring and chicken pens are moved around the farm from place to place to do the same thing. They fertilize with manure “tea” and oyster shells and above all they pay attention to the health of the soil for, as they stress over and over again, without that they couldn’t produce these glorious vegetables.

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One more thing. These folks have an internship program where they teach their methods to young people in the hopes of spreading the skill of small scale farming/gardening to as wide an audience as possible. One Sunday we were privileged to go on a tour of the farm conducted by two very bright young ladies who intended to, once they left Green String, go back home and start pilot programs in their neighborhoods.

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One lives in New York and one in Chicago.

How cool is that!

Touring GREEN STRING FARM with Nayah and Claire

Green String Farm in Petaluma is a fascinating place. Check its website out here.

At first glance, the place would appear to be an ordinary “grow & sell it” vegetable and fruit operation but upon closer viewing it shows itself to be a commercial farm that practices a radical new kind of agriculture, complete with an on site educational program that  trains young intern volunteers.

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We toured the farm with these two bright young ladies Nayah  and Claire. (Both of them come from urban backgrounds, one from New York and one from Chicago.) Below is just a little of what they told us.

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The farm practices what is called “natural process agriculture”. What that means essentially is that they let nature alone to the greatest extent possible. For instance they weed very little and a large bed vegetables can look for all the world like a large patch of weeds. These beds of lettuce and kale for instance are almost unrecognizable as such from the road.

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They use animals, primarily sheep, to weed the orchards. The goat pictured here is part of a small herd that is also due to be put into some sort of farm weeding use but that hasn’t started yet. (I confess I just liked this lady’s looks.)

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This orchard is almost due for an animal weeding.

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They have 3 chicken coops scattered around the property. The chickens provide eggs for selling, and providing baby chicks for future needs. They eat bugs and vegetable trimmings thus making themselves very useful.

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Last and probably the most surprising of all Green String Farm operates with the motto “50% for humans 50% for nature”. They talk about “growing soil, not vegetables” and in that way they give back to the earth what it needs to sustain us.

Not a bad idea wouldn’t you say?

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