My work brings me in touch with incredible people who constantly challenge me to learn and grow. Those of us who love food and agriculture share a common thread that knits our souls together in unspoken community. We are a passionate group whose idea of the perfect day might be tromping through wet fields enjoying the smells of rich earth while communing over compost and favorite ways to prepare each season’s bounty.
That’s just the scenario I enjoyed when I met Jenny Uphoff on a recent Sunday afternoon. Jenny had reached out via email to introduce herself and ask if we might talk about blogging. A Bay Area native and UC Berkeley grad in public health, she described herself as a “26-year-old local California kid eager to make a difference in this world.” She listed her passions as health, cooking, growing food, cycling, hiking, teaching yoga and leading guided tours for an outdoor travel company, which she does for most of the year.
I also learned she had snagged a coveted winter internship at Green String Institute; a revolutionary residency program at Sonoma County’s Green String Farm where groups of 8-12 students spend three-month sessions learning natural process farming from the ground up.
From the moment we met, I liked this vivacious young woman whose smile could light up a room like a firefly on a summer night. We talked about my journey as a writer, and her dream of owning a retreat center and farm. I knew I had found a kindred spirit. When I confided I had never visited Green String, she generously offered to take me on an “insiders” tour of the property. How could I resist?
Founded in 2003, Green String Farm rests on 140 acres of sprawling organic fields and vineyards off Adobe Road east of Petaluma, California.
The farm is perhaps best known as Alice Water’s go-to produce connection for Chez Panisse; the pioneering Berkeley restaurant that started a national movement based on local, organic food. Green String’s farm store, open to the public seven days a week (six in the winter months), offers a wealth of organic veggies, fresh pressed olive oil, Revolution breads, and preserved veggies and sauces—all at very reasonable prices.
The farm was co-founded by visionary farmer/educator Bob Cannard, and award-winning Sonoma winemaker, Fred Cline. Together they formed the Green String Institute (GSI) internship program; an intensive “crash course” in best farm and land management practices that is training the next generation of farmers.
The interns at GSI gain practical, hands on experience working all aspects of the farm. Jenny’s day starts bright and early at 5:00am with a personal yoga and meditation practice, followed by a hot breakfast made in the communal kitchen she shares with her fellow interns. Then it’s off to the farm store at 7:00am to begin the day’s work.
After fifteen minutes of requisite stretching, the team scatters for assigned morning chores that might include harvesting, pruning, tending the chickens, washing produce boxes and sorting veggies.
Afternoons are spent learning essential skills like how to operate a chain saw, drive a tractor, make tools using harvested wood, proper techniques for hoeing and scything, composting, creek restoration, herbal medicine and more.
Cannard is considered a maverick in sustainable agriculture with a decidedly “less is more” approach to organic farming. Students at GSI learn the foundations of what he calls natural process agriculture where crops grow in harmony with other native plants (aka weeds).
Visitors who expect to see neat, defined rows of organic veggies will be startled by the wildness of Green String’s fields, where crops grow amid an abundant tangle of plant diversity. The concept of competition/control, Jenny explained, actually encourages weeds to flourish in conjunction with the vegetables. The plants are managed with a minimum of interference, free of chemicals and pesticides. Healthy soil is the foundation of it all. Under Cannard’s watchful eye, students amend the fields with compost, mulch, crushed rock and oyster shell to achieve the perfect balance of nutrients and minerals that support robust growth.
It is obvious Jenny has tremendous respect for her mentor. “Bob is like a plant doctor,” she tells me. “He knows what a plant needs to thrive just by looking at it.” It’s no accident Cannard knows his stuff. The son of a nursery owner turned teacher and farm advocate, he has spent over 30 years in the field honing his knowledge and intuition. The unique perspective he offers his students is something they won’t find in a traditional classroom setting.
As we roam the fields on this rainy February afternoon, Jenny stops to gather veggies and snip handfuls of greens to make a composed salad for our lunch. Brimming with the bounty, she throws her backpack in the car as we set off driving toward the residence facility–passing vineyards, reservoir ponds, and more flourishing fields along the way.
In the kitchen, she gently retrieves fresh chickweed, rainbow chard and arugula from her pack, and tosses the greens lightly with blood-orange infused olive oil and a splash of white vinegar. She heaps them on two plates and garnishes each with thinly sliced Chioggia beets, sweet carrots, and wild Calendula blossoms. A sprinkle of toasted almonds tops the finished salads, which she serves alongside a steaming cup of chicken bone broth I would describe simply as, “elixir for the soul.”
We adjourn to the nearby “school house”—a rustic structure turned lecture hall—to enjoy our freshly gleaned meal at the large wood table inside. Jenny’s internship at Green String is winding to a close, and I am curious about what pearls of wisdom have resonated most during her time there.
“During the first week of class, Bob said, ‘Bait your hook with your heart and you’ll catch your dreams’,” she repeats without a moment’s hesitation. Indeed. What the world needs now, more than ever, are people willing to lead from the heart, follow their passions, and dream big.
Thank you, Jenny. I can’t wait to see where your adventure leads.