I had a great time at the Hoes Down Festival this past weekend. Located in the beautiful Capay Valley in Yolo County, California, Full Belly Farm is one of northern Californias most beautiful and successful organic farms. Nestled among rolling hills with a creek running through it, the 100-acre farm was founded 20 years ago by four partners, who still own and operate the farm today.
As if running a farm werent enough work, every fall the farmers open their doors to the general public for the Hoes Down Festival. Imagine holding an open house and having thousands of people show up at your door, walk around your yard and trample through your vegetable garden and flowerbeds.
Now in its 18th year, the festival features farm tours, agricultural workshops, live music, a farmers market, great food, and a large area devoted to childrens activities. Since Full Belly Farm delivers food all over the Bay Area through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, there are plenty of visitors who make the 90 mile drive up from the San Francisco (and even from San Diego!) and the farm offers overnight camping.
Its worth going to the festival for the Childrens Area alone, which includes a childrens entertainment stage, petting barns, hay fort, water roller coaster, games, and arts and crafts. My kids headed straight for the apple-bobbing tub. After getting cooled off and eating more than their fair share of apples, it was over to the hay fort, a mountain of hay bales constructed with plenty of tunnels and crawl spaces for kids to hide in.
Then it was on to sheep petting and shearing, which we in the audience clearly enjoyed more than the sheep did. Adjacent to the sheep barns were artisans (Sheep to Shawl) demonstrating how the wool is spun into yarn and used for making crafts and weaving.
While my kids were hiding in the hay and painting gourds, I joined Andrew Brait, one of the farms four partners, on a tour of the farm. Andrew told us that the farm has 50 employees, of which 35 are full-time, year-round workers. Full Belly Farm has made this conscious commitment to their labor crew to break the cycle of seasonal work and readily acknowledges their skilled crews contribution to the farms stability and success.
In addition to their fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, and flowers (some 80 different crops), Andrew noted that farmers are another one of their crops. The farm has 4-6 interns at any given time. An internship requires a one-year commitment, often followed by an apprenticeship and master program for those interested in staying on longer.
Pastured sheep, chickens and cows are an important component of the Full Belly eco-system. Rather than relying on chemical fertilizers, the farm uses animals as mowers, digesters and fertilizers. We saw some of the farms 250 sheep in a melon field that had been recently harvested. Surrounded by an electric fence, the sheep would eat all of the remaining plant material in 3 days and the healthy bacteria in their guts would inoculate and build nutrients into the soil.
After the tour it was time for lunch: hamburgers, Full Belly grilled vegetables and a Wolavers organic Brown Ale. For dessert--fresh peach galette with my favorite ice cream, Straus Family Creamery.
My one complaint about the event is the amount of time I spent waiting in line for food. But given the sheer number of people in attendance, it was understandable. I cant even imagine the amount of work that goes into producing an event for this many people. Considering everything, I was impressed by how smoothly everything ran. There was a lot to do, plenty of good food to eat, and everyone seemed happy to be there. Its encouraging to see so many people interested in seeing a working farm and supporting rural life.
If I come again, and I certainly hope to, I would like to spend more time exploring the surrounding Capay Valley. And rather than parking in the overnight campground, surrounded by hundreds of cars, I will park my car in the regular lot and choose a walk-in site, away from other people, closer to the hills and creek.
All in all it was a spectacular weekend. A beautiful drive through golden hills dotted with California oak trees with turkey vultures and hawks circling overhead. The sound of coyotes yipping during the middle of the night. Roosters waking me at dawn. Because the orchard we were sleeping in is also used as grazing grounds for the sheep and cows, when I went to wake my daughters in the morning I noticed a large cow pie right outside the door flap of our tent. As I looked around, I also noticed quite a few sheep droppings underfoot. Welcome to the farm!
A huge thank you to Andrew Brait, Paul Muller, Judith Redmond, and Dru Rivers of Full Belly Farm, for opening your arms in welcome and sharing the bounty of your fall harvest with us. Thanks to Judith for stopping during a very busy day to answer my 6-year-olds questions. (Q: What is your favorite crop to grow? A: Okra). Thanks to the barista (sorry, I didnt get your name) at Café Mam for making those hot cappuccinos for us on that cold, early Sunday morn, even as your own breakfast sat for an hour, cold and untouched, on the table behind you.
I know this event would not be possible without a huge staff of dedicated volunteers. Thanks to all of them for feeding us, entertaining us, teaching us crafts and showing us how the farm worked. Thanks to Taber Ward, of Full Belly Farm, and Dean Heyerly and his daughter Logan, of Goats Are Us Farm, for teaching me about goat care and letting me milk my first goat!
(For photos and more links please click on the crazysalad link below.)