Farewell to a Farmer – An interview with Farmer David Cooper
I first met David Cooper working for Oak Hill Farm over a decade ago. He came direct from the Agroecology program at UC Santa Cruz, and came ready to learn everything it takes to run a small farm operation. After a period of tutelage with venerable Farmer Paul Wirtz, David moved up to become the farmer for Oak Hill and Paul moved back to running his own operation. He stepped up to the challenge with great produce, and impressive management and leadership skills. David farmed the amazing volcanic soils at Oak Hill Farm, which the late Ann Teller had maintained as one of the few organic food production operations in the Valley. He lived the life of a farmer, 10-hour days 6 days a week, maybe one vacation a year and the steady commitment to producing the highest quality food products for his community.
During the fires of 2017, he woke to find the eastern portion of the farm property on fire, and evacuated the under the onslaught of flames, watching in his rear-view mirror as flames engulfed old farm house he called home, his workshop, and nearly everything he owned. More recently we learned that David was leaving Oak Hill, devastating news for those of us who know the value of having food producers in our midst, particularly those committed to such high standards. Before he leaves for his new home in Hawaii, I was able to catch up with Dave for a bit of Q & A.
You are leaving Sonoma for Hawaii, and leaving us with quite a gap to fill, it sounds like Oak Hill is working on bringing on a new team, what are some of the challenges coming into Sonoma Valley to farm?
Access to land and labor. Finding quality farm labor is near impossible at this point, and housing for them. Land is too expensive to farm profitably in Sonoma, and has increasingly been bought up by deep pockets and large corporations.
What are your thoughts on land access in Sonoma Valley for food production?
Limited, unless you are coming from an existing land holding family, have millions of dollars to spend, or have access to land via long term leases.
How can we support additional land moving toward food production? Include your thoughts on Land Trusts or other long term farm land preservation such as MALT in Marin).
Farm land preservation has been mostly about reimbursing existing land owners for easements on their properties, who must commit to continuing farming on those properties to keep them in production. The Sonoma Land Trust has opened up some properties to prospective farmers, complete with housing which is essential. Farmers need long term leases, 10-20 years to make the large investments in time and energy on a property worth it. Some more recent ideas, such as preserving and providing access to open space surrounding our communities for farm land seem attractive as they create fire buffers while increasing food production.
What are solutions to the labor shortage in agriculture in our area?
This again ties into the cost of land, of housing, and also what people are willing to pay for food. If farmers are to pay $15/hour, the cost of food will go up, and we can’t compete with products from Mexico where they pay $10/day labor.
This column has been focused on local, organic food production, why are they essential for a healthy community?
Local and organic creates economic diversity, high quality food with great flavor, high nutrient value, grown in a way that cares for the land water and soil.
How well do you feel Sonoma Valley supports local, organic foods?
With respect to the few hundred that are regular supporters of our farmers markets, farm stands, and CSA’s – minimally. Maybe 1% of the valley population, which is about the national average.
How could we increase consumer demand for these products?
A Saturday farmers’ market. Many people work Friday morning and miss that market and many either avoid the party scene Tuesday night or find its not a good time to shop.
Farm direct sales show a clear benefit to a farms’ bottom line, how can we support this in the valley (include thoughts on our farmers’ markets and on a cooperative store or other full-time venue).
Really a year-round market space with covered stalls, (maybe topped with solar power), or another permanent venue. A locally-owned cooperative store would be amazing.
Vineyards appear to have won out over most other agricultural products in the county, with dairy being the other giant. There has been much controversy over the envivronmental impact of this monoculture. As a farmer who utilizes organic methods, what are your thoughts?
Grapes grow well here, we cant argue that. But to have fencepost to fencepost chemical agriculture dominate our productive lands while we import food has negative impacts environmentally, socially and economically.
Coming from a consumer of your great produce, I know you are always looking to innovate with new varieties. What are your current favorite vegetables to grow?
Watermelons with flavor and seeds. A strawberry that tastes like a strawberry
You are moving to Hawaii, are you looking to produce food there? What types?
Definitely, many crops are already growing on my property. Hawaii allows for diversity in high value food crops – coffee, macadamia, citrus, avocados, tropical fruit, sweet potatoes, ginger, tea.
Welcome to an exciting new program of the Springs Hall!
The Sonoma Valley Agricultural Cooperative (SVAC) is a program created to focus directly on a longstanding mission of the Springs Hall – promoting local farms and food producers. This program will focus on Sonoma Valley farms and food producers, with an emphasis on organic methods and ingredients. This bountiful region has a long history of providing abundance, from the indiginous peoples that first inhabited these lands to the many farms, vineyards, ranches, and orchards that populated the Valley from Spanish settlement to our current age. As this area has become a destination for enjoying the rural life in an ever growing Bay area, our high quality local food products have returned to prominance. From this modern era, early growers such as Bob Canard worked to supply high cuisine restaurants like Chez Panisse. Now a number of small farms and food producers work hard to provide the highest quality food and farm products to our lucky population.
Our goal is simple, to promote and further the production and consumption of healthy local food products, and in the preservation of farm land and farming as an occupation.
By doing so, we support the motto of the Springs Hall, “Healthy Farms, Healthy Food, Healthy Community”
Stay tuned for new information and activities designed to support this worthy goal!