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Natural Progression

Community support of local farmers is nothing new. At The Farmer and The Cook, Steve Sprinkel (farmer) and his wife, Olivia Chase (cook), return the favor, providing a hands-on education in progressive agriculture and healthy cuisine.

By Matt Kettmann—Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva

 

he Farmer and the Cook instantly charms food lovers. Shelves at the Ojai Valley market and restaurant overflow every season with a staggering variety of organic produce grown on nearby farms; the café offers up eclectic teas, fair trade coffees, tasty baked treats, gourmet vegetarian Mexican food, popular pizzas, and music on the weekends; and the smiling staff seems genuinely stoked to be there, exuding a youthful energy while happily helping their dedicated customers. And that’s not even mentioning the charismatic allure of owners Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase, the husband/farmer-and-wife/cook duo with decades of experience in progressive agriculture and healthy cuisine.

It’s a wonder, then, that so many people are lining up to be part of something that will actually cut down the time they spend shopping and eating in the market. But that’s the promise of The Farmer and the Cook’s two-year-old Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which subscribers pay 100 dollars a month to take home a hand-picked box of organic, sustainably grown fruits, veggies, and herbs every week.

Fields of green (left) in the Ojai Valley, where Steve Sprinkel grows produce for local CSA subscribers and The Farmer and the Cook restaurant.

Accompanied by “The Forager”—Sprinkel’s whimsical-yet-wise newsletter prescribing proper produce preparations, suggesting recipes to get you through the week, relaying true farm tales, and spreading gossip about the store’s employees and customers—the CSA amounts to one-stop grocery shopping, your weekly needs completed in a two-minute pick-up. Although it’s just one of a couple similar programs available to residents in Ventura County, The Farmer and the Cook’s CSA subscribers are part of a growing movement across the country of people who want to reconnect with agriculture in a meaningful way and learn a little bit about farming, cooking, and staying healthy in the process.

“The CSA movement is off the hinges,” said Sprinkel on a recent foggy afternoon as he sipped chai in his café and personally doled out bonus watermelons to the patrons who came to pick up their weekly red-and-white produce crate, an activity that occurs every Wednesday and Thursday in the market. Sprinkel, who is 58, has salt-and-pepper hair, and dresses in the casual utilitarian style that a hippie-farmer should, happily puts fresh food on the table of his 60 subscribers in the Ojai Valley, and knows that he could do even more. “We have a significant waiting list,” explained Sprinkel, who is also hoping to soon launch a new CSA program—in partnership with the folks at Patagonia—for the city-dwellers of Ventura.

While the desire in Ventura County for this service is relatively recent, the idea of communities supporting local, sustainably-minded farmers is nothing new to the Los Angeles native, who jumped into the “back-to-land” and organic food movement as a UCSB student in the late 1960s. After graduation, he farmed in Goleta and Carpinteria and even lived on a commune in Mendocino. While managing these farms and orchards, Sprinkel explained, “We experienced what happened to many people in the organic farm movement: the gardens get out of hand.” That meant they had produce to share, trade, and sell. That trajectory spawned the modern organic and slow food movements, which are only now starting to truly blossom in the mainstream American culture. “Localism?” Sprinkel asked with a grin. “We’ve been doing that for decades. We’ve had these pretensions for 40 years.” As he and other likeminded farmers evolved over the years—many make their livings selling at farmers’ markets around the country or by supplying gourmet grocers and restaurants—they’ve managed to keep their energetic, exploratory spirits. “We’re still in pioneer mode,” he said.

Owners Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase, the husband/farmer-and-wife/cook duo with decades of experience in progressive agriculture and healthy cuisine.

The subscribers, it seems, are this next wave of pioneers, for every week is an adventure. In the winter, your box could include beets, arugula, endives, chard, and spearmint; in the spring, perhaps some French breakfast radishes and rainbow Swiss chard. In the summer, you might be juggling hot peppers, squash, kale, chamomile, and tomatoes. And in the fall, maybe some sunflowers, Lebanese squash, and collard greens. Throughout the year, Sprinkel tries to throw some culinary curveballs, spices such as epazote and veggies like kohlrabi that you may have never heard of. On top of all this, subscribers are encouraged to volunteer on the farms, which are also the site of many potluck parties. So it’s not just healthy food and supporting your neighborhood farmer—it’s about building a better community and providing hands-on education for the whole family.

Sprinkel, who hurried off to pick the next round of hot peppers after finishing his chai, is more than happy to provide.

For more info on the Ojai Valley Community Supported Agriculture program, go to FarmerAndCook.com and click on “CSA.”

01-01-2009

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