Magazine article Sunset

Back to the Land

Magazine article Sunset

Back to the Land

Article excerpt

With its protective marine layer, deep redwood forests, and fertile grounds perfect for growing just about anything (legal or otherwise), Northern California's Mendocino County is inspiring a new generation. Meet the people who are redefining what it means to live among nature's finest.

THE HYPERLOCAL EXPERIMENT

FROM CASPAR

A descendant of settlers who came to Mendocino County in the 19th century, Gowan Batist grew up running wild on her family's small corn and potato farm near Annapolis. Though she made her way to Oakland to study art right after high school, she moved back in her mid-20s. "Physically, I missed the landscape," she says. "You sometimes don't know what you have until you go away."

She took various jobs in the area, one at North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, and another at an organization that gives local fruits and vegetables to those living below the poverty line-an estimated 20 percent of the area's residents. Inspired by her work at the nonprofit, she and a friend attempted to live off of only what was grown, foraged, or caught from within the county lines as part of a yearlong commitment. "We made our own salt from seawater, and we ate squash ... so much squash," says Batist, now 29.

Through the endeavor, she got to know farmers in the area, one of whom tipped her off to a 40-acre farm in the village of Caspar that was looking for a new owner. Batist fell in love with the old barns, the swallows that swoop over the fields, and the rolling meadows, and bought the place. Then, when the owners of the brewery she had been working for purchased the adjacent plot, Batist offered to help manage their land too, in exchange for their organic compost to use on her own crops.

"Our lettuces grow much bigger than average on it," she says. About a quarter of the produce-including greens, strawberries, olives, and tomatoes-goes back to the taproom kitchen, where the chef works it onto the menu. The rest is sold at her farmstand and markets in the area.

Batist has made some smart moves to ensure her little farm succeeds. She recently opened up a barn to host weddings and other events (with her boyfriend, Jay Holecek, transforming the produce into meals for guests). She's also embraced modern technology to farm more efficiently, using Google Earth to plan the rotations of her crops and installing solar-powered electric fencing that she can move about single-handedly to rotate her sheep's grazing spots.

"It's not always idyllic," she says. "Farming is really always this best-of-times, worst-of-times mix." Which is why, as a tribute to her grandpa, she named her land Fortunate Farm. "His last words were 'fortunate, fortunate.' That's how it feels to be here-most days."

Caption: Clockwise from top left: Fortunate Farm's stand, which is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; originally an artist's studio, the building now serves as a farmhouse for Gowan Batist's mother; a yearling ram foraging in the north pasture; planting cilantro seedlings; dahlias, sunflowers, and anemones grown on-site; Batist in front of her barn. Previous pages, from left: Navarro Point Preserve Coastal Trail; Fortunate Farm's field-workers on their way to planting seedlings.

IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

IN FORT BRAGG

A man of a few, well-chosen words, Scott Hockett grew up in Fort Bragg, a workingclass coastal town of just over 7,000 people. "On weekends, as a kid, I'd fish with two friends," he says. "They went on to get sensible, steady jobs, and me, I just stayed on the ocean."

At an auction in 2010, Hockett bought The Ace, a 46-foot fiberglass fishing vessel docked in Sausalito that he towed up to the Noyo Harbor and rebuilt. The 36-year-old is the rare fisherman plying the waters off the county's north coast and selling a majority of his haul to the immediate area's stores and restaurants. "The catch was mainly going out of the county to big wholesale purchasers," says Liz Jacobs of Wild Fish restaurant to the south in Little River. …

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