Gene is the farmer of your dreams’ imagination. A family man, he started Etheridge Organics Farms in gorgeous central Cali back in 1969 when he got word that his wife was expecting. “I never planned on being a farmer,” Gene said. “We just always cared about where food came from and wanted to raise our own kids and raise our own food.” This value they shared made it easy for Gene to start farming on evenings and weekends, while playing the work-week role as a high school principle. “I guess I was ahead of my time,” he said. Even in 1970 he was able to spot the upcoming trend that would hijack our American food system over the next four decades: low price trumps quality.
He started by farming a humble 1.62 acre lot in Dinuba, growing apples, lemons, corn, and some other vegetables. “Did you always have a green thumb?,” I asked. “Once you know the concept of raising food,” he responded, “that all nature is interconnected—plants and animals alike—it becomes easy to grow everything.” Right then I felt like a 4 year old in the presence of a wise family patriarch. I was wide-eyed-and-eared to his lessons I had yet to learn.
“I know this sounds crazy,” he went on, “but when you listen hard, the plants and animals will talk to you. They tell you what they need.” Yup, clearly born with a green thumb! And after tasting his incredible pomegranates (among other blue-ribbon-worthy harvests), I am in major admiration.
It appears the higher powers caught wind of Gene’s talent, for a few serendipitous events led to his family orchard’s expansion to a community’s favorite farm. In 1991, a next-door-neighbor suddenly liquidated 20+ acres and sold it to Gene for a steal. Also seemingly “from the sky” (pun intended), a rare and brutal hail storm hit his farm hard and left him with so much food ripped from its’ vines, if left to rot would be wasted. “I was forced to go to the farmers’ market and sell it all,” he said. And that’s the start of how this family-man would become “Papa Gene of Etheridge Farms.”
As I sat back to digest the amazing story of his life, I couldn’t help but think about the future of food. Our lives are more demanding than ever before, plus we’re making less and things cost more. Forget the old four C’s, a girl’s best friend today has changed to Convenience, Cost, Calories, and is it Close to home? The development of science in food and agriculture as well as advancements in transportation have allowed Americans to buy things like a ripe red bell pepper from Peru or a crisp pink-lady-apple-that-doesn’t-brown from China in your neighborhood store in December for less than a buck (by the way, more than 80% of produce sold in the grocery store is from outside of the US). For a person on the go, this looks like a steal.
But after speaking to Gene, something tells me the cost of this convenience isn’t exactly represented in the low price per pound. To make it across the seas at this rate, produce must be heavily sprayed, genetically engineered, ripened-en-route, or subsidized. And if Newton was right when he said that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then what’s the impact of all this work we’re doing for convenience? I’m not going to spoon-feed you my thoughts on this, because I always encourage my readers to watch their mouth and follow their gut. But if we all agree there is some sort of effect from the things we do to food (and we’re thinking bad things here, right?), wouldn’t there also be an effect from the good things farmers like Gene do to their food?
Gene’s incredibly plump raisins are made from his #1 crop of organic and un-sprayed grape (whereas those from a box are likely not choice), and dry in the sun atop of “hoop houses,” naturally climate-controlled huts made from earth and cement underneath which his mushrooms will grow. He tends to over 150 types of summer plum varieties scattered around his now 90 acre farm, in order to keep the natural balance of evolution and diversity of that gorgeous pit fruit alive. His 3,000+ pomegranate trees are incredibly productive in the winter, some boasting more than 1,000 years in their making. And all you have to do is take one bite to know that Papa Gene is right: “eating and choosing food is probably the most important thing you can do—it’s not just about consumption, it’s about art!”
The reality for farmers like Gene is that they’re fighting hard but losing in a battle against huge food companies and foreign farms. (By the way, I have nothing against huge food companies and stores for being big—I applaud them for that success! I dislike many instead due to the choice they make to pick quantity over excellence.) When it comes to what we eat, perhaps it’s time we take a tiny step away from cost and motion instead toward quality and sustainability. If every dollar we spend is a vote for what we want to see tomorrow, where would you buy your pomegranates from?
Please support your local organic farmers not just because it’s Sunday and you’re able to take a minute to hit up the local farmers’ market on your way back from yoga. Support them because they’re braving the fight for the future of our food and because deep down you believe there’s way more to it than just the 4C’s.
In Los Angeles, more than 170 farmers’ markets take place every week, likely in your neighborhood. You can find Gene every Saturday at the Calabasas and Sunday at the Encino farmers’ markets in Los Angeles County. Health-Ade supports the real food movement, and is very proud to have always flavored their Pomegranate Kombucha with local and seasonal organic pomegranates from Papa Gene Etheridge’s beautiful Dinuba farm.
Daina Slekys Trout, MS, MPH is a Nutritionist and co-founder of Health-Ade kombucha, in Los Angeles, CA. EMAIL Daina your health questions and she’ll be happy to help! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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