Here in coastal California, heavy rains characterize the winter months. This year, they extended well into March, which has influenced spring activities in the Farm & Garden. In addition to harvesting overwintered greens and planting trays of seed starts, Esalen farmers have been cultivating one of the intangible qualities at the heart of sustainable agriculture.
“On the land, spring is an exercise in patience,” says Farm Supervisor Chris Omer. “We can’t force anything. It’s a conversation with the elements, and those forces let us know when we can proceed.”
For one thing, the soil has been saturated with water. Any tilling would further compact the soil structure, which can reduce crop productivity. Day length is another factor that can’t be rushed. “In our climate with no frost, we can plant things anytime, but the crops will grow a lot slower right now because of shorter day length and less light,” Chris shares. “We could wait a month and those plants would catch up and maybe even overtake what we plant now.” To some extent, farmers are staying off the fields until the weather clears.
While they wait for things to dry out, Esalen farmers are tending to herbs and cover crops, loading seed trays with peppers, onions and tomatoes, and dreaming up new ideas. “The Farm & Garden is a collaborative creative project with staff, residential students and volunteers, and right now we have a blank canvas,” says Esalen farmer Candice Isphording. “This time of year is about visioning: seeing into the future, seeing what we want to happen in summer and fall. Spring is an exciting new beginning.”
This year, one new vision taking shape involves a much larger strawberry crop than in the past. According to the California Strawberry Commission, 88% of the strawberries produced in the U.S. are grown in coastal California. Last year, almost 50% of California strawberries were grown on the central coast, in Watsonville and Salinas — the same region as Esalen.
“Growing strawberries here connects us to the agricultural traditions of this area,” says Garden Supervisor Beth Burzynski. “Up until recently, we couldn’t get organic strawberry plant starts, but this year we found a provider so we’re planting strawberries in much higher quantities,” Beth continues.
The larger strawberry crop is also an opportunity to implement sustainable fertilizing and growing practices. “We’re experimenting with mustard seed meal as a natural organic fertilizer and biofumigant, and we’re using biodegradable mulch instead of plastics,” says Beth. “We’re excited to deliver more strawberries to the Esalen Kitchen so our community can enjoy them straight off the plant.”
For all who come to Esalen, the rains are harbingers of spring and an opportunity to pause and envision new ways forward. For Esalen farmers, that’s a multidimensional process that incorporates developments in organic and chemical-free farming to grow the most delicious strawberries available.