Going natural

Farmer Shawn harvests 5 acres of organic produce for local consumption

Farmer Shawn Seufert strolled down the stone-covered dirt road next to his fields on a recent cool summer morning, extolling the benefits of organic foods.

"It's part of the slow food movement," he said, munching on a freshly picked red pepper. "We're in the field at 5:30. We like to pick lettuce in the morning, a hybrid iceberg that's naturally more nutrient-rich."

Seufert specializes in tomatoes, peppers and melons, raising more than an acre of tomatoes. He sells to local restaurants and at farmers markets but mostly to members of his Community Supported Agriculture program, known as CSA.

"We have 250 members who come to the farm each week and pick up a fresh box of seasonal organic produce," he said. "The focus is on fresh."

Whatever harvest is less than perfect goes to his chickens.

"They eat better than most people," he said.

Suddenly Seufert spied a gopher peeking out from a loose mound of dirt between rows of squash plants. Seufert hurled the pepper core at the critter, then headed for the shed to get a trap. As for other pests, said Seufert, a high fence keeps out the deer and the dog, Bella, takes care of squirrels.

Such is life at Terra Bella Family Farm, where Seufert raises 46 edible crops, certified organic, and flowers too varied to mention.

"We try to keep diverse and as small as possible at a sustainable size," he said. "That way we can forecast what we can produce."

It's a family business he runs with his wife Beth. They started in 2006 on 1-1/2 acres on Foothill Road just south of Castlewood Golf Course. More recently Terra Bella began farming another 4 acres near the Sunol Water Temple at the 18-acre Sunol AgPark, founded in 2006, and run by Berkeley-based SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Education).

Seufert says he learns a lot from the other three farmers, such as the Mien from Laos who raise strawberries. He followed their example to recycle irrigation tubing, using it to tie the cucumber and bean plants.

The produce is planted compactly. Flowers are interspersed and on the roadside to serve as "beneficial attractants," drawing harmful insects away from the vegetables.

"We grow as many flowers as possible," Seufert said, pointing to a sunflower that was hosting a bee and a cucumber beetle. "Each flower has a different time of year to feed bees and to feed insects. We get the ecosystem balanced."

Rows of herbs grow together, as do peppers and squash. Artichokes are interspersed with the Italian flatleaf parsley.

"They're nice companion plants," said Seufert. "Their root systems are different, they're not in competition for nutrients, and you don't have to water the artichokes as much because they have a green canopy of parsley over the bed."

"I read in the Farmers Almanac that it would be cool enough for artichokes this summer," he added.

Otherwise this time of year sees tomatoes, eggplants and squash, "all heat loving." His specialty melons will peak in late September, including handheld melons, French cantaloupes and Israeli melons planted from seeds from kibbutzim.

The farm has about six employees, and Seufert said he never needs to look for help. "Workers come to us."

Boxes of gleaming Spanish eggplant and peppers were waiting to be trucked to the Pleasanton site for CSA members.

"They look like we've been waxing them all morning," pointed out Seufert. "They have a natural luster."

Seufert, 30, didn't always plan to be a farmer, and Beth was a teacher for five years.

"I'm from L.A. and I never grew anything -- not even a houseplant," Seufert said. "I liked camping and being outdoors. But elementary education was my focus at UC Santa Cruz."

While there he noticed a 15-acre farm on campus and learned about the university's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. He was one of 50 farm apprentices accepted into the intensive six-month program, with four to six hours of classes each day plus four to six hours of harvesting and packing CSA shares.

"I was immersed into the farming culture, harvesting, marketing," he recalled.

He noted that the mission of the school is to have its students go out and spread the word about sustainable agriculture. The center also gave him a network of contacts.

"I have lots of friends farming in Santa Cruz, Pescadero," he said, "all with 2 to 12 acres."

Terra Bella Family Farm's CSA program provides weekly boxes of fresh produce for $30 per week paid by the season. Some people share memberships, for $15. The food is so fresh that it easily lasts two weeks, noted Seufert.

He partners with five other farms to be sure of a variety, plus two bakeries.

"I like collaborating. It minimizes the risk," he said. "We can pull fruit any day of the month."

A recent week's offering included rainbow chard, onions, eggplant, peppers, heirloom tomatoes, a bunch of herbs, basil, snow peas, romaine, nectarines and pluots. The baked offering was ratatouille focaccia bread made by Bibiane Bakery using what Seufert didn't sell at farmers market.

Members pick up their produce at the farm on Foothill Road in Pleasanton.

"They can bring their carrot tops to feed to the goats," Seufert said.

Vegetables, fruits, herbs and baked goods are spread out for members to choose their own.

"They energize each other. They show up and bring their own harvest bags. The kids can help pick it out -- then they're invested," Seufert explained.

He compares pickup days at the farm to the old rural post office, a gathering place where people enjoy camaraderie.

"We're trying to bring the community together," he said.

To this end, the farm recently hosted a tomato tasting, and Seufert plans canning workshops.

Members are eating with the seasons, he pointed out, "What should be eaten rather than what we want to be eating."

Terra Bella also has 30 egg memberships that last for 12 weeks to receive a dozen eggs.

"We collect four dozen eggs in the evening," Seufert said. "They are sold before they are laid."

Seufert found the Pleasanton location thanks to the farmers' nemesis, the Mediterranean fruit fly. He had a job setting traps for Alameda County during the 2006 scare, and a co-worker of his discovered the acreage on Foothill Road, the site of the Hearst hunting lodge.

"We've built up a beautiful space," Seufert said. "We live in a converted barn. It's more like a homestead. We have over 80 birds, chickens, ducks and two goats."

Beth works at the homestead, and their 2-1/2-year-old son Ollie helps out, too -- dragging in the empty crates and coolers after they return from farmers markets.

Terra Bella sells to local restaurants, including Wente, the Palm Event Center and Eddie Papas. It hosts a dinner onsite at the end of the summer season.

"The first one was in the barn, then our home, and now it will be in the fields," said Seufert. "The chefs do a five-course meal with the finest cuts of meat, and wine pairing with the best food at the peak of the season."

The Chef's Dinner, scheduled for Sept. 4, also has live music for a celebration of food that wastes no energy as it goes from the farm to the dinner table.

It's a wonderful life, Seufert said, although a lot of hard work that continues 24-7.

"I love what I do," he said. "We're living a rich lifestyle."

This includes his son having time with mom and dad, and all gathering for lunch at their home.

"We're eating the freshest food in the world," Seufert added. "It took us four years to build it up. We built something from nothing."

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