Sun, Soil, and Sweet Roots
Moonshine Ink, July 2011
This story originally published in Moonshine Ink, an independent monthly newspaper based in Truckee, California. Read the story on MoonshineInk.com.
Farmers Deena Miller and Robbie Martin are both confessed plant nerds. They are absolutely in awe of the world of greenery, growth, and veggies.
'Every time I sow a seed, it's just incredible that it germinates,' Miller said, walking through her fields at Sweet Roots Farm between rows of salad mix she started from seed and grape vines planted from rootstock. Miniature bunches of green grapes were just starting to sprout amid twisted stalks and giant leaves.
Sweet Roots Farm in Grass Valley is currently harvesting its first crops — the fruit and veggies of more than a year's worth of investment and work. Miller and Martin grow enough food for a couple wholesale accounts and a farmers market in Grass Valley, as well as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program they just launched in Truckee/Tahoe.
It's just the four hands of couple Miller and Martin, plus the help of her parents Rafe and Dianne Miller, who live in North Tahoe, and the occasional volunteers who work the farm. They had originally intended to provide produce to Tahoe next season. However, a competitive market in Grass Valley and family ties to the Tahoe community encouraged them to jump into Truckee/Tahoe earlier. With only 30 members, Sweet Roots’ CSA is small. But the farm provides each member with a box full of seasonal produce weekly.
'The amount of food we’re able to pull out of this area is incredible,' Miller said.
The initial seeds for Sweet Roots Farm were sown down in Santa Cruz a few years ago, when Miller met Martin at the U.C. Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, a program where apprentices learn the nuts and bolts of farming as well as research environmentally, socially, and economically responsible food systems. At the U.C. Santa Cruz program, the couple realized their mutual goal of starting their own farm.
'This [operating his own farm] is a goal of mine going back six years,' said Martin, who grew up farming and growing plants with his father in the Santa Cruz Mountains. '[The property in Grass Valley] is so diverse. It's got great soils. It's got open land and forest land … I just want to produce food for people, and not be profit driven.'
Sweet Roots Farm sits on a hilly 55 acres surrounded by forest. Blackberry plants line the beds of two creeks that rush through the property. About an acre-and-a-half is cultivated for farming, with two plots that feature different microclimates, one cooler and the other sunny. The farm is a wonderland full of veggies, fruits, and flowers, from stalks of light green, bulbous onion flowers to the endless patterns and waves of salad greens sprouting up from the dirt.
About the name, Sweet Roots Farm, Miller wanted to touch on the sun and soil working together to grow something sweet. 'Farm names are like trail names — you talk about them a lot,' she said. Miller was riding her bike in Santa Cruz when the name popped up in her head. 'There's all these sweet beginnings to this farm and the land.'
Miller, in mud-caked jeans, boots, and a straw hat with a feather tucked into the brim, took us past rows of purplette onions, little gem lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peas, bok choy, 25 varieties of garlic, and 30 varieties of baby apple trees, including Gala, Sweet 16, and Arkansas Black, which were planted in nursery beds. She tossed me a sweet, bright strawberry and stopped to cut a bouquet of delicate pink, purple, and white flowers off the sweet peas. Miller and Martin work with the sun, from dawn until dusk, seven days a week, and pour their souls into the land.
'For me, farming is the head, heart, and the body,' she said. 'You have to think and plan. You have to work your tush off. And then you have to eat.'
Eating, she added, is absolutely part of the game. Miller dug up a few fresh potatoes to cook for breakfast later that morning. She dusted them off and folded them in her shirt. With so much food around, 'If we didn’t love to eat and cook, we couldn’t be farmers,' Miller said.
Miller and Martin each bring their own values, fields of study, and practical knowledge to the table. Miller, who graduated from North Tahoe High School, has always focused on 'the bigger concepts' of community and sustainable agriculture, whereas Martin came in with a fundamental background of horticulture from Cabrillo College. Sweet Roots Farm is not organic — yet. 'That was a business call,' Miller said. They intend to pursue organic certification in the near future. Meanwhile, they embrace sustainable values and practices, including saving seed as well as avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
As we all know, this past winter and spring were cold ones. Miller said the colder temperatures helped their carrots and salad greens, including lettuce and kale, thrive. Summer's veggies — peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers — held on throughout the late frost and they’re just starting to grab on. Miller and Martin built a hoop house, essentially a green house, where they start their own seeds and shelter budding crops. This initial year has seen a lot of trial and error, but eventually the two farmers would like to grow year-round with the help of timing and tools to keep plants warmer or cooler. Soil, sunlight, and hard work will reveal the future of Sweet Roots Farm. But one thing's for sure — sweet roots are strong roots.
Info: Sweet Roots Farm's CSA is full, but keep in touch with them for next season. Pickups are in Truckee and Tahoe Vista on Tuesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. Yummy@sweetrootsfood.com, (530) 277-0338, sweetrootsfood.com