Fine Dining to the Fields:
One Man's Journey from Chez Panisse to Farming
Stephen Carter of String Beans in Sonoma, California
It was a foggy December morning when we visited with Stephen Carter and toured the tasting room growing operation that he oversees at Scribe Winery. Even with the colder weather, the fields were still producing - brassicas, root vegetables, cold hardy greens and a bumper crop of strawberries. Stephen, an avid foodie and cyclist, first became interested in farming when working for the famed farm-to-table restaurant Chez Panisse. There he was introduced to unusual varieties of high-quality ingredients. He was blown away by the superior flavor profiles of the freshly harvested produce Chez Panisse sourced from nearby farms. His GM encouraged him to apply for the Green String Farm training program, one of Chez Panisse's main suppliers. Stephen's parents had recently moved from the Bay Area to Santa Rosa, CA and he decide to follow suit and move to nearby Green String Farm in Petaluma, CA to learn the fundamentals of regenerative agriculture.
After several seasons at Green String, Stephen got a job of running the farm for the farm-to-table restaurant, workshop and retail space, the Shed in Healdsburg. In a valley where wine grapes dominate most of the available growing spaces, Stephen has primarily farmed on small footprints for restaurants and wineries that want to source most of their ingredients onsite. While he loves working as a farm manager, his real dream is to own his own land where he can start his own farm. Unfortunately, this dream feels very out of reach in the Sonoma Valley, where acreage comes at a premium. Being one of only a handful of black farmers working in Sonoma Valley, he isn't one to sugarcoat the obvious reason why black farmers are underrepresented. Generational family wealth is the main obstacle facing farmers of color in the United States. This became very obvious to Stephen while working at Green String, as many of his white counterparts were leaving the program to farm their family's land or having family members help put the downpayment on land to farm. He left the program to farm for white land owners. While discouraging, this has not deterred his ambition to build a farm of his own.
He hopes to relocate in the next couple of years to the Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, where his partner grew up and starting a farm-to-table agri-tourism business that highlights his favorite crop variety to grow and to eat - chicories. In addition, Stephen would like to begin working with underrepresented communities to understand food in a way that could lead them to potentially consider a life in agriculture.
CORONAVIRUS INTERVIEW follow-up
Did you grow up growing your own food, keep animals, etc. or was it something you came to on your own when you were older?
I did not grow up growing my own food. I was a super picky eater as a child and vegetables were my number one enemy. There were nightly battles at the family dinner table over my refusal to eat my veggies. I just thought they were gross and I didn’t want to listen to my parents! The only vegetables I did like were brussel sprouts and lima beans so, clearly I was ahead of the curve! (ha) My first experience with growing my own food was when I moved to Logan, Utah from San Francisco to go to college.
I suppose that was the start of my “urban exodus.” I started working with dad’s college buddy who was a farmer, gardener and landscaper. I helped him set up his farm and dug a lot of irrigation trenches. He was really into potatoes so I ended up geeking-out over the potato seed catalogue. It was my first time looking at a seed catalog and I loved it, the colors of the pink branch fingerlings and the purple potatoes were super attractive & romantic to me.
When I eventually returned to California, I wanted to continue my non-urban living exploration, so I found the ranching job at Tara Firma Farm, applied, and got it. It was scary & admittedly a little gross at first. My very first day, my test day in fact, my job was breaking down the food that the farm had gleaned from local grocery stores, getting it out of packaging, and putting it into ag-bins that we would later bring to the pig paddock with a tractor. In the summer there were so many yellow jackets and I got stung everywhere. Turns out I’m allergic and had to go to urgent care but, I came back!
Did you grow up in the Sonoma area or did you move here in your adulthood? If you moved in your adulthood, why did you choose this area to settle in?
I didn’t grow up in Sonoma County, I grew up in the southern part of the Bay Area in Palo Alto and after my dad retired, my parents relocated to Santa Rosa. They moved while I was working at Glacier National Park in Montana for the summer. After Glacier I went traveling through Asia and then spent about a month with my family in Australia but eventually, I had to head back to the states. Because I’d been “exploring” I didn’t really have any choice but to move back in with my parents. It turned out to be super fortuitous in terms of a place to get into farming but I wasn’t excited about the prospect at first. The only thing that I was looking forward to was that Russian River Brewery was down the street from my parents’ new house!
What do you like most about the community you’ve found here?
There are a ton of women farming in Sonoma County and the women’s farming community contains some really forward thinking women who are passionate about elevating underrepresented people. As a Black man, that’s obviously really important to me. I’m happy to have found a community of farmers who share my passion for social justice. I also appreciate the symbiotic relationship between food & farming in Sonoma county. On both sides there is a real love of ingredients- a passion for learning their culinary origins, potential uses, and histories. What are your favorite things to do/see/eat in California’s wine country? -Seeing a show at Gundlach Bunschu Winery in Sonoma (just next door to Scribe where I farm) -Having a whiskey at Mario & Johns bar in Petaluma -Grabbing a pint at Ernie’s Tin Bar in Petaluma -Enjoying a well-crafted cocktail made with local produce at Duke’s in Healdsburg -Eating my favorite frisee salad at Underwood in Graton -Chatting with Gwen & Sally about natural wine at Miracle Plum in Santa Rosa -Riding my bike through Annadale State Park in Santa Rosa -Spending the day at the Russian River in Monte Rio -Shopping at Last Record Store in Santa Rosa - Diavola in Geyersville and The Casino in Bodega are both tasty and unique but the best food in Sonoma County comes out of my mom’s kitchen, especially when she’s making fried chicken!
What made you decide to learn to farm professionally?
I think I romanticized my father’s time in the forest service in Wyoming a bit and I wanted to find work that would allow me to be outside. After moving to Utah and being forced to cook for myself, I gained a better appreciation for food and also saw for the first time that farming could actually be someone’s job. Once I was back in California and working at Chez Panisse, I saw first-hand how much of a difference high quality ingredients make not only in the quality of the food, but in how people enjoy that food. So when the GM at Chez encouraged me to apply to the training program at Green String, I went for it.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to farm?
My friends already thought I was a hippy back to the woods guy after running away to Utah and working at Glacier, so they weren’t super surprised. My parents were supportive as usual, they were excited that I was excited about it. What has been the hardest part of your journey thus far? What has been the most rewarding? Challenges: -The lifestyle change when I got to Green String was a little rough and I don’t think I really knew what I was getting myself into! No hard alcohol allowed (I like a good whiskey after a hard day’s work!), so many vegans, communal living, shared house duties… it was all a bit of an adjustment. -I have poor circulation in my hands and my first session at Green String was in the winter so harvesting in the cold was brutal. Working outside with wet hands in the elements definitely took some getting used to. -I remember being amazed by how *hard* the work was and how much I had to train my body to be good at it. I’m a pretty fit guy, I run, cycle, hike, etc but I was shocked by how much faster everyone was than me at everything when I started and how wrecked my body was by the end of the day. That realization definitely gave me a new appreciation for how much *work* goes into growing food.
Something that was tough for me on a social justice level, was the different circumstances I found myself in as compared with other young [white] folks who were farming. So many [white] folks had family land to go back to to start their farming journeys, or connections to land they could work, and the truth of the matter is, because of the lack of generational wealth and general income inequality that Black Americans are working to overcome, that wasn’t my reality. My only choice was to find someone who wanted to hire me as a farmer and what I really wanted was to set up my own farm. It’s been somewhat discouraging that I haven’t been able to make that happen so far.
Rewards: -Watching the lifespan of a vegetable from start to finish has been amazing and eye opening. It’s like being a kid and seeing a baking soda volcano for the first time again or something! -Farming makes me feel a bit like I’ve found a purpose. The fact that I am in control (to some degree) of the success of my crops… that as long as I plant properly, water, weed, and harvest at the right time I can make something that a cook can take and turn into something beautiful that someone else will then enjoy, that whole process feels really good to me.
Have you noticed the effects of climate change on your crops and in your daily life? If yes, how have you had to adapt to these changing conditions?
Most recently we’ve had to contend with the power outages related to the now-yearly fall fires here in Sonoma County which meant no irrigation. -Smoke from fires obviously made it really hard to work outside and I got evacuated more than once. -It’s also currently about 77 degrees here and winter crops don’t like that. I have a chicory called rose alba but they barely have any color because the temperature hasn’t been low enough for it to develop. The frost sweetens & tenderizes veggies so, without proper winter temperatures, it’s hard to grow my winter vegetables to peak deliciousness.
A recent survey from the USDA found 95% farmers in America are white. Do you have any thoughts on what society and government can do to help shift this racial divide and support greater diversity amongst new farmers?
As opposed to focusing on the fact that there aren’t a ton of Black farmers and asking what society can do to encourage farming in the Black community, I think what’s more important is to understand *why* there are so few of us. It’s not simple lack of interest or concentration in urban areas. Black farming is a long American tradition, this country was *literally* built on it. However, as Black folks were forced into urban areas either by threat of white violence or forcible government relocation, we lost our access to land to farm. And for the folks who did stay in the places where farming was happening, their land was taken because of lack of proper documentation and general white oppression & greed.
The issues that caused a decline in popularity of farming amongst Black folks are the same systematic issues of white supremacy that plague society on every level. So rather than thinking about some bogus initiative to get Drake to convince the “urban youth” that farming is cool or something like that, what we need to do is understand how and why systematic oppression works and stop its spread.
What do you think are the main obstacles standing in the way for farmers just starting out?
I think one of the hardest things is that, where you’re likely to find cheap land to farm, it isn’t usually the best market for where that farming will be most appreciated. When I think about California I think about places like Fresno and Bakersfield where there’s all this land that small farmers could be working, but I don’t know who would buy my crops if I were to up and relocate to the central valley.
Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more people being interested in learning to grow food?
Yes, absolutely. Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting a farm? Start shopping at the farmer’s market, see if any of the established farms have opportunities for you to work and learn. When you start looking for farming work, look during the winter (assuming you live in a place where folks farm in the winter) because it shows seriousness. Everybody wants to be harvesting tomatoes in the summer right? It takes a real level of dedication to want to work outside with cold, wet, hands all winter long.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Chez Pannisse had a huge impact on me. How seriously everyone took their job, the appreciation for the farming, and the obvious appreciation for it all by the customers.
I’m really inspired by all the small women lead farms around here. Obviously there’s just the general misogyny of the world, but even more so in so-called “blue collar” work. Watching these women succeed in spite of all of that is pretty inspiring.
What hopes do you have for the future of farming in America?
I hope that everyone will learn to appreciate chicories as much as I do. I’m kidding but not really. I hope that the stigma related to farming within Black & Latino communities will subside. That the youth will learn to appreciate the organic knowledge gained from our people doing what they need to to do survive, regardless of how in vogue going “back to the land” might be seen by the white gaze.
There’s so much skill, knowledge, and craft in working the land and I’d love to see young Black & Latino kids view that work the same way people look at engineering or tech.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heroes that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
• Like a lot of “geniuses” Bob Cannard is a complicated individual and everything he puts into the world isn’t necessarily good, but I’ve learned so much from him that I can’t deny his influence on my life.
• Alice Watters & the Chez Panisse family tree are a huge part of my journey
• Farmer to Farmer podcast - Wendell Berry ’s writing
• Copper & Heat podcast
• Racist Sandwich podcast
• The fried chicken episode of David Change’s Ugly Delicious - everyone who cares about food should watch it
• Working with Doug & Cindy Lipton and Chef Perry Hoffman at SHED expanded my understanding of the things I was growing my a culinary perspective
• Medium Farm - Miriam Blackman is a great friend that I made at my time at Green String. She is holding it down in the middle of nowhere and growing beautiful food
• Mashama Bailey just did a dinner at Scribe and that was really exciting for me, I’m a big fan of her and her approach to food
What are some common misperceptions about farming that you would like to dispel?
It’s nice being outside but it’s very hard on your body and mind. Farming is pretty solitary and isolating work is challenging. I listen to a lot of podcasts (shout out to Still Processing!)
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Running an agrotroismo in Reggio Emilia Italy where my girlfriend is from and where they appreciate a good chicory! But also, working with underrepresented communities to understand food in a way that could lead them to appreciate a life in agriculture.
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