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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Unbeetable Combo: When he's not growing some of the most sought-after produce on the Central Coast, Joe Schirmer's riding waves.

Natural Attitude

Taking the surf 'n' turf concept personally, Dirty Girl Produce entrepreneur Joe Schirmer nurtures his organic roots.

By Christina Waters

Joe Schirmer's personal energy field rivals the 10 acres he's cultivating in La Selva Beach. Famous for the prized dry-farmed tomatoes he markets to discerning chefs, Schirmer--competition surfer, home-grown Santa Cruzan --is Dirty Girl Produce. What many folks know is that the lanky organic grower hand-markets filet beans, cippolini onions, radicchio, tomatoes, lettuces and strawberries to the top chefs in the area. What most don't know is that Schirmer works God's own acres, and from where I stand facing the ocean, smelling the wild mustard and freshly turned soil, he's got the greatest job on the planet. Watching the big orange Kubota tractor disking favas back into the soil, I fall under the spell of Schirmer's seasonal artistry. "I tried to get into the surf industry," he recalls, "but there was just no fulfillment in it."

After designing his own individual major in eco-psychology at UCSC ("I wanted to know what was going on in our relationship to nature"), Schirmer did a short stint in San Diego that convinced him he wasn't a city person. Soon he was experimenting with the idea of horticultural therapy and interning at Santa Cruz's Homeless Garden Project. In short order he was hooked.One of his first revelations had to do with soil. "All I'd ever known when I was a kid was large-scale monocropping," he says. "But this was different. With true organic farming--I believe--it's the soil itself you're growing, not simply the crops."

We study the warm breeze ruffling the current cover crops of favas, vetch and rye grasses. The tomatoes coveted by chefs from Oliveto, Chez Panisse and Slanted Door are grown on the original Dirty Girl acres near the Pogonip, purchased five years ago from founding Dirty Girls and UCSC graduates Ali Edwards and Jane Freedman. When approached last year by La Selva landowners who wanted the dry-farm guru to work his magic on their fields, Schirmer agreed.

"I just couldn't say no. The land was good, the water was good and it's a joy to be here," he says, spreading out his arms. "I mean look at this ridiculous, awesome view." Awesome it is, from the tip of Monterey all the way over to the edge of Davenport, with a long glide of blue water between, and Schirmer's new acres at the very top.

The 200-foot-long beds will be planted in two-week cycles. The Pogonip acres yield the summer crops--dry-farmed tomatoes, haricots verts, strawberries, romano beans. The cooler La Selva acres will grow chards, salad greens and brassicas--broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts--all bound for farmers markets.

The markets determine his weekly routine. "I'd say 50 to 60 percent of what I produce is sold off the tables at the Ferry Building on Saturdays," he says. "Charles Phan [of the Slanted Door] buys 100 cases of my haricots verts." After Berkeley and San Francisco on the weekends, it's the downtown Santa Cruz market on Wednesday and then Sunday at Live Oak. "That's my hometown market. I went to school with these folks."

With all those markets, Schirmer spends almost as much time in his new biodiesel box truck as he does on his cell phone. "Each day we're picking for the next one, so I get calls from the chefs about what they want, and then turn around and call the guys in the fields: 'David Kinch wants 12 of the littlest turnips.' I can tell them what and when to harvest."

Schirmer doesn't work with anyone who's not cool--by which he means fun and fair. And he doesn't want to build a big empire. "The smaller you are, the more you see everything," he believes. The weather, the soil, the seasons--he is in daily communion with all of the most tangible, least ephemeral forces on the planet.

Joe Schirmer's intimacy with natural cycles is not only rare, it's enviable. "I'm lucky, and I'm lucky to be successful at this small business." He stops to think about this for a moment. "I get along with people. I speak Spanish," he grins. "And I have a little bit of coyote spirit--a little bit of hippie. I don't mind living below my means, staying simple."

Simple or not, Schirmer farms. Brilliantly. And afterward? "I'm goin' surfing."

DIRTY GIRL PRODUCE is available at the Santa Cruz Downtown Farmers Market (Wednesdays 2:30-6:30pm, year round) and the Live Oak Market (Sundays 10am-2pm, May through November).

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