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SC's Soil Sisters

Jane Friedmon  and Ali Edwards
Robert Scheer

The Beet Goes On: Singin' Jane Friedmon (right) and Ali Edwards, co-owners of Dirty Girl Produce, show off the charm and sense of humor that has made their beautiful organic farm a success.

The farming Dirty Girls get down to business

By Dan McKinney

ASK JANE FRIEDMON WHEN she knew for sure that she was a farmer and the brawny, vivacious co-founder of Dirty Girl Produce recalls an encounter with an unusually large tractor. She and farm partner Ali Edwards wanted to lease something modest, but ended up with a mechanical Godzilla. "They called it a Magnum and it was so big!" says Friedmon as she points out the 18-foot-high train trestle that her fantasy tractor almost didn't fit through. "It had air-conditioning, radio, power-seats. I just rode around in it for a few hours giggling. That's when I had the revelation. I was a farmer."

But most days at Dirty Girl farm are less portentous and revelations are left to the day-to-day rhythms of hard work. Standing in the middle of the verdant farm's three-plus blossoming acres, Friedmon prepares to spread fertilizer. Shoveling 20 tons of chicken manure over the field isn't for the faint-hearted, but for Friedmon it's become routine. "Pretty low-tech, isn't it," she exclaims as she hoists a heaping shovel-full of fowl dung. "That's why we charge a dollar-fifty for a pound of onions."

The price might sound inflated but, according to Friedmon, it reflects the back- and heartache that go into growing what some consider the best tasting organic onions on Earth.

All this fuss over fecal matter makes a poignant case for just how labor-intensive running a small organic farm can be. "This is still hot shit," says Friedmon, rolling her eyes and poking a shovel into the steaming dirt. Laughter keeps her going when the times get tough. Its therapeutic power serves her often.

With sales up at restaurants from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and farmers' markets all over the Greater Bay Area, the farm is beginning to break even. But the monetary return is only a fraction of the reason why Friedmon and Edwards find farm life so rewarding. The sense of community and purpose that the farm inspires is what makes running Dirty Girls worthwhile despite the work and worry.

The farm, hemmed in by Pogonip on one side and an industrial area on the other, began just after the two women met in 1993. Friedmon had been working at the Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project and Edwards had just returned to the area after leaving a grad-school stint gone sour.

Graduating from UCSC in 1991 with a degree in literature, the would-be scholar entered UC-Berkeley's prestigious rhetoric program. "Within the first two weeks of grad school I knew I was doing the wrong thing," says Edwards, who actually finished her master's degree a year ago. "I always liked studying theory, but this was the theory of theory," she recalls. "And the egos there were like you wouldn't believe."

Looking for something more down-to-earth, Edwards returned to Santa Cruz, where she had already worked on a farm before. "Touch, smell," she says. "I needed to do something with my senses."

Gun to the Head

THE FARM DOES INDEED offer a wealth for the senses. Jammed into three-and-a-half acres of neat rows are purple, yellow and white wax Romano beans, beets, onions, basil, summer squash, broccoli, garlic, carrots, spinach and an abundance of wildflowers.

"Anything but the Earth and beautiful plants and I'd probably put a gun to my head," laughs Friedmon regarding the sacrifice required to be a full-time farmer. With their seemingly endless patience and endurance, Friedmon and Edwards may seem like your typical stoic farmers. Hardly. They also surf regularly, always have a good bottle of wine handy and throw wild weeding parties with friends when the fields need it.

Besides the aforementioned forms of stress relief, there are also statistical differences that set Dirty Girl Produce apart from the conventional norm. According to Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farm Research Foundation, the average age of a conventional farmer in the US is 57 to 60, while the average organic farmer is 46. Friedmon and Edwards are closer to 30. Also, according to the foundation's surveys, 85 percent of organic farms are owned and operated by a family. This may make Dirty Girls seem anecdotal, but Scowcroft sees a trend.

"There is a phenomenal group of powerful women active in [this field] in the state of California," he says. Why are so many women entering the field of organic farming? One reason may be the field's relatively short history. "There are no institutional barriers. It's still an open field," says Scowcroft. "Anyone with a strong back, land, a little money and vision can go into it."

For office-dwellers, all the schlepping organic farming involves might sound outrageous, but with it comes a deep sense of fulfillment. "How do you define something like quality of life, or success, or even bounty?" asks Edwards as she looks out over rows of broccoli and beets. "People are looking for it and they think it's going to come with a paycheck. I think it's more about what you're doing day to day. I enjoy this because I can see the whole cycle from planting to weeding to going to market."

Edwards motions toward the fields. "I think that there is so much value in believing in what I do and not having to question it. This work is worthy, useful and productive."

Edwards is not alone in deriving nourishment for the soul from her farm. She says it inspires a community instinct in the friends and neighbors who come by routinely to pick weeds and shoot the breeze. It's a sense of community that Edwards describes as backwards by today's standards. "The way that our culture and economy are going is globalization, with everything becoming more separated, less and less local. Being on the farm, I can see what I'm doing and take responsibility for it, take responsibility for this place."

That connectedness to the land and a community is a value that Edwards says she finds more and more young people yearning for as they begin to question America's conventional two-car-and-house-in-the-suburbs model of success.

But there have been moments of doubt.

MOTIONING TO THE rusting old beater in the yard, Jane Friedmon says, "Our truck has broken down a few times. I hate to think that my fate hinges on a Ford 150, but when you're making trips to market as far as San Francisco and Berkeley, a broken truck is bad news."

For Ali Edwards, doubt visited last year when her back was thrown out. "That was scary. It was my first big physical problem." And physical problems are one of the concerns that worry the women most about the future.

According to Friedmon, who looks younger than her 33 years, farming wrecks you physically. If one follows that line of reasoning, it's only a matter of time before work becomes too much to continue.

One solution is to buy a tractor, but considering that their only truck, a gift from Edwards' grandmother, might need to be replaced soon, the women are hardly in a position to acquire any extra mechanical support. "A benefactor would be lovely," admits Edwards.

"We're lookin' to marry rich," adds Friedmon with a sardonic snicker.

All future benefactors aside, Dirty Girl Produce is planning to begin a Community Supported Agriculture program next year in hopes of raising the necessary capital. Being a share-holder in a farm is like being a share-holder in any other corporation, but with dividends paid in produce instead of dollars. Members invest one sum at the beginning of the growing season and receive fresh vegetables directly from the farm on a regular basis.

 Ali Edwards and Jane Friedmon
Robert Scheer

Spicier Girls: Quick-witted and good with a tractor, Ali Edwards and Jane Friedmon display some of the fruits of their labor amid their fields, which line the Pogonip hiking trails.

Marketing Street Theater

Besides deals with New Leaf Stores and about half a dozen restaurants, Dirty Girl Produce currently relies mostly on farmers' markets for its income. Along with weeding and sowing, integral to farm life is the art of selling and marketing, which, according to Friedmon, can be somewhat akin to street theater.

Friedmon recalls a time at the Berkeley Market when Amaranth flower wasn't selling so well. The branches packed tightly with tiny lavender buds are strikingly colorful, but no one was noticing, so Friedmon set the plant's creeping purple tendrils on her head.

The new purple hairpiece sold out fast. "They flew after that," recalls Friedmon. "Everyone was wearing them around like dreds."

Life on the farm is a mix of hard work and fun, but besides stress-relieving trips to the beach and mandatory yoga, the two women most importantly rely on each other. "When I'm panicked she's mellow and vice versa," says Friedmon of the penduluming partnership that allows the two to keep going, sanity intact.

It is a struggle, but despite the uncertainties of chaotic weather, bad truck luck and buckling backs, Ali Edwards and Jane Friedmon's commitment to good food, a full life, friends and each other remains constant.

For more info on next year's Community Supported Agriculture program, call Dirty Girl Produce at 429-2246 or write 337 Golf Club Dr., Santa Cruz, 95060.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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