Edible San Francisco | February 2006
Forget Indiana Jones. Lewis and Clark? Could’ve been the name of a department store. If it’s adventurous explorers you’re after, you need to see Brown and Jacobson. The tomatoes, squash, melons and pumpkins the couple grow on just under 11 acres of farmland in Marin County are the fruits of true daring.
At sites in Lagunitas and Nicasio, Janet Brown and Marty Jacobson oversee Allstar Organics, which grows close to 200 varieties of 13 different crops. The unusual part? Each year Brown and Jacobson plant dozens of varieties they won’t have ever eaten, seen or smelled before they emerge from the ground in the heat of Summer.
“I know it sounds incredible,” Brown says. “We did pole beans for the first time this year, and we hadn’t realized that bean vines flower. In the Spring we just said, ‘Oh my god! Of course!’ The blossoms were gorgeous, just beautiful.”
The Prescott Fond Blanc melons they grew last year, they’d never tasted. The Padrone peppers from Spain, they’d never seen. But they – and their customers – were thrilled to see what would happen.
Because farming blind is not just an adventure, it is also their marketing strategy.
“We’re a small farm. To position ourselves in the arena we want to play in, we can’t be copying what everybody else does, because they’re bigger. So they can grow more, and charge less,” Jacobson explains. “All we have is our ingenuity, and our quality. And great clay soil.”
Brown and Jacobson grow almost entirely heirloom varieties that are at least 60 years old. They use no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and their farm is certified by Marin Certified Organic Agriculture. The high mineral content of their land means richer cover crops in the Winter, and more vegetables in the fall after those cover crops are tilled back into the earth in the Spring. The end result: exquisitely tasty, exotically beautiful veggies.
Last November, their stand at the Ferry Building was still loaded up with late season tomatoes, with squashes of every size moving in on one side of the tent. Passersby were drawn in by the unusual shapes and colors, the spindly shapes of the long squash stems and the lovely bumps and knobs of the unexpected tomatoes. The Japanese Truffle looked like a dainty pink heart, with its pointed end and rosy flesh. The red Calabash slicer had so many fine striations, its cross sections looked like lacy doilies. The red, green and gold tomato looked like a tie-dyed sphere.
“We want to provide food that’s on the nexus of beautiful, delicious and highly nutritious,” Brown says. “So people can buy our stuff who want ornamentals, who want heirlooms, and who want something delicious to cook.”
When the harvest is over, the cover crops are in the fields, and it is cold and rainy out, as it is now, the couple combs through seed catalogues looking for still more new and unfamiliar heirlooms to try, new tastes, colors, species to bring to Bay Area markets and restaurants. They also review the catalogues with area chefs, such as Rick Hackett at MarketBar and Charles Phan at The Slanted Door. Phan picked out some Japanese varieties for them to try last year – including a pepper and the round, petite but buttery Kamo eggplant – and ended up buying Jacobson out of both. This year Hackett wants Allstar to try some South American peppers recommended to him by his Peruvian sous chef. In this way, Jacobson offers a sort of haute couture for vegetables – the highest level in tailored farming.
“Marty’s open to growing a lot of things,” Hackett says. “So it’s a joy working with him. But as a consequence, there’s a learning curve, both for him and for me.”
Hackett requested Padrone peppers last year, a Galician variety that Spaniards like to deep fry and eat with just a little salt sprinkled on top. Jacobson accidentally let them grow too long, and promised “to pick the field better” the next year.
“There’s always a risk that the varieties won’t work out, we’ll end up with a lot of stuff we can’t sell,” Jacobson says. “But we take that chance because that’s what we have to do.”
While both are savvy veterans of corporate marketing jobs, fiscal success is hardly their only goal. They are both strong believers in locally grown, organic and nutritious food. While Jacobson spends the week on the farm, Brown works four days a week at the Center for Ecoliteracy, an educational center for sustainability. She serves as the program officer for food systems and is a vocal campaigner for better lunches for school children.
Brown grew up in an Italian-American household in Long Beach. Her grandparents in Italy had a five-acre homestead with orchards, grapevines, and chickens. Her mother gardened and shopped almost daily for fresh ingredients. Even with her gardening heritage, Brown says she stumbled when she first moved to the Bay Area.
“My first garden was just about the most pathetic garden you’ve ever seen. I put everything in the wrong places, the wrong soil, I made every conceivable possible mistake on the planet,” she said. “Every good gardener has got to go through that, to make lots and lots of mistakes. I’ve probably made 100 mistakes for every one thing I know.”
“Even if you are ill-informed, if you have the slightest impulse to garden, don’t stop” Brown says. “You will be a really good gardener but you mustn’t stop.”
Thanks to her persistence, Brown ultimately extended her own garden into a two-and-a-half acre hillside terrace beside their home in Lagunitas, where she learned how to grow over 40 varieties of tomatoes, and around 100 varieties of roses.
Two years ago, the deFranchi dairy invited them to lease out an eight acre plot up the road in Nicasio. Brown and Jacobson accepted, and plunged into peppers and eggplants, squash, pumpkins and melons.
“We were just astonished by the wonder of melons, how fast they provide fruit, and how much, from just one seed,” Brown says. “Without any of the usual trouble of having to grow and to nurse a fruit tree for five years, without having to be an accomplished pruner, without any of the skills to orcharding. You just put a seed in the ground, and you have several melons within a few months.”
These days Brown is exploring the art of distillery, making essential oils and hydrosols – water-based extractions – of her own herbs and evergreens with a still on the farm. She sells six types under the brand name Landscape: antique rose, lavender, rosemary, Douglas fir, California coastal sage, and California bay laurel.
During the harvest season, from September to November, Jacobson estimates they work about 120 days without a day off. Monday through Thursday Jacobson tends the fields, then Friday he picks for the weekend markets. The couple spend Saturdays at their Ferry Building Market stand, and Sundays at the farmer’s market in Marin.
On those weekends, it’s not at all unusual to overhear conversations like the one between Brown and a customer, looking for her favorite sweet Winter squash. Her description captivated the farmer. “Asian dumpling squash?” he asked, to be sure of the name. “Never heard of it! But I’ll grow it next year!”