Personal Stories of America at Work
A New Crop of Farmer
Organic farmer David Retsky stays down to earth and harvests success despite setbacks
“With his day-old stubble, warm eyes, and broad smile, it’s no surprise to find David’s face adorning billboards in Whole Foods markets in the San Francisco Bay Area. But David is not just another pretty face, he’s an enterprising independent grower who supplies supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers markets with organic vegetables and specialty herbs from his Petaluma, Calif., farm, County Line Harvest. David’s back-to-the-earth lifestyle is a radical departure from his comfortable upbringing in trendy Beverly Hills. This thirty-eight-year-old single dad is part of a new generation of farmers who are young, hip, and about as far away from the pitchfork-in-hand ‘American Gothic’ stereotype as you can imagine.”
-Chronicler Vicki Larson
Rejecting a surface life
I grew up in Beverly Hills, though my family was not part of the super-wealthy crowd. It wasn’t a place that offered many role models of people working their way up a career ladder, or people who seemed to feel really good about their endeavors. I felt a general lack substance and purpose there, no sense of being connected to something bigger. It was a surface life.
I struggled in high school, and it was a tough go for me because I felt my parents’ disappointment. I started doing drugs and put myself in some pretty compromising positions. I look back on those days now and think, “I’m glad I made it out alive!”
Since school wasn’t my thing, I decided to create my own education by traveling. I thought Israel would be a good place to start my adult life, so I joined a yearlong program on a kibbutz. It was magical and romantic. Then I went to work on an orchard, watching and learning. I was immediately attracted to the farming lifestyle and wanted to understand more what it was all about.
After my time in Israel, I roamed around for a while in Southern California, Mexico, Central America, and Europe, and worked on farms in Portugal and New England. The culture was definitely different on the East Coast, and I fought the winters. I’m basically a California kid at heart, so I came back west.
Organic farmer seeks acres—must have water
When I was twenty, I met [sustainable farmer and author] Michael Ableman at a Shabbat dinner, and he became my mentor. He was thirty-six, had a child, and was separated from his partner. I lived in their house and became part of their family. Given my dysfunctional childhood, their farm life seemed ideal to me. Even though it was a split family, they were still very functional. They grew their own food and were very involved in their community.
I continued to work on several farms throughout my twenties, and after a while, the seasonal work started getting to me. It was like being a migrant worker—you work really hard but don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. It was lonely living in a trailer all alone or with a Latino guy.
Around that time, I was invited to [former Sierra Club Executive Director] David Brower’s eightieth birthday party at Fort Mason in San Francisco. He was good friends with my mentor, Michael, and he said to me, “So when are you going to be doing what Michael’s doing? When are you going to own your own farm?” It was very inspirational.
So, I began knocking on doors, looking for a piece of land. I placed ads in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Santa Barbara News Press, and the Maui Times—all the places I wanted to live. The ad read, “Organic farmer seeks six to twelve acres for start-up organic farm. Must have water.”
I found six acres here in Petaluma and began planting. I started on April 1 and had a crop by June. The woman I was seeing at the time was teaching outdoor education at a school nearby, and I wanted to be close to her, so the location was perfect. I also liked the land because it was a blank canvas. It was my deal. After working for so many people over the years, I really enjoyed having the freedom of being my own boss.
I built a large house near the plot I was farming and told my landlords I wanted them to pay me for building it. They said, “No, you built the house on our land and it belongs to us.” So I disassembled the house. They got mad and kicked me off the property; luckily there wasn’t a shotgun in their hands when they did!
Around that time, the thirty-acre plot I’m on now came up for sale due to a family dispute. I was a little concerned about the timing because my son was about to be born and there was a lot of change happening in my life. But I talked to the Latino guy who had been working for me for several years and said, “I’m not going to be available too much the next year; do you want to do it?” and he said, “Let’s do it.” So we agreed to rent the land from Red Hill Ranch. I’m still a happy renter today, and we have a nice relationship here.
It’s just produce
In this business, there are a lot of ups and downs. My basil crop is not happening now, my broccoli’s not looking good, and my strawberries are awful. But you know, you just keep on going. What are you going to do? You’ve gotta get out of bed. Half of farming is just getting out of bed in the morning.
The food scene in the Bay Area is just endless, and the challenge is how to sell enough to make a living. When I was farming six acres, we were only selling at farmers markets. But now that I’m farming over thirty, the price has dropped. I use to sell a case of lettuce for $18; now I’m selling it for $10. But I’m also selling 500 cases a week as opposed to 150, so the volume is better. You can grow the all the food you want, but if you can’t market and sell it, you’re out of business.
There have been times when I’ve walked into a restaurant and the chef has said to me, “How could you bring me this arugula? It’s got all these holes in it!” I’d walk outside and be practically crying. Then I’d start thinking, “I can’t personalize this. It’s just produce. There are people starving and dying in the world.” I have dealt with a lot of people at high-end restaurants whom I don’t respect very much. Over time, I’ve weeded out who I do business with; now I only sell to people who appreciate who we are and what we’re doing, and who treat us with mutual respect. It’s been a real lesson in letting go.
Whole Foods recently asked if they could photograph me for a vendor display they were putting up in their new Mill Valley store. They are big on advertising their relationship with local growers, but the truth is they haven’t bought produce from me in over a week. It makes me wonder whether I sold my soul for a PR opportunity. Do I really want to be a public figure? All I’m doing is growing food. I’m just trying to get support of the community any way I can.
Standing on my own two feet
I’ve always been focused on finding balance in my life. Running a farm is a labor of love. If I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t do it—I’d go back to being a vagabond. I’d say most days I’m pretty excited about my work. It’s a diverse farm, so I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. I’d say that’s part of my success, knowing what and how much I can grow. I’m proud of what I’ve created here, and that I’m standing on my own two feet.
Still, I’ve been farming on my own for ten years now, and I don’t yet think of myself as the best farmer. My crops don’t always come out the way I expect them to. Part of what keeps me going is that I am hard on myself and push myself to do better. I get really upset when my crops aren’t successful. We’ve had all sorts of setbacks—issues with the labor department, theft, employees walking off the job, and car accidents. But despite these incidents, it’s been a real success story. I’ve been able to continue to pursue my dreams and travel, while raising my little boy. He loves it out here, and I think he’ll have fond memories from his childhood.
My fourteen-year plan
When I go back to Los Angeles, I look around and think, “Would I rather be taking my kid to the rec center on Saturday or to a basketball game? Would I want to be driving down Ventura Boulevard and having lunch at a fancy restaurant?” The answer is no; that life doesn’t appeal to me. Big cities can be exciting, but I’ve purposely planted myself here on the farm.
I feel like I’m on a fourteen-year plan. When Nico is eighteen, I can see myself giving up the farm and moving on—not necessarily to another career, but to do more traveling, surf, and work on my body. I’m starting to save money now, and I’m just going to wing it; I’m not worried. I grew up with material things; I have no interest in them. Being a farmer means that I take care of a lot of people and things, so the idea of just taking care of me has great appeal. I’m a provider now—and while it feels great, I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to maintain trucks, pipes, sanitation, and drinking water.
I’d say for someone who’s really passionate about making a contribution to society, farm life is fabulous. It’s a great lifestyle for raising a family, and there are a lot of wonderful communities of growers around the country. We need more young farmers; it’s hard but rewarding work, and we’re a dying breed.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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