It’s a great time to be a farmer. So says Mickey Murch, who tends his family’s farm in beautiful Bolinas, an eclectic coastal enclave in West Marin, California.
He hasn’t always felt this way. Mickey grew up running bare foot through fields but he didn’t want to dig dirt to make his way in the world. He’d seen how demanding a farmer’s life could be at close hand. So he left the life of the land for Reed College in Oregon to study art. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, his art was informed by his life, which centers on food, family, farming, and the natural environment. He splashed paint on work boots and wheel barrows and threw popular beer-brewing and pizza-baking parties outdoors.
For his senior thesis he lived rough for a year as part of a one-man sustainability show exploring whether a student could survive on a college campus growing, making, finding, recycling, or bartering the basic necessities of life. He camped out in a handmade rolling caravan, stitched his own shoes out of leather straps and worn tire treads, and preserved produce, beer, beans, cider, and salmon in mason jars that he used to create an indoor installation that included a film documenting his experience.
As a part of his artistic edible evolution Mickey began to realize that his creative self was so thoroughly entwined with his farm-boy background that he made his way back to the land. In Bolinas he built himself a pod to live in so he could commune with the wild world, and designed what illustrator/blogger Maira Kalman, calls his cockamamie contraption — a mobile kitchen from which he spreads the good word about eating local, organic food fresh from his family’s Gospel Flat Farm. The 10-acre organic farm is named for the four churches that once stood in the spot that now boasts a booming mid-sized row crop and modest animal farm.
When he started working alongside his dad, who had run the farm with his wife since 1982, Mickey made typical first-time farmer mistakes. It took time to figure out what produce to grow and where, as he got to know intimately the climatic conditions he inherited. Even something as simple as watering crops has a learning curve. “A new farmer will look at the surface soil and see that it’s dry but a seasoned grower will kick down the soil a few inches to check for moisture,” says Mickey.
He didn’t have a clue about how to sell what he grew. He tried delivering boxes of produce or inviting people to the farm to pick their own, but neither felt quite right. Almost as an afterthought, he began putting excess produce out by the side of the road. That proved the inspiration for the Farm Stand. The unattended stand works on the honor system; customers weigh and pay without oversight (the locked money box is emptied regularly.)
Now in its third year, the Farm Stand has grown so popular that the farm sells most of its produce there. Locals, travelers, and tourists purchase seasonal crops such as greens, flowers, beans, and beets at any time of day or night. Mickey’s favorite question from folks who stop by: “What do you do with this?” And he enjoys not having to haggle with wholesalers over the price or appearance of his produce: “You can accomplish so much when you don’t have to peddle your wares.”
Mickey, 24, hasn’t abandoned his artistic pursuits; at a recent open studios he presented an edible landscape installation. And an art studio behind the Farm Stand is slated to become a space for groups to meet and merge the world of art, food, and farming. He’s also keen to pass on his love of the land to novice farmers, through an apprenticeship program, and young children, in afterschool and summer camp classes and school tours. He’ll fire up the outside oven, he says, and ask the kids what they want to cook. Sometimes they bake bread or make chard-filled raviolis from scratch with eggs and produce collected from the farm. He also wheels his mobile kitchen (formerly a boat) into downtown Bolinas for community canning or cooking demos. Here’s what it looks like:
The farm remains a family affair. Mickey’s older brother, Kater, a physicist now living in Berkeley, runs the clan’s winery. His mother, Sarah Hake, is a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; she picks up starts and seeds for the farm from work. (Local note: That corn crop growing in Albany as you enter town? That’s Mickey’s mum’s doing.) She also planted a community vegetable patch next to her workplace. Mickey’s grandmother, artist Carol Hake, paints portraits of farm stand produce and brings persimmons from her Los Altos Hills home to add to the bounty for sale. Dad Don runs a local land-clearing, tractor-based business and provides oversight for the entire farm operation. And cousin Sam works alongside Mickey, planting, picking, and maintaining the crops and livestock.
Mickey, who lives on the property (in a building now), with wife Bronwen and their baby, has plans for expanding the farm. He’d like to cultivate more orchard crops and raise more livestock animals. But as he cleans and cuts brussels sprouts one recent cold morning it’s clear from the enthusiasm and earnestness that this young grower brings to his way of life that it is, indeed, a good time to be a farmer.
The Gospel Flat Farm Stand is located just before the plant nursery and stop sign on the Olema/Bolinas Road in Bolinas.