Fields of Plenty
A Farmer’s Journey to the Frontiers of American Agriculture
by Michael Ableman
The only thing small scale about Fairview Gardens is the acreage it occupies. On just twelve and a half acres, this organic farm produces over one hundred different fruits and vegetables, feeds over 500 families, employs more than 20 people, and hosts as many as 5,000 people per year for tours, classes, festivals, and apprenticeships. Michael Ableman farmed at Fairview Gardens from 1981 to 2001. Under his leadership the farm was saved from development and was preserved under one of the earliest and most unique active agricultural conservation easements of its type in the country.
Close to 35 years ago I joined a commune in southern California that was based on agrarian principles. We had three different parcels of land totaling some 4,000 acres on which we raised row crops, orchards, operated a complete cow and goat dairy, and produced grain and fiber. We supplied our own natural food stores, bakery, juice factory, and restaurant, as well as feeding ourselves. We even made our own clothing, backpacks and shoes. After only four months living in that community, I was given the responsibility of managing the 100 acre pear and apple orchard located in a high desert valley east of Ojai, California. At the time, this was just one of a handful of commercial orchards in the country that was farmed organically.
And here I was, at the age of 18, with no orcharding experience, having never managed anything, directing a crew of 30 people, most of whom were older than I. The orchard had been abandoned for 15 years. The branches between the trees had become so intertwined that you couldn’t find the alleys down the middles of the rows. I had a 1930s copy of Modern Fruit Science, the journal from the guy who ran the place the year before and gave up in frustration, and a copy of Goethe’s famous quote “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” attached to the door of my 20-foot unheated trailer.
Now, this could have ended up really bad, and under most similar situations, I probably would have ended up working in some high-rise office building. But there was something that took place down those rows of apple and pear trees, something very different than what is happening in most agricultural fields and orchards in North America. I went to work each day with 30 of my friends, and while we worked we joked, and we talked, and we discussed our dreams. We tried out our latest theories and philosophies on each other, speculated on the fate of the Earth, and ate our lunch together under the shade of the trees. In the winter, we pruned every day for four months straight. In the spring we thinned fruit. And in the fall it was a ten-week harvest marathon. It was repetitive work, but at the end of each day, instead of feeling I had been chained to some mind numbing drudgery, I felt like I had attended an all day party.