It’s well understood that humans have the capacity to love a place, from a humble spot like their local beach or hiking trail to majestic destinations like Yosemite or Pt. Reyes. The intense feelings of pleasure we get from visiting these places for the first time can feel almost like falling in love.
Some economists wonder out loud how and why anyone in our modern world still chooses to practice agriculture as a vocation given the long hours and economic challenges involved: the math simply doesn’t add up. What they fail to quantify is the emotional attachment farmers have to the land they steward.
For most normal people, seeing a flat field of soil with crops growing on it may produce just a small amount of dopamine – a warm, fuzzy, pastoral feeling . But a farmer can fall deeply in love with even the most anonymous-seeming parcel, getting to know its topography, soil, and weather intimately. You experience traumatic events like floods or hailstorms as you would a family crisis. And just the way the sun hits a piece of land at a certain time and day can inspire an an intense emotional response.
The mandarin orange orchard we farm is on a piece of land that even a layperson can easily fall in love with. The ranch starts with a thin strip of alluvial soil along a long, winding seasonal creek and gradually rises up into the oak woodlands along the coast range. It is not just a productive farm, but an astonishingly beautiful place.
Bill Hamilton fell in love with this piece of land decades ago. A wildlife biologist at UC Davis, he planted walnut trees on the productive soil and dedicated himself to restoring the rest for wildlife. A few years into his love affair with the ranch, he ran out of money and had to sell a quarter of the land to pay the bills.
The couple that bought the land were pioneering young organic farmers at the time. They planted the mandarins — one of the first Satsuma mandarin orchards in Northern California — in one field and grew organic potatoes and other crops on the rest of it for over a decade. Of course they both fell deeply in love with the land they were farming, too.
Alas, love between two humans doesn’t always last. The couple divorced, and as is so often the case, had to sell the property as a result. During the ensuing years, Bill Hamilton’s walnut orchards had begun to produce bumper crops and he had become one of the world’s preeminent experts on tricolored blackbirds. Buying back the missing piece of his ranch was like finding a lost loved one.
But the ranch now had a mature and productive citrus orchard on it. Bill didn’t know what to do with it, so he asked a few of his farmer friends and they were kind enough to recommend Terra Firma. And so in the late 1990s we began helping take care of the orchard, and in the process, fell in love with the place too. We don’t spend much time there: the ranch is down a long, winding road and citrus is a relatively low-maintenance crop. But every time I go there, the place takes my breath away.
Bill Hamilton died in 2006 (his obituary is here), just after we had finished planting a second mandarin orchard on his ranch. But before he did, he made sure to permanently protect the land with a conservation easement. His wife Marion and daughter Susan still live on the land, which they love as much as he did. And we have continued helping them steward it.
Science has shown us that parental love is locked into our DNA due to its value in our evolution. I would contend that love of the land is just as significant in the evolutionary success of humanity. Parents feed their children until they leave the nest, but farmers feed the children for the rest of their lives. Emotional attachment to the land helps us keep doing it, even when logic tells us we should be doing something else.
We are happy and proud to have the opportunity to feed you and your families through our CSA, which helps us nourish our own love for the land we farm, and keeps us going.