Nigel met his wife Lorraine at the farmer's market; she worked for another vendor at the time they met. (CUESA)
Nigel Walker, the farmer who many Bay Area parents credit with getting their children to eat turnips and radishes, and whose lavender display brought a bit of Van Gogh’s Provence to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market where he was a mainstay, died Saturday, July 1. The founder of Eatwell Farm was 56.
Born in Leicester, England on December 24, 1960, Walker was the grandson of a farmer. The eldest of three boys, he was the only one of them who liked to spend time with his grandfather as he worked the land.
He studied farming at Writtle Agricultural College in Essex. Though the school taught conventional farming, Walker fulfilled his practicum at an organic farm. He also studied in Israel, working on organic farms there and learning about drip irrigation.
When he met his ex-wife Frances at a farming conference in the U.S., he decided to stay, and moved to California in 1992.
He established Eatwell Farm in 1993 on 105 acres in Dixon (near Davis), quickly putting it on the map with its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes. It has around 900 members today, and many of them say belonging to a CSA has positively impacted the way they eat, especially in introducing foreign vegetables to their children.
The farm grows numerous varieties of fruits and vegetables (Eatwell is especially known for its heirloom tomatoes; Millennium Restaurant in Oakland has offered an annual multi-course meal showcasing Eatwell’s tomatoes for over a decade); wheat; lavender and chickens.
Walker, his twin boys Eric and Andrew, and later, his wife Lorraine, whom he married in 2011, were fixtures at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) farmers' market at the San Francisco Ferry Building from its inception, and in fact, until Walker got sick, he was known to never miss a Saturday, “not after his twins were born, and not after our wedding,” said his wife Lorraine.
Walker fancied himself a horticulturalist, rather than a farmer, speaking often about how as long as the soil was treated in the right way, vegetables would grow without the need for additional compost or other fortifications.
“What I’ve really come to understand is that if I make sure the crops have everything they need, then all the vegetables I plant look after themselves,” he told Bay Area Bites in 2014.
Walker never stopped innovating, using his own fields as his laboratory.
When he saw that the organic feed he was using to feed his chickens came from China, he knew he could do better.
“How could I call our eggs local when the feed was coming from China?” he wrote on his blog in 2008. He leased an additional 40 acres next to his farm to start growing wheat for the chickens. This also meant building silos on his land to store it, and selling wheat berries at the market. The market stall features a cast-iron hand-grinder where customers can grind the wheat berries into flour themselves.
Marcy Coburn, executive director of CUESA, first met Walker about ten years ago, when she toured Eatwell as director of communications for the Ecological Farming Association known as EcoFarm.
“We saw his biodiesel truck, and his water pump using solar power,” she said. “He’s always been such a seeker of new and profound technologies that would have a greater impact not only on conserving environmental resources but on the farming side. He set the pace for so many farmers in terms of that.”
“It’s something that’s bothered me right from the beginning,” Walker told BAB in 2014, referring to the practice of hatcheries killing baby male chicks upon birth.
Walker introduced a new flock of Black Australorps, a heritage breed of chicken, which he then sold for meat to his CSA members.
Jim Adkins, founder of the North Carolina-based Sustainable Poultry Network, said there was “no one doing anything remotely close to this,” on such a large scale. “Nigel is blazing a new trail in an old way, by being a pioneer in what he’s trying to accomplish,” said Adkins.
The experiment didn’t work out so well, as the female Australorps didn’t produce enough eggs in the winter.
“He always said that the worst thing you can do is do nothing,” said Lorraine Walker. “He felt strongly that as long as you’re moving forward, maybe you’ll make mistakes, but if you do nothing, you won’t learn.”
Walker was also a people person; nothing made him happier than hosting CSA members on the farm, or talking with his customers at the market.
“Community is my joy,” Walker said on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the CUESA farmers' market. “I am told I spend too much time talking and not enough time selling.”
This was confirmed by Lorraine, who said she had to downgrade her husband’s role at the market, giving him the title of “head shmoozer.”
“He’d talk to people all day, there was no selling, and no money being exchanged,” she said. “We had to boot him off the crew.”
Eatwell is one of the farms that has been at the Ferry Building’s farmers' market since its inception, and several people noted that the prime spot it held was no accident.
Coburn noted that Eatwell and the market really grew up together, and Walker made his presence felt by not only never missing a Saturday, but in numerous other ways as well.
“He really held not only himself accountable but the other farmers and CUESA accountable too,” said Coburn. She recalled conducting a seller’s meeting when she was brand new on the job; whether to open more markets was the topic of discussion.
“In the time he had been at CUESA, sales had dropped for him and he really felt that adding more markets could dilute the same pool of people and not add to the success for farmers,” Coburn recalled. “He’s so smart, and he just spoke from the land, from his personal experience from what he’s seen. He’s really an advocate for farmers, but not afraid to challenge when things needed to be challenged.”
Eatwell Farm has numerous events annually for its members, including strawberry days, where members can pick to their heart’s content; tomato sauce-making parties, and a summer solstice event at which braiding garlic is the featured activity. Their CSA newsletter used to always have the name of a different member at the top each week designating it “John Doe’s farm,” and Walker was often heard encouraging members to come pitch a tent and spend the night, telling them, “This is your farm.”
Elianna Friedman, the founder of a non-profit that teaches cooking skills to kids, was inspired to found Bay Leaf Kitchen while having lunch at Eatwell. A CUESA staffer at the time, Friedman had been invited to the farm for lunch with her colleagues. She recalled, “I was in awe of how much they know about how food is made and how it’s produced,” she said. “I knew it would take me years to learn everything they know, and I thought that kids should meet them and experience this.”
By the time Friedman asked if they would host her summer camp, she suspected the answer would be yes. They are hosting seven sessions of kids this summer.
“Nigel was always the first to volunteer or try a new program or demo,” she said. “Anytime you went to him to ask him something, he’d be down for it, and he was always happy to do anything educational.”
While Lorraine didn’t have any farming experience when she met Walker, she said his passion for building community around the farm was infectious, and she brought the link between the kitchen and the field, which is why they worked so well together as a team.
“I had the home cook’s perspective, and he really encouraged me in that area and pushed me into a bigger role on the farm,” said Lorraine. “One of the greatest things about him is that compared to a lot of farmers, he empowered everyone on the farm to do their job and make it their own.”
She continued, “It took a long time to get his guys trained to think for themselves, and have enough confidence in their abilities to make decisions, but the fact that Eatwell has been doing what it’s been doing without both of us this past year, is a testament to Nigel.”
In February of 2012, Walker was diagnosed with stage 3 multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. The CUESA community rallied around him, holding a fundraiser for him at Tacolicious.
“The support given to me in my time of need was enough to make a grown man cry,” he said then.
During his illness, Walker started a program to allow CSA members to donate their boxes while on vacation to cancer patients. His wife intends to continue this, and hopes to obtain funding for it, allowing it to grow.
While Walker was able to beat the cancer into remission in the fall of 2013, it returned in 2014. During the past three years, he ran the farm despite undergoing numerous treatments and hospitalizations at UCSF. He continued to look at the glass as half full, but the cancer returned to his brain in May.
Walker was also known for treating his crew like family; many of them have been with him for many years. As to Eatwell’s future, Lorraine and the crew are determined to keep it going as a legacy to her husband.
“He made me promise that I’ll never miss a market, and I won’t cancel events at the farm,” she said.
In addition to Lorraine and his sons Eric and Andrew, Walker is survived by his parents Don and Thora Walker, his brothers, Michael and Edward Walker, his daughter, Eleanor Walker, and his stepson Cameron Ottens.