On Thursday August 31 I visited Tip Top Farm in Vacaville. I went with Michael Dotson, then the chef of Evvia and Jim, a sous chef at Kokkari. We left the East Bay early in the morning so as to catch Laura Trent still in the field and before she would have to journey back to Berkeley for the late afternoon Organic farmer's market. A few weeks earlier I had approached her, asking if I could have an interview and write about Tip Top. An extraordinary, but humble farmer, Laura looked at me quizzically, and said, "Sure," handing me her phone number.
The first time I met Laura was at the Tuesday Berkeley farmer's market near five years ago. I was surprised to see someone with mulberries, both the purple and white, and began talking to her about them. Struck by her handsome face, serious nature and tiny booth, I made it a point to always buy something from her. One day I noticed a small sign encouraging women to become farmers. It was then that I realized this two-table booth was her farm. Perhaps it should have been obvious, but in the farmer's market scheme of things, many workers selling the produce are locals and not necessarily working on the farm itself, let alone are the actual owners.
On what felt like the last day of summer, a few weeks ago, I became further enamored and inspired by Laura, what she was accomplishing, and passing on to her two interns, Gabrielle Myers and Krystin Rubin. Both women, having come from professional kitchen work, as line cook and baker, respectively, expressed eloquently and earnestly the honor they felt working alongside Laura, day to day, in the fields and orchards. Living in yurts, working long, challenging hours in brutally hot weather, all three expressed, without apology, the hard facts of farming. But none would trade it in for anything.
My interview with Laura, especially now in retrospect, was a strong one. Armed only with the basic questions I approach small farmers with: how many acres, what produce and why, how long have you been at it, why did you choose this path, I let Laura lead the tone of the exchange. Shy in demeanor, but not one to mince words and ideas for the sake of soft ears or delusional reporters, Laura and I lobbied sharp and powerful, politicized questions and answers about the state of Organic farming today. I was invigorated by the challenge. And moved by our conversation.
In the hours and days following I walked on clouds with a drunk-like feeling which only comes from a pure shot of delicious palpable inspiration. Not without a bit of a fight; a pushing and tugging of questions and answers heavy with the weight of the subject we were attacking, unearthing, I walked away from Tip Top with the feeling that I had been struck by gorgeous lighting.
And I had no idea how to write about it.
I wanted to respect her strong opinions. Her thorough knowledge borne out of the backbreaking practice of her craft. Her passion and her produce. Her outdoor teachings. And also her privacy.
Unsure of why I was there at all to interview her, she curtly reminded me she only said no when people called ask if they could write about her and Tip Top. "I don't want to sell newspapers," she stated sharply.
I asked Laura if she could see herself farming for the rest of her life. "No," she answered without hesitation. "Farming is extremely hard on the body. I want to be able to walk when I'm forty. At some point you ask yourself, why am I doing this?" Piggy-backing on what Gabrielle eluded to earlier, Laura said she saw Tip Top heading in a more educational, inclusive direction. There was talk of farm dinners and a permanent kitchen for such events, cabins for guests and community farming. But she also knew there was a lot of red tape involved in morphing a farm into something else.
Laura's restaurant-client list was an all-star one. Chez Panisse chefs took their hand-trucks up to the Thursday market and I often saw Tip Top produce featured on the menus displayed in front of the prestigious restaurant. The day we visited, Laura and her crew proudly showed off a tomato menu Oliveto had prepared in honor of Tip Top and other farms whose fruits were top notch.
But when I asked about taking on more clients or larger orders, Laura made her points firm and clear.
"I don't want to take on any more restaurant accounts because then I'll have to hire more people and I didn't get into farming to sit in some air-conditioned office, leaving only to tell people what to do. I'm out here to do the work. I don't want to be a foreman. The ugly truth about farming in California is that we chew up and spit out the bodies of Mexican laborers. The more clients you have, the more workers you exploit. If you're out there doing the work yourself, you treat the people better."
Although as a rule Laura took on only one intern a year, I took note of the fact that she had two this year. She said she picked people who she thought she'd work with best. Smiling, she quoted Paul Canales (the chef at Oliveto in Oakland), repeating, "Cooks are easier to train. They have built in motivation."
All three women affectionately spoke about the meals they sometimes shared together. Laura visibly brightened when referring to Myers' meals, "Gabrielle's a great cook. It's a highlight of the meal to eat her food." A small but deliberate, tempting mention was made of Krystin's delicious mint ice cream made in a hand-crank machine with the farm's wild mint and eggs from their few chickens. In the enveloping heat of Vacaville's late summer morning, all agreed we could eat some of that right now, for breakfast.
Krystin talked about how she cooked more simply on the farm, noticing the subtle "nuances of an ingredient, like a torpedo onion I'm slicing and tasting while it's still warm from the ground. I don't need to do very much to it. It tastes more alive, more vibrant." She elaborated, noting the overall experience. "I'm seeing the self-contained quality of the enterprise; watching the farm and produce from the beginning of the season, going to the market and trading for the things we can't grow."
In a discussion about the French prune plums Tip Top was recently beginning to bring to market, I asked how Laura decided when pick them. Emphatically she replied, referring to all of the fruits and vegetables, "Everything we decide by taste." Growing small amounts of slightly rare produce, Tip Top was able to create a definitive niche and a large fan base.
There wasn't a customer who didn't come back for more of her sweet tiny tomatoes. A wonderful sign lured me in that read, "Taste these! Proof that the tomato is a fruit."
I wasn't the only avid okra eater who thought Laura's was the best. Walking into the field to take photos of the alien-esque plants, related to cotton and popularized by Southern Soul food cookery, Laura warned me flatly that I best not go much further, "Those plants bite back. We have to pick in long sleeves and pants, and even then they tend to get through and make your legs itch." Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, my free and easy exposed calves below my impractical shorts blotched red and began to tingle like mosquito bites. But it was worth it just to taste raw okra for the first time. Crunchy and green, the raw experience might be one of the best ways to be introduced to this infamous pod.
We ended our day at Tip Top buying peaches picked before us as we chatted between the young trees. As ripe as they could have possibly been, the furry stone fruits perfumed the car and later made their way only into my mouth as I was loathe to do anything else but savor them out of hand. They encompassed the waning summer.
Returning the box a few days later at the market on a Thursday afternoon I chatted with Laura about our morning at Tip Top. I gushed about how wonderful I'd felt for days afterwards. Thanking her for her generosity, she smiled back at me warmly, her shyness having melted away easily. Happily setting out her freshly picked produce, Laura's tan and beautiful face shone. This is how I will remember her.
Laura Jane Trent took her own life on Thursday September 28th. I speak for many when I say her death has come as a great shock and an even greater loss.
Seeing the memorial table dedicated to her at the Saturday morning Berkeley farmer's market last weekend confused and saddened me. I shook my head. I said no. I said can't be. Quietly I whispered but.
But you inspired me so. But I just saw you. How could this be true? Didn't you know?
Life is tenuous. It shines bright, should not be taken for granted, can disappear without warning.
It is no small honor to be present in someone's life in their last days. I will not soon forget that early morning painted with buttery light, standing in the presence of a person whose life work filled me with wonder and awe.
And amidst my tears, her inspirational life will never be diminished, just missed.