I’ve had the good fortune of becoming a regular visitor to the White Whale Farm in Valley Ford, CA. My brother’s mother-in-law lives and works on this long-standing Sonoma County goat and cool-weather crop farm, and it’s through her that I’ve been introduced to the cast of characters that inhabit it.
For starters, there are the goats. Well over 100 of them wander the property, and the herd is made up of primarily of the long-eared LaManchas and the unique-looking Nubians – an earless variety resembling creatures from the movie Avatar, thanks to their wide-set eyes. The goats are enticed into the milking shed twice daily by the prospect of a meal, and while they eat, they are mechanically milked. Milk is moved through hoses from the goats’ udders into holding tanks and then on to the adjacent dairy where it is made into three types of cheese under the brand “Pug’s Leap.”
Goat farming is a decidedly scientific endeavor, and at any given time, you might find Ben, the farm’s goat guru, testing strains of milk for bacterial content or protein levels. Last summer, when I stayed in the guest room of Ben’s house, I was greeted by vial upon vial of goat medications every time I opened his refrigerator. Stacks of books on goat breeding techniques decorated the kitchen table, and spreadsheets delineating breeding schedules were scattered on the floor.
The goats are watched over by an enormous – and I mean enormous – dog named Sam. Sam is an Anatolian Shepherd, one of a breed of dogs traditionally used in Asia to guard sheep and goats because of their skill in fending off wolves and other predators. Given his incredibly friendly, Labrador Retriever style of greeting visitors, it’s hard to imagine Sam fending off anyone or anything; however, it is clear that he is comfortable among the herd. Watching his huge form gently interact with the kids is endearing, and their trust in him obvious.
There are chickens on the farm – the number varies depending on the season and whether or not any predators have been through to pick some off. Recently, an ornamental rooster, now named “Kramer” for his wild coiffure, wandered onto the property and has become a permanent resident.
For a while there were curly-haired pigs behind the goat barn, but since they were raised for their gourmet bacon-producing capacity, they’ve been gone for a little while now. I attended a dinner at which “Gingersnap,” the last of the posse, was served. I don’t eat pork, but those who did said she was mouth-watering.
White Whale Farm has a long history of vegetable farming, in part thanks to its fortunate location downhill from a spring and over a subterranean water source. The presence of this water source allows crops to be “dry farmed.” They are irrigated only occasionally, subsisting on the water deep in the soil and in the dense fog that sits over this part of coastal Sonoma County from evening to well after sunrise (and often longer) every day. The fog and coastal breezes create far cooler air temperatures than even nearby inland Petaluma experiences. The distance between Valley Ford and downtown Petaluma is approximate twenty miles, yet the air temperatures can differ by up to forty degrees on a summer day. For this reason, local farms that provide CSA (community supported agriculture) shares to their patrons or simply want to round out their crop offerings love to have a stake in a “west county” farm and frequently rent land from dairy farms such as this one for that exact purpose. Kale, potatoes, and winter squash flourish at White Whale Farm; they’d never survive the 90-degree inland days just twenty minutes away.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey with no exposure whatsoever to the farming lifestyle. However, I have always felt an attachment to land and nature, and have made career and lifestyle choices that have allowed me to spend significant chunks of time interacting closely with certain ecosystems. On some level, I get it. I see the power of nurturing a long-term relationship with a small parcel of land, the value in deeply understanding the daily and seasonal rhythms of a very specific place on the planet. Significant care and substantial resources go into keeping a family-run farm alive; clearly the satisfaction provided by producing nourishing food and developing a kinship with the resident animals and plants are enough to keep may folks in the game, regardless of the countless challenges family farms face.
I doubt my wandering spirit could ever be tied down to a twice-a-day milking schedule and daily monitoring of the pH level of an aging cheese – and I have enormous respect for this commitment, and for its fruits. Somehow, knowing how difficult it would be for me to be so tied to a small parcel of land makes me even more appreciative of the time I get to spend on it. There’s a lot to be said for checking in regularly with a place, and observing its evolution. It is a relationship, after all.