No Country for Old Gophers

By Marisol Asselta Castro

Warning: this story involves farmers, tourists, and rodent decapitation, in pretty much that order.

Not the gopher in question, but this one's famous for similar reasons.

Not the gopher in question, but this one’s famous for similar reasons. (Orion Pictures)

One of my most memorable interpretive moments is not what you’d call a conventionally successful one.

Picture it: Sicily, 1937…no, wait. That’s the Golden Girls. This was a gorgeous day in the central coast region of California during the summer of 2006. Our Farm-to-School and “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” information tent was up and running at a beautiful strawberry and pumpkin farm that was one of the many local farm stops on the “Tour d’Organics” bike ride, and we already had a chance to talk to several San Francisco area foodies about the importance of robust local food systems that work with the environment. The premise of the Tour was a simple but effective one: bicyclists do a 50 or 100 mile loop around the area, visiting checkpoints at different organic farms, restaurants, businesses, etc. to learn more about what they do and how to support them. Raffles for the trendiest new environmentally sustainable items, such as a $3000 bamboo bicycle, helped to draw in the wealthier Slow Food crowd from San Francisco and Oakland. Overall it was a wonderful event that helped bring consumers and producers together in a fun, effective way. What could go wrong?

To quote another long-running TV show, there is a point where people stop being polite and start getting real. A day-long event means that the farms need to keep doing what they do while the tourists come and go. Anyone who has worked on a farm knows that things will inevitably get messy. You know who doesn’t necessarily know that? Tourists. We’d already run into some difficulties with a few of our farmers who didn’t approve of an ad in our local food guide saying, “Come meet your friendly neighborhood farmer!” What if they didn’t want to be friendly? Who said they had to be friendly anyway? Sure, people can visit, but they shouldn’t expect them all to be friendly all the damn time! Fair point. The “friendly” was ultimately removed, just to make sure no unrealistic expectations of friendliness were set.

The woman who ran this particular farm was, in fact, very friendly in a no-nonsense, full-contact sort of way. L would welcome you to her place with open arms and then drag you along to help with the chores while stuffing you with every delicious thing she could find along the way. I was once greeted by an amazing fresh strawberry vodka cocktail right after she met my boss: “Here. You need this.” She delighted in showing people her fields and farm animals. She also had a strong right arm and a wicked swing with a hoe. This became incredibly relevant during one of our Tour d’Organic visitor sessions.

So there we were, with a new batch of shiny-faced, enthusiastic bicyclists munching on strawberries and leafing through Farm-to-School brochures while listening to my partner’s spiel on the benefits of student field trips to local food producers, when one of them happened to look up and squeal in excitement as a cute little gopher popped its head up from a nearby hole. Nature appreciation was in full swing, with cameras out and mutual shushing to keep the little guy from getting scared off. You can see where this is going. Next thing we know, L is barreling down on the rodent with hoe in hand, not so neatly slaughtering the critter in front of a group of horrified Bay Area foodies. As she hacked away, she did help us out with a teachable moment: “These (chop) F****RS (chop) eat my (chop) PUMPKINS!”. And while this is completely true and an important facet of organic farming – L had shown us a line of squashes she had spent backbreaking weeks cultivating that had been hollowed out from underneath by gophers – I can’t say with total confidence that those tourists walked away with this truth in the forefront of their minds.

As interpreters, my partner and I did our best to bridge the gap between presenting the uncompromising reality of farming, as opposed to the romanticized ideal many people imagine, and the need to give people some warning before you decapitate a small creature in front of an inexperienced audience. And most of them did end up with a good understanding of how difficult it can be to cultivate food without many of the conveniences that come with conventional large-scale agriculture. L is still going strong on her farm today, welcoming visitors and running camps, field trips, and other programs. And I will never forget the taste of a fresh strawberry vodka cocktail, the site of the sparkling bay just over the next field, or the look on the faces of those poor tourists. It’s just one of those moments that stays with you.

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