I used to spend hours picking peppers, tomatoes and squash for Fred Hempel. His greyhounds would run around the fields, startling the chickens and causing us to pause our harvesting to watch their speed and grace. We’d get there early in the morning, dew and frost making leaves shimmer above the crackable ice on puddles not yet burned away by the sun. I wear farm clothes: old t-shirts, ratty corduroys, sweatshirts with hoods, fingerless gloves, a hat and Wellies. By the time I’ve picked my first crate of tomatoes, the hat, gloves and sweatshirt have been thrown aside.
Fred owns Baia Nicchia, or Bay Niche, an organic farm that supplies to CSA subscribers (private purchasers of a weekly box of whatever is in season) and Bay Area restaurants. He sells at farmer’s markets and caters dinners on the farm. The farm, located in Sunol Agricultural Park, lies to the far end of a long driveway lined with persimmon trees I still dream about. There’s a brook behind the farm and the water temple anchoring the far end of the road. The temple was built in 1910 to honor the Bay Area’s connection to its watershed in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This land is leased from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and is used by farmers and government officials both. Fred cultivates a large portion of the land, growing and breeding plants that perform especially well in the East Bay microclimate.
As a biologist, Fred uses his expertise in genetics to choose seeds with characteristics that ensure high yields, disease and pest resistance, delicious flavor, and attractiveness. He does all of this by watching the plant grow, eating lots of the fruit it produces, and saving seeds. Ok, maybe there’s a little bit more to it, but observation is the primary key. By choosing wisely, Fred is able to tailor seeds to the Bay Area grower.
Herein lies Fred’s latest project; he’s starting a seed business called Artisan Seeds. His project is being funded through generous donors (yours truly included) on the website Kickstarter. His first seeds for sale will be six of his striped tomato varieties, two mustards, and three peppers, the mustards and peppers being Ethiopian varieties. Through collaborating with a local Ethiopian pepper seller, Fred has found these plants to be ideal in flavor and well-suited for growth in the region. Through Artisan Seeds, Fred is offering the following Ethiopian varities: Highland Kale seeds, Highland Mustards, Mareko Fana peppers (the backbone of Berbere spice), Mareko Fana Red peppers, and Mitmita peppers. Fred is bringing even more biodiversity to his fields, and in doing so, he’s expanding the palates of pepper eaters far and wide.
Baia Nicchia is trying to raise money in increments of $3,000, enough to put another variety to market. Pledging any amount gives you a packet of kale seeds, but the incentive to donate more to the cause is great. The more you donate, the greater the prizes: other varieties of seeds and more of them, tins of organic, grey dog tea (grown on the farm and named for the dogs I remember so fondly), an invitation to a dinner catered on the farm, and the end-all reward, naming a new breed of tomato.
Donate to Fred now, help bring obscure and delicious vegetables to the masses.
photo credit Fred Hempel