Family Day at Windrose Farm/Finca Los Agaves
Every time I journey out to one of our county’s farms, I am awed by the tucked away rolling hills and valleys that always seem to beckon me toward exploration and discovery. My trip out to Windrose Farm was no different.
From my home in Atascadero, it’s only a 25 minute drive, but it feels like I must have crossed the county line to be in this place that is remote, rugged, and still.
I drive slowly down the dirt road toward the farm both so that I don’t kick up too much dust, and so that I can drink in every nuance.
I see the pastures alongside the dry creek bed where the sheep and chickens enjoy their frolicking. I see the massive and ancient oaks that are surrounded by fallen acorns. I see the neat rows of tomatoes, squash, and hundreds upon hundreds of apple trees laden with fruit.
The pastures sit just above the creek bed. Can spot the 2 mobile chicken coops and the sheep grazing on the far right?
The farm sits in a valley, with steep hills on one side that I later learn are covered in coyote tracks. Even so, it feels like a protected place, where livestock and crops and humans all grow together.
I am greeted by the farmers’ children who are friendly, enthusiastic, and delightfully curious. They are ready to help me set up my Farm to School gear, and get to work organizing the scavenger hunt I have planned for visitors.
Those childrens’ parents, Catherine and Justin Welch, are the farm’s new farmers who took over operations in 2020 from the founders, Barbara and Bill Spencer who are now enjoying retirement. I find Catherine slicing tomatoes, while Justin works away at his various farm chores.
Once the kids and I work out how to organize the scavenger hunt, we welcome our visitors and Catherine gathers us up for the farm tour.
Starting in those dreamy pastures down by the creek bed, we learn a little about the sheep, the predators that bother the poultry, and the guardian dogs that keep watch over everyone.
The animals get to roam free!
Catherine has brought an egg collection basket for one of our visitors to use at the coop. We are delighted to find eggs of various colors! Catherine explains that there is a big demand now-a-days for rainbow eggs, so she ordered more laying hens and will welcome them to their new home later this month! She explains that her background is in Animal Science, so her love for animals runs deep - she is always negotiating with Justin about how many animals they can handle at the farm.
Our tour feels extra special when we get to hop on the side-by-side (it’s named Joe) and zip around the 50 acre property.
First stop is the acorns. Catherine drives up to one of those ancient oaks I saw on my way in and explains that when the Spencers bought the property 30 years ago, there were only 3 trees on it, this oak being one of them. That was hard to fathom, given the diversity of the plant life that was before us!
She then went on to explain that this year is a mast year for the oaks, which happens only every 2-5 years. The trees all communicate with one another, and produce thousands of acorns that they drop at the opportune time. It is opportune because all the gathering animals (squirrels, mice, rodents, etc.) have moved on from the oaks, because they haven’t dropped any nuts in several years. So, once the oaks know that scavengers will not be as much of a threat, they produce the acorns and drop them all in the Fall. Of 20,000 acorns, just one will become a tree!
Nature is THE coolest!
Catherine teaches us all about acorns and oaks.
Next, we move on to the tomatoes. Windrose is known for their tomatoes, among other crops, because they grow - wait for it - 89 varieties! Myself and our visitors exclaim that we didn’t know there existed 89 varieties of tomatoes, let alone that they’re growing in our backyard!
We hop out of Joe and wander into the rows to get a little more personal with the fruit. Catherine recommends the SunGolds for tasting, and they are, of course, phenomenal. Sweet, savory, and just a hint of earthiness - yum x about 1.2 million!
Joe takes us up the property toward the back of the valley and we pass by the rows of apple trees, another famous Windrose crop. Guess how many varieties they have?
45! Anyone as mind blown as me about that? Again, nature is THE coolest!
Any assumptions that I had that apples are ‘boring’ have now vanished. Catherine points out Galas, Granny Smith, Pink Ladies, Jonagolds (a cross between Jonathans and Golden Delicious), and then we lose count.
A famous Windrose apple. (Note that 'If you ate today, thank a farmer' t-shirt! This kiddo came prepared for family day on the farm.)
Catherine notes to her youngest kiddo that it’s time again for him to go collect all the fallen fruit to feed to the animals. Apple season might be their favorite season ;)
We head up past the stone fruit and table grapes and Erin Primer, one of our visitors and Food & Nutrition Services Director at San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) exclaims that she had ordered those items from Windrose this month and was delighted at how delicious they all were!
We go up past the horses, feeding them some apple snacks, and then make our way down to the green houses. Catherine explains that their greens are also highly coveted, by the area’s restaurants especially, and their wild arugula is another famous crop. She pulled up a little for me to try and, of course, it was succulent, peppery, and sweet - SO good, y’all!
Part of the reason Windrose can grow such tasty food is their water. Without knowing it, the Spencers had bought property with an underground water source that is sweet and delicious, and that pools directly under the farm so that they have plenty - something that not many county farmers can say these days.
In the other green houses, the kids enjoy pulling up carrots and the adults wonder at the delicious aroma of the herbs - lemon verbena, sage, Italian basil, Thai basil - the best potpourri nature can offer!
Fresh carrots and herbs, yes please!
The last stop on the tour might be a favorite. We bring some squash that is too old to sell over to the pig yard! Kids and adults exclaim with glee as we watch the adult and adolescent pigs trot over to the fence to collect their snacks. The younger ones are especially adorable as they chow down on organic summer squash.
Catherine explains that they chose the breed, kunekune, because the meat is super tasty, but also because they are docile - they like belly rubs! - and they don’t charge the fences. All important traits when you’re running a family farm!
The piggies kick up dust as the race to gobble some tasty summer squash.
The kids ended the tour by showing the visitors their zip line, and enjoying some soccer practice. The visiting kiddos did not want to leave! What a happy afternoon on the farm!
As I drove away from Windrose in the cooling Fall evening, the golden light that casts longer and longer shadows over the property helped me realize what I couldn’t quite name up until then - there is magic in that little valley.
It’s not just the land, and the food and the animals, but it's the people that are stewarding it all too. Catherine and Justin are not just farmers and embryologists (Catherine’s day job), they are community builders. They want to share the magic with us - something for which I am so grateful - so that together, we can all be community with each other and with the land.
Family farming is hard work - it takes so much energy, adaptability, courage, and love. Love for the land, love for the food, love for the community.
That’s why, as part of the community, I want to reciprocate that hard work and support farmers like Catherine, Justin, and their family.
It will take all of us offering our resources, whatever those are, to reverse the trend of the disappearing family farm, and re-learn how to care for soil, food, farms, and community.
If you want to be part of the learning community, join us in our Farm to School work! Contact email@example.com to discuss how you can get involved.
Another great way to be a part of the community is to support family farms by shopping local at Farmers Markets, locally owned grocery stores, and at other businesses that buy local produce. Some suggestions are Etto Pastificio, SLO Provisions, Andrea's on Pine, Park 1039, and so many others in the county! Check out our maps to find one or two in your area.