Sarah Hake’s stride is quick and assertive as she walks across Gospel Flat Farm, named for when several churches stood along this flatland stretch of Bolinas. In her hand, a colander, full of hot red peppers that she will add to a basket of others at the family farm stand, jumps with color.
Forty years ago, when Sarah and her husband, Don Murch, moved to California for her postdoc in plant genetics at Berkeley, her parents had already been weekend residents of Bolinas in a house on Brighton Avenue. They purchased the Gospel Flat property thinking it would be an ideal place for the family to get together, and when Sarah and Don saw the farm, they abandoned their plans to live in Berkeley and made Bolinas their family home.
Sarah went on to build a groundbreaking career as a plant geneticist and developmental biologist at the Plant Gene Expression Center, a collaborative institute of the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service and the University of California, Berkeley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. From the farm, she would commute to the East Bay twice a week, with an overnight stay to conduct her research. She often stayed up until midnight running experiments on maize and other plants, but the rest of the week she was home in Bolinas with her family.
Don ran the farm and, throughout the years, frequently contributed to this newspaper’s Coastal Cook column. While Sarah was across the bay in Berkeley, Don was also house dad to their two sons. Kater, a physicist, lives in St. Louis, and Mickey took over running the farm. Today, Don has his contractor’s license, operates a tractor business and sells crab at the farm stand in season.
Farming on the lagoon was initially a struggle. Horses had pastured there for many years, which had ruined the soil for most agriculture. The first two years, Don flooded the fields and planted wild rice, but they were paid not in cash but in bags of hulled rice. This was not the lucrative endeavor they hoped it would be. They eventually found success farming brussels sprouts, kale and swiss chard, which Don, like the landowner before him, trucked to the city to sell.
Mickey has transformed the farm for the next generation. On Gospel Flat, he cultivates eight acres most of the year; in winter, Pine Gulch Creek rises too high and the fields flood. He farms seven acres in other parts of Bolinas, some all year round and some just in the winter, and keeps several hundred chickens and sells the eggs by the dozen. It was Mickey’s insight to start the 24-hour honor-system farm stand. The business model changed everything. Gone was the volatility of restaurant orders, he didn’t have to staff the farm stand and, overall, the stand kept his produce in the community.
Years ago, Mickey found a World War II lifeboat in the overgrown bushes on the edge of the property and converted it into a mobile farm stand and kitchen. He’d trailer it downtown, sell his produce, and show school kids how to cook vegetables. Later, Mickey and Bronwen, his wife, transformed the boat into The Mothership. With a keen eye, Bronwen searches estate and yard sales, flea markets and thrift stores for vintage clothing and accessories that she sells Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. and by appointment. She also manages Artspace, the gallery and a meeting place for the community, behind the produce stand. The gallery hosts visual artists and live music concerts. (An opening reception for a show by Charlie Callahan takes place on Dec. 4 from 3 to 9 p.m., with live music from LennonX.)
Sarah, now that she has retired, is even more involved on the farm. She starts the seedlings in the greenhouse, always fascinated by how different seeds germinate on their own schedules or how an onion stalk will grow crooked like a bent elbow and in no time point toward the sky. She bakes bread that’s sold on weekends, and, with Mickey, grows zinnias, snapdragons, lilies, marigolds and other flowers to arrange into bouquets. Mickey hasn’t raised the price of the bouquets in years, as his sign attests: “All Bouquets Still $5 a Bunch.”
Ask Sarah what she finds hardest to deal with at the farm and she’ll say the gophers and other animals that love to disrupt. One of her real nemeses was a plant, the duck weed that took over and marred the surface of the pond. Always the scientist, Sarah and Mickey discovered they could harvest it, dry it and add it to the topsoil they get from the Resource Recovery Center. Improving the topsoil has allowed Sarah to make peace with the unruly weed.
Her academic world and her hands-on farmer life often intersect in other ways, too. Twelve years ago, her family began to grow tomatoes because a former student of hers developed a tomato for cooler climates. This past season, Sarah was mesmerized by a mutant zinnia that produced a few blossoms as round as Christmas tree ornaments. She also found green kernels on otherwise burnt-red and golden ears of decorative corn.
Sarah, of course, also loves to cook with all of the farm’s produce. She learned much of what she knows from her mother, but also adapts recipes she finds to fit what she has on hand. Currently, she is obsessed with “tongue of fire” shelling beans. She thinks podding beans is a great task for parents to give their children and for people who like to keep their hands busy.
This soup recipe is Sarah’s adaptation from the Our Edible Italy website.
Emily Luchetti is a cookbook author, a jam and chocolate maker and a James Beard Foundation Outstanding Pastry Chef. She lives in Bolinas.
Sarah’s shell bean soup
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound shelled “tongue of fire” beans
(or cannellini or borlotti beans)
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 ounces bacon, cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips
6 cups water
1 fresh 4- to 5-inch rosemary sprig, finely chopped
1 small Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind
6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
For serving: Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and extra-virgin olive oil
Put the beans in a pot on the stove, cover with water by two inches and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let them soak for an hour. Drain and rinse the beans. (You can skip this step but if you do, you will need to cook the beans for an additional 1-2 hours.)
In a large pot, sauté the carrot, celery, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes in the olive oil over medium-low heat for about four minutes. Add bacon. Cook until vegetables are soft and the bacon has rendered its fat, about five minutes. Add beans, water, rosemary, cheese rind, cherry tomatoes, salt, pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a low simmer and cook until beans are very soft, about 3 hours, depending on the beans. (Make sure the beans are covered with cooking liquid throughout. Add more water as needed.)
Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle Parmigiano-Reggiano on top and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with cheese toasts.