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Sep 03rd
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Strawberry Farms Forever

Strawberry Farms Forever

Farmer of the Year talks about the history of Watsonville, agriculture, her family and more

Diane Porter Cooley’s roots run deep in this region. Her forebears first arrived in Santa Cruz County around 1850, and were instrumental in different agricultural and institutional developments in the years since. She grew up on a farm in north Monterey County, where she remembers happily helping her father, a strawberry farmer. She moved away to go to Stanford University and spent the next few decades living everywhere, from San Francisco to Phoenix, Santa Monica to Connecticut. But she eventually found her way back to the land where she was raised, and has been living on her own farm in Watsonville for the past 30 years.

Now 80 years old and spunky as ever, Cooley has been named the 2009 Farmer of the Year by the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. And although her modesty won’t allow her to accept this fact (“It’s totally undeserved. I’m a totally fraudulent farmer,” she says, alluding to the fact that she rents out her farmland to other farmers to do the growing), there is copious evidence that suggests otherwise.

“Because [the award] says ‘farmer’ of the year, a lot of people think you have to be out on a tractor,” says Jess Brown, executive director of the Farm Bureau. “But our definition of a farmer is someone who maintains an agricultural business for a period of time, and Diane and her family have done so and are committed to continuing agriculture on the land they own. She is a farmer for that reason.”

Brown adds that the award, which is in its 30th year, is given to a person who has gone “beyond just farming.” Cooley fell under this category because of her dedication to land conservation and establishing agricultural easements, as well as her involvement with countless organizations – the Cabrillo College Foundation, Elkhorn Slough Foundation, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, State Park’s Castro Adobe Restoration, Women in Philanthropy, Second Harvest Food Bank and a throng of others. In fact, Brown recalls the moment her name came up for consideration for this year’s award, and several Bureau members saying, “She hasn’t been given it already?”

Home on the Range

Cooley is standing at the kitchen sink in her airy Watsonville home, a vast stretch of strawberry field framed in the window behind her. She washes off a ripe selection of handpicked strawberries and arranges them on a plate with walnuts from her walnut tree, homemade ginger snaps and a pitcher of ice water from her well. She’s determined to feed me during our interview, for which she hopes to provide a “cultural Watsonville experience.” You can relax here, she says. The town is a very industrious, “blue-collary” kind of place, but there is a prevailing air of tranquillity.

She pauses on her way from the kitchen to the backyard and, as if to prepare me for the conversation we’re about to have, turns and says, “I have a lot of opinions about everything. You can take them or leave them.”

Most of her opinions turn out to be about how things change – farming, Watsonville, life. Sounding much like a local historian (“History greatly interests me, but I’m full of baloney,” she says), she talks of how local farming has transformed, how it went from cattle land to wheat, potatoes to sugar beets, roses to row crops – the latter of which was what was around when she was growing up. At that time, the advent of the refrigerated car (“just an icebox on wheels”) allowed for successful produce business, and the adoption of irrigation methods and soil and methylbromide treatments made it possible to grow strawberries on the land for long periods of time. She gestures to the plate of berries sitting between us on the patio table, “Try one of my fresh berries, just for you.”

Cooley remembers farming before being “organic” was of any concern, and the evolution of the method’s popularity. “There was definitely no organic interest, then there was organic scepticism, now there are true believers,” she says. Although she is supportive of people growing organic, she does not – her commercial strawberry effort is just too large.

“There are many people successfully growing organic strawberries – but on a much smaller scale,” she says. “But people like to eat strawberries even if they live in Minneapolis, or all over the world, where they normally would not be able to grow strawberries.

“Here, have another,” she adds.

Her opinion is less favourable for another popular notion amongst progressives in Santa Cruz County: eating local. She encourages the act “when it’s possible,” but then I tell her that many “go local” folks believe Santa Cruz County should transition from growing luxury crops like strawberries to more substantial, staple crops in order to achieve a local food system.

“No, that’s not going to happen,” she says. “Are you kidding? To take this valuable soil and put something that you can grow better and cheaper somewhere else? It’s a very interesting question, but it leaves soil, climate and economics out of it.”

The conversation drifts to the diversification of Watsonville, a type of change Cooley finds more agreeable. Growing up in the area, there was a decent sized Chinese and Japanese population, but the demographics have expanded exponentially since that time. She boasts of the area’s multi-cultural population, and the valuable contributions of Japanese-American and Mexican-American farmers. “Being a good farmer has nothing to do with your ethnicity, neither does being a bad farmer,” she says. Slipping into history once again, she details the waves of immigration of Croations, Italians, Portuguese, and Hispanics to the area, and their roles in the local agriculture industry.

The history lesson halts. “Stand up a minute, I want to show you something,” she says. She leads me to the edge of her crystalline pool, and motions toward the backdrop of soft brown and green hills behind her yard. “You see where the hills drop down abruptly, like a cliff? That’s like the toe of the San Andreas Fault, which is moving slowly across here all the time.

“I’m used to change, but I like it slow,” she continues. “We’ve got to remember that in our lives – if you change a little bit all the time it’s not such a shock.” As for the evolution of farming and diversity in the area, she says, “It’s all geology, just like the fault. The Pajaro Valley is moving slowly and revealing its structure.”

The visit wraps up as the warm afternoon yields to a breezy evening. Cooley has a busy night ahead of her: dinner with her 23-year-old grandson, also a Watsonville farmer, and her English as a Second Language class, for which she is a tutor. She shoves another handful of plump strawberries into my hands as I walk to my car. We say goodbye, but before I pull away she says, “My father was a strawberry farmer. So am I. Strawberry fields forever.”

Business

What Now?

What Now?

One agency ponders its future now that both the city and county reduced funding for non-profits

As the state of California crumbles beneath an unprecedented fiscal failure, and local governments stagger and sway from the blows of their own budget fiascos, agencies throughout their jurisdictions are facing the repercussions.

 

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Town Hall

Geographic Practice Cost Index

Geographic Practice Cost IndexWhat problem with Medicare does the GPCI Justice Act, which you introduced earlier this month, address, and how does it aim to help solve it?

GPCI is one of those tricky problems that’s hard to fix because it’s complicated and because it affects a relatively limited area.

The acronym GPCI stands for Geographic Practice Cost Index. Simply put, this index is used to modify Medicare payments to doctors to reflect differences in physician costs in different areas.

This index, established more than 40 years ago, is used to designate counties as either “urban” or “rural,” depending on how expensive it is to operate a practice there.

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Town Hall

Boxing champion Carina Moreno recognized in photo essay by W. Scott Berry

Boxing champion Carina Moreno recognized in photo essay by W. Scott BerryLocal photographer Scott Berry debuted his photo essay profiling boxing champion Carina Moreno on Saturday July 18 at the Museum of Art and History (MAH) in Santa Cruz.  Talking to a full house, the champion boxer and her trainer, Rick Noble, shared many insights. The 105-pound Moreno, who appears to be a slight figure—until she speaks—revealed how she works out three times daily when training for a fight and noted how hard it is for her not to eat at her parents restaurant, Tacos Moreno, while training. Best news? The slugger told the crowd they can accomplish anything if you stay focused and work hard.

But she didn’t stop there. Having boxed all around the world Moreno had plenty of other stories. One of them revolved around a Puerto Rican boxer who mysteriously refused to disrobe during a weigh-in. During the fight Moreno threw a low blow only to discover a steel cup covering the boxer’s manliness.  Moreno still won the match.  
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Environment

Green My Ride

Green My Ride

Bonny Doon company wants people to go electric
“About the most disgusting thing in the world,” Mike Brown says conversationally, “is to be parked in traffic, and have one of those Dodge Ram trucks with a huge exhaust pipe sticking in your window. Most of them don’t even have enough class to use biodiesel.”

 

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Local News

Slugs Give Alms UCSC medical brigade to Honduras a success

Slugs Give Alms UCSC medical brigade to Honduras a success

Just days before leaving on his first volunteer trip to Honduras, UC Santa Cruz senior Daniel Truong was “scared to death, but very excited.” As one of two founders of the UCSC branch of Global Medical Brigades (GMB), Truong had spent the better part of his school year recruiting students, fundraising, collecting donated medicines and cutting through red tape in preparation to lead 20 student volunteers to the Latin American country.

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Environment

The Dirt on Diapers

The Dirt on Diapers

‘Green’ diaper company wants to keep things clean
The life span of a disposable diaper is interminable. From the time one is thrown out and schlepped away to the nearest landfill, to the point when it has completely broken down can be up to 500 years. It will still be slowly rotting at the bottom of a toxic pit long after you, and your diaper-wearing bundle of joy, are gone.

According to Karen Nelsen, one of the founders of the EarthBaby diaper company, disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, preceded only by paper (Number One) and beverage containers. (Both of which are recyclable—go figure). The Bay Area alone contributes 375 million diapers to landfills each year, she says

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Town Hall

Budget Crisis

Budget CrisisWhat is the difference between the Democrat’s budget proposal that failed passage last week and Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal?


The irony about the Democratic budget that failed passage last week is that 45 percent of the proposals we voted on were the exact same proposals as those in the governor’s May revise.  Of the remaining portion of the budget proposed last week, at least 93 percent contained a portion of the governor’s budget proposals.  ( It may be ironic, but I doubt readers will applaud how aligned with the governor the Dems are. Best not to draw attention to the similarities, since most people seem to loathe the governor’s proposal right now.

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Business

Green or Greenwashing? Announcement from Home Depot sparks enthusiasm and controversy

Green or Greenwashing? Announcement from Home Depot sparks enthusiasm and controversy

An eco-conscious approach to pest management is now up for debate thanks to a memo recently released by a Home Depot senior executive.

After a year and a half of persistent negotiations with the Santa Cruz nonprofit Ecology Action, Home Depot released a memo in early May that supports integrated pest management. The approach uses low-toxic methods to curb the critters that munch on garden veggies and dash across the kitchen counter.

Sent by Senior Vice President Ron Jarvis, the memo gives the green light for California Home Depots to participate in eco-minded training programs lead by environmental nonprofits and government agencies. Fliers and product labels made by environmental groups can be dispersed in stores, so long as individual store managers approve.

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Business

Community Brew AgroEco Coffee links Santa Cruz and Costa Rica

Coffee is no mere drink. It can be a crutch, sometimes a drug, a social lubricant and a cash cow, the tissue of many a first date and a multitude of jittery sleepless nights. Throughout history, it’s been both banned and consecrated, outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shunned by many Seventh-Day Adventists, and elevated to a sacrament by 16th century Sufi mystics. It’s one of the most traded commodities in the world, as well as one of the most valuable, second only to petroleum.

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Mercury Enters Libra

It’s the week of Burning Man, the temporary, intentional, alternative, art-filled community on the playas of Nevada. Mercury, messenger of the Sun, enters Libra this week. Libra is the equalizer, a sign of balance and right human relations. Sometimes with Libra, we can be indecisive and confused while learning how to make balanced and right choices. Sometimes to keep the peace we communicate only what others want to hear. Eventually, we learn how to speak from the heart.

 

Final Cut

Cedar Street Video to close after 10 years at downtown location

 

Banter and Spark

Engaging actors, wry script distinguish lightweight rom-com ‘What If’

 

Back to Silicon Beach

With a new wave of startups, the future of Santa Cruz tech looks more promising than ever
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Foodie File: Beer Thirty

Cups runneth over at Soquel’s new beer garden

 

What’s the nicest thing you’ve done for someone this week?

Germany  |  Beekeeper

 

Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX

 

A Cab To Be Coveted

I first tasted Villa del Monte’s 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon at a Fourth of July party, where the hosts had bought a case of it because they love it and didn’t want to run out. It’s one of those wines that will grab you—in the best way—with its full body and rich fruit characteristics.