ContentsPutah and Cache: Winters

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Craig McNamara: Interview, 1997

Jan Goggans

On the first interview I had scheduled with Craig McNamara, I got caught in a four hour delay on Interstate 5, a common occurrence during the summer, when big rigs loaded with tomatoes jack knife with an alarming frequency. Before our second scheduled interview, I came to my political wits, which had clearly been absent, and realized he is the son of the Robert McNamara. I didn't—and still don't—have any idea of how Craig might have been affected by the war, or by being the son of the man who ran the war, or by McNamara's recent admission that the whole thing was a mistake. Craig's farming is what interested me, and that is what I asked him about when we were sitting across from each other on Monday morning. Sun poured into his small office, walnut trees formed a cathedral-like canopy outside the windows, and I had just been introduced to bottled Frappacino, which Craig stocks by the case, when we settled down to talk for an hour or so. It became clear to me quickly that cases of icy Frappacinos were not the only things that set Craig apart from your "ordinary" farmer.

For many locals, his twenty year tenure on the land classifies him still as "new." When I mentioned that he did not come into farming in the usual way—inheriting a farm or marrying into a farm, at least in this region—he laughed. He acknowledged that he has spent time thinking about his choices, looking at the various currents of his life, and attempting to "piece together" the direction of his life. He said, "there must have been a current that wanted to be land driven, land motivated, land connected." That current converged with the influences of politics to convince him "that agriculture is political. There's no way around it. You're feeding people; you're involved in exports and trade and balance of trade issues, and lobbying. It's very political." The choice to farm was a way to bring together Craig's "back to the land side" with his political side. But the natural harmony of such a choice was not, he said with another laugh, always clear. Not until he was in Latin America did he recognize that "agriculture, farming, production, feeding people—that was what I wanted to do. That is what pushed me to apply to ag school, and that brought me to Davis." He received a degree in plant and soil science and took off in a Datsun pickup across America, looking for a place to farm. Along the way, he realized that "this particular triangle that we live in—Davis, Woodland, Winters, Dixon—is for a variety of reasons remarkable. The agricultural resources are very rich, the soils are extremely deep, water by and large is plentiful—the abundance of nutrients, the air, along with great connections with UC Davis; all of this was really important to me as a novice. It was a combination I didn't feel was available anywhere else, and I spent a lot of time looking."

Craig's life in Winters has shown how crucial community connections are to him. "Community in our lives is essential, no matter what we do. Certainly as farmers, we're isolated—at least, the work is isolating, whether it's out in the field or in the office—and so the bigger picture of community comes into play. In 1980-85 I spent eighty percent of my time actively farming and the rest managing. Now, it's the complete reverse, maybe more so. I spend 90% of my time managing, but whereas the majority of my time used to be spent just on my farm, that 90 now is divided in half, with only one half to this farm and the other devoted to community growth."

Examples of that filled a wall of binders. Of them all, he pointed with most pride to the FARMS program that he and his wife, Julie, started. The program established a partnership between the McNamara's farming operation—called Sierra Orchards—and UC Davis and the California foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom and the Yolo County Resource Conservation District. Craig explained, "the goal of the project is to teach high school students about sustainable agriculture. We do that in the context of our farming operation, which is principally walnut, but walnuts are just a medium; we aren't teaching them to be walnut farmers, instead, we're teaching them the importance of doing something that is sustaining, something that will enable them to be sensitive to how we shape our land, our agriculture, and to see what demands we put on agriculture and how we in agriculture respond, or don't respond, to those demands. Our goal is to assist high school students in becoming life-long learners and help them build greater social and human capital in their own communities." Through workshops, mentors, and research projects, student teams, who even spend a night with a local farm family, learn the basics of sustainable farming: planting cover crops, building owl boxes, planting native grasses to attract beneficial insects.

The kids have a great role model in Craig, who, like them, is learning to farm sustainably. Like his students, Craig planted native grasses; both learned that if you don't contact the county and let them know that your native grasses are part of your sustainable farming project, the county will spray them. His farming operation includes an organic block which he considers his laboratory, a place to take ideas from and put them into practice in the rest of the orchards. "You don't have to be organic to be sustainable, however," he added, and said he is "committed and involved" in sustainable farming while acknowledging that it's a slow process. The home orchard, he noted, probably needs sustainable farming most, because it has some soil born diseases, old trees, possibly tired ground—all of which indicate that it needs enrichment. 'We've always used integrated pest management," he said, "no question about that. We hire a pest control advisor. We've never sprayed the whole orchard all at once. All of that goes without question. This last year we've started to cover crop for the first time and on another of our ranches we've been cover cropping for about three years.

Craig's commitment to practicing sustainable techniques and the amount of time he gives to teaching the principles of land stewardship really do set him apart from many of his peers. He conceded, "I've never been a typical farmer. I didn't come to this in a typical pattern. I didn't come to it with resources that were typical. That has afforded me some opportunities and provided some real disadvantages." His life "demands a lot, but it compensates with a lifestyle that allows you to look at things the way you want to. I wanted to become a farmer because I wanted to become productive, to do meaningful things with my life. I've always been proud to say, 'I'm a farmer.' On every tax form or survey, I'm proud to fill that in. I try to pass on [to my kids] the rhythm of what I do, and the attachments of what I do, which to me, are circled by the stewardship. We are stewards of this land; it will thankfully live a lot longer than we will, so it will be farmed by other people, by another generation. Therefore, we try to make decisions today that give longevity to what we do."

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