ContentsPutah and Cache: Woodland

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Tom Muller: Interview, 1997

Jan Goggans

In the still morning air, the smell of green peppers told me I was close to Tom Muller's field. It was 8:55 am, probably 90 degrees already. At either end of the field, harvesters droned monotonously, churning green peppers down a conveyor belt to 20 men who picked out anything that wasn't a green pepper. Later Tom told me that such a labor force is unusual, that current harvesters have about four workers and electric eyes—one to take out the dirt and one to sort. "Ten people get put out of a job," he said. His concern for the workers is genuine. "These people work hard. We'd be lost without them. They make five or six dollars an hour, and we feel like we have to take care of them as best we can." So, the Muller Farm pays about 500 dollars a month, per worker, for health insurance. "They have families to feed," he said, "just like we do."Coming from Tom, the youngest son in a thirty year old family farming outfit, that's a serious statement.

Muller's father began with a dairy in San Jose in 1967. But a McDonald's went up, close enough that the family "could lean out the window and call in an order." Soon after, a public school was built, and residents began complaining that the smells and flies of the dairy were a hazard for the school children. Ultimately, the Mullers moved to Yolo County. Tom was in third grade when they started with 600 acres, mainly planted in alfalfa, wheat, corn and milo. When he graduated from Cal Poly in 1982, they were farming about 1500 acres, 500 of them planted in tomatoes, their main cash crop.

When I asked him what drew him to farming, he answered, "Farming is visualizing. The soil you're working; the crops—what price it will bring and where you can sell it; the technology you have—you put together all that information and technology and then the weather dictates it. You can't do anything about the weather. All you can do is learn from your mistakes. You can't be perfect as a farmer—too much is out of my control. Farming does that; it teaches you to live with what you decide to do." One of those lessons had just come Tom's way: three days in the triple digits, a heat wave the forecasters hadn't been certain would come. Earlier in the week, Tom had decided against extra irrigation. The decision cost him three full rows of peppers.

But some of the uncontrollables are less "natural." He showed me bins of green peppers harvested before the heatwave. To me, they looked and smelled delicious, but when I suggested he had at least saved some of his crop, Tom shook his head. He pointed to a brown shadow on one, small spots on another. In green pepper lingo, they had gone chocolate, which made them worth less, if any, money. "This is what they do," he said and took up a perfect, kiwi-green pepper. He ripped off the top and held up the bottom portion. "They stuff it with meat, see? So it's got to have perfect color, four perfect lobes. Have you seen them in the frozen food section?" I shook my head. "Me neither," he shrugged. "But that's what people expect."

Of the 5500 to 6000 acres the Mullers now farm, tomatoes (of which they planted 2400 acres in 1994), wine grapes, and bell peppers are the money making crops; they also plant—as they long have—alfalfa, oat hay, feed corn, safflower, sunflowers, wheat, and corn for seed. These crops are priced on the Mercantile exchange, a price that has literally nothing to do with the condition of an individual crop. "It's no different than having stock in Nike. Except for the people who are growing the wheat." Unlike stock market investors, farmers produce the commodity they must profit from. But everything farmers know—technology, soil, climate, crops—has little bearing on how much their product is worth on the market and, therefore, whether or not they will profit from what they do. Once, farming was a dependably direct process: through hard work, you produced a good product, and you got good money back for it. But that dependably direct process has started to go "wrong" in Tom's time.

There are also government regulations. "This is a true story," he said. "We had five guys out hoeing in a field. Because we didn't have anything for them to do, we put them out there to hoe instead of laying them off. After a couple of days, we sent one more guy out to hoe. The next day, a county official came out and fined us 200 dollars because we didn't have an outhouse in the field. I looked at her and I said, 'Can you honestly tell me that you know how many guys a field can handle?"' He shook his head. "I mean, I don't know how many people are safe to crap in a field."

Such uncontrollable factors are the "intangibles" which have simply become "too intrusive" in the last decade. I asked Tom if he'd ever had any regrets, and he looked at me with the intense blue gaze of all the Mullers, the gaze that makes them all look like Paul Newman, and said, "Sure. I don't know anybody who doesn't have regrets. That's part of life, wondering how you might have done it differently. But you have to be happy with the decision you made and move on. I love farming here. Farmers are four season people, and here, we get all four seasons. I love it in the winter when it's cold and raining. Some people think it gets too hot here, or too cold in the winter. But to be a farmer and have all four seasons is a joy." He looked out at the bell pepper field, redolent in the sun. "I'm proud of what I do. Nothing makes me feel better than looking at a field I started from scratch and seeing it full."

Tom handed me three bell peppers; two of them perfect, in the eyes of grocers, one a deep green with chocolate brown lobes. Later, I cut one into julienne strips, sauteed them in butter, and made an omelet. I ate it thinking of Tom, sweating in 108 degrees, surrounded by the smell of sun boiled peppers which he must harvest before they die. Nothing he does can change the weather. Every day, a farmer like Tom Muller walks out and makes a few choices; and then he goes about the daily process of living with them. The rest of us have the option of blaming someone or something else, but Tom's hands get dirty harvesting his choices. He looks them in the face and learns to live with them.

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