Stories from the people who make our food system go.
James Williams | 34 Harvest manager and farm store manager at Green String Farm in Petaluma
What is your food and farming background?
I grew up in Tracy, California. I did three years in 4-H and two years in FFA raising pigs and chickens and keeping a small market garden with my family. I’m
an avid cook, and I was lucky to be raised by great cooks and gardeners. Two years ago, I dove into farming. I enrolled in the internship program at Green String Farm and realized I had a knack for this kind of work. My cooking game has definitely improved since I started growing food on this scale and gained a better understanding of where these ingredients come from. Having a passion in the kitchen really helps out when it comes to planning a garden or making decisions about what to grow, and when, on a large scale.
What types of insights have you gained about the Sonoma County food and farm scene from your work?
This area is so pumped on supporting local food growers. There are so many people and restaurants that travel pretty far to get produce from us. A lot of chefs are interested in knowing their food producers personally and respect their clientele enough to serve them the best of what the area has to offer. It’s a real privilege to be able to have this great food so accessible. The farm end of things is definitely challenging; there is a lot of growth in the organic farm scene, but the cost of real estate is a huge hurdle. A lot of farmers that I know have either a pretty great side hustle to supplement income or a partner or benefactor in another field that helps support the cost of doing business. That isn’t to say the idyllic, small, self-sustaining farm doesn’t exist, but it is getting harder to do as Bay Area money heads further north and the cost of living rises. The local farming community here is also very supportive and there is an incredible amount of resources available to beginners or those already working in the agriculture industry.
As a food grower and worker in Sonoma County, have you ever struggled economically?
Struggling economically is kinda built into the system, especially if you are working on a comparatively small scale, in relation to the factory and monoculture farms. The margins on produce are small. Not owning the farm that I work on means that I haven’t had to worry about the bottom line personally, but I get a front-row view of how tight some of the profits are in food production. It’s taught me that this is no easy game to get into, and if you are going to be successful, you better be ready to work harder than everyone else, and have a good amount of knowledge and experience. As for being an employee in this industry, I don’t make a ton of money, but it rarely seems like a struggle. I eat amazing food, work with genuinely good people, have an enormous backyard, and sleep really well every night. It really makes up for not having the most money and living in a dirty trailer.
What are you most passionate about right now in regards to the regional food system?
The thing that I always get fired up about is how valuable it is to grow your own food if you have the means to do it. With the internet and all the good literature out there, you can answer most questions. On a personal scale—feeding your own family or at least supplementing a portion of the food your family eats—it takes way less effort than people think. Most people who are alive today have either grandparents or even parents that lived in a world where growing some of your family’s food was commonplace. The everyday know-how of growing your own food took a steep dive once supermarkets became the norm, and now it’s just a one-stop shop for anything you might need. Because food is such big business, there is so much nonsense you have to wade through just to figure out what you’re actually buying these days. The marketing and bureaucracy of food has gotten so overly complicated that I’d love for people to feel empowered enough to say nuts to all that garbage, I’ll grow my own damn head of lettuce. No matter what side of the arguments you’re on—GMOs, organic versus conventional (neither of those words mean anything anymore as far as I’m concerned)—the quickest answer is ‘not my problem, I grow my own vegetables.’ I understand that it’s a privilege to have the space and the time to do that, but I’d love for more people to understand that they have a lot of power when it comes to providing for themselves and that it doesn’t take as much time or work as you’d think. And having a nice garden is beautiful; it’s the ultimate mood and spirit lifter.
What would you most like to see changed/improved in the food system?
I’d like to see community gardens or shared garden spaces become more organized and available to more people. If our local governments would prioritize spaces like this, our communities would become stronger, healthier, and more confident in their own ability to provide for themselves. Space and food are huge pillars of our lives and our personal happiness, and there are a lot of people who struggle to get enough of both of those things; I don’t feel like that is necessary. It would be so valuable to have a restructuring of how we use our empty spaces. I’d love to see large financial investments in farming spaces. In the Bay Area, a lot of money is thrown into things that I don’t find very valuable. Comparatively, the cost of investing in future local food production is minimal in comparison to some of the things that people are dumping money into right now, and far more valuable to a larger portion of our communities.