story & photos by Sara Liner
Gowan Batist, 28, founder and co-proprietor of Fortunate Farm, knows that a farm lives or dies by its sustainability. She constantly has to weigh her tenderness for all living creatures against the pragmatism required to be a successful farmer. Even the farm kitties who stalk each other playfully beneath an avocado tree, earn their keep: they are fierce mousers, protecting the livestock feed. Every aspect of the farm must work toward the sustainability and symbiosis of the whole because Batist is no trust funder and this farm is no hobby.
Her first season on the farm, Batist lived in a tent comprised of three pallets and a faulty farmer’s market canopy, which she moved whenever her flock moved. She now lives in a 100-year-old cabin, in which we are now sitting. Her parents live on the farm too, and soon so will her grandmother. Batist points out the humble potbelly stove that is both her source of heat and where she cooks her meals. She found it in pieces in a field and then welded it back together. I am reminded that she is from a family of admirably anachronistic pioneer types.
Batist’s humble upbringing taught her the importance of sustainability and gave her the ability make the most of what you have. These skills helped Batist in creating Fortunate Farm, located in coastal Caspar, California. The farm was purchased via a symbiotic partnership with North Coast Brewing Company. President and Co-Founder Mark Ruedrich was looking for an environmentally responsible way to dispose of the brewery’s waste: spent grain, hops, yeast slurry and waste beer. Batist had had success taking these by-products and turning them into microbial rich compost, which she used at the gardens at non-profit Noyo Food Forest. But NCBC still had plenty of excess spent material. Ruedrich pushed Batist, who is now NCBC’s Sustainability Manager, to dream bigger. Why not find a parcel of land to purchase and farm? Batist could use the brewery compost and sell the resulting produce back to NCBC’s Taproom and Grill, full circle. As it happened, a perfect parcel of land, the Tregoning Farm, was up for sale. Batist knew this was a rare opportunity for a farmer, of modest means, to own and farm land outright. Banks are reluctant to lend money to farms, as farming is by nature an unstable business. “If we wanted to be a feed lot or grow GMO corn, there’s funding for that. But not so much for small sustainable agriculture farms,” Batist says. In 2013 Batist and her family put in for a Farm Service Agency loan. During the government shutdown, the loan was lost. They were turned down by dozens of banks and had almost given up, when Community West agreed to give them a bridge loan, just enough money to purchase 27 acres of Tregoning Farm, while NCBC purchased the remaining 13. “Because we lost the FSA loan, our start-up capital went from $50,000 to literally nothing after purchasing our acreage. We started our first season in 2014 on the farm with no money.” One day, while running errands in the village of Mendocino, Batist returned to her truck to find an anonymous note and $2,000 in cash sitting on her driver’s seat. “It was from a group of local women who wanted to see the farm succeed. From that $2,000 we built our irrigation and purchased seed. It got us through our first season.” Batist says she feels tremendous gratitude for the female farmers who have been her life-long mentors, the original back to the landers, pioneer women.
“There are so many of my peers… who are more knowledgeable than me, who work just as hard, who don’t have this opportunity. That’s my motivation, even when things are really hard, that’s what keeps me going, that I’ve been given a one in a million chance.” adds Batist.
Fortunate Farm is now in its third season of production. It is also a node for Mendo Lake Food Hub, which offers distribution throughout Mendocino and Lake Counties, via refrigerated shipping containers. They deliver to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers’ markets. Farmers from all over the Mendocino Coast drop their goods off at the Fortunate Farm node. Mendo Lake Food Hub has bridged the gap between inland farmers and coast farmers. For instance, in the summer, Ukiah restaurants can get baby greens grown on the coast, and the Fort Bragg eateries can get peppers grown in the heat of the Redwood Valley. “It’s a service more people need to know about,” Batist says.
As we navigate the farm’s squishy, rain-saturated terrain one late afternoon, Batist, sure-footed in her muddy work boots, points to the garden beds and says “It looks like there’s not much going on now, but there’s plenty happening beneath the surface.” In the distance sheep can be heard bleating. Batist takes me down a footpath and across a narrow cattle bridge to meet them. I am greeted and nuzzled by their woolen muzzles.
Back in Batist’s century-old cabin, I am introduced to her “puppy,” a 120-pound gray mastiff by the name of Weber. He is as sweet and gentle as he is big and leans against me for pettings. In the corner there’s a store of wool from Batist’s flock and a yarn spinning wheel. She uses an Amish Loom to weave the yarn into blankets that protect her against Caspar’s cold winds. She picks up Squeaker Bat, the cabin’s resident mouser cat, who goes docile in Batist’s arms. Sitting at her wheel by the stove, surrounded by her animals and Mason jars of dried herbs, Batist reminds me both of Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth, and Diana, Goddess of Nature and Animals. It is easy for a moment to forget the outside world.
The work is exhausting, the profit margins razor thin. But Batist wouldn’t live her life any other way. She knows she is fortunate to carry on the agrarian rituals and traditions passed down to her through her ancestors, the generations of farmers and homesteaders from whom she descends. “There’s not a day that goes by on this farm that I don’t use a skill or a piece of wisdom my grandfather taught me, and it’s an honor to pass it along,” says Batist. She brings this idea into every aspect of Fortunate Farm, where traditions, as well as soil, come full circle to condition a sustainable present and future.
I ask her where the name Fortunate Farm comes from. She smiles. “Actually it’s a quote from my grandfather, who helped raised me and taught me so much of what I know. He was a man of few words, but big big love. He died not long before we got this farm. He was lucky enough to be at home, surrounded by his family. He looked around us in the room and then into my grandmother’s eyes, and uttered ‘fortunate’ twice. Then he was gone.”