The apprentice

One trainee’s first rotation at Soil Born Farms

Wil Holland had already been working for several hours and it was only 9 a.m. The early-May Sacramento sun on that Friday morning was still tolerable and made digging in the dirt for beetles almost pleasurable. Besides, he prefers to work up an appetite for breakfast.

Holland, 20, is one of five apprentices spending nine months at Soil Born Farms learning the ins and outs of running an urban organic farm, from planting and harvesting crops to marketing and managing food sales at local farm stands. He is doing his first rotation, pest management, at the new American River Ranch site in Rancho Cordova that Soil Born Farms started leasing this year (the organization has a second site on Hurley Way in Sacramento).

Dressed in baggy pants and a tattered polo shirt with a wool stocking hat pulled down over his eyebrows, Holland looks more like he’s ready to play hacky sack than root out vermin in five acres of vegetables. But make no mistake, he views farming as an integral part of life.

“It just makes sense to be close to your food,” he said. “Most critters have to be close to their food one way or another. They either hunt for [it] or they spend a lot more time thinking about their food.”

This summer, Holland will be immersed in his food. On that particular Friday morning, he installed a floating row cover—a kind of low-lying white canopy—to protect crops from pesky opportunists, such as the rabbits that inhabit this wild, riverside parcel. More pernicious still are the various insects that must be squashed by hand. Holland has waged defensive campaigns against flea beetles and darkling beetles and is gathering intelligence on a third, yet-to-be-identified beetle that he described as “white and knobby and jumps a lot.”

Contrary to popular perception, farming is not as easy as planting a seed and watching it grow. Farm manager Jared Clark said the season has already been full of “unforeseen challenges,” many of which have fallen under the purview of Holland’s bug patrol. But the apprentice is ready for whatever challenges lie ahead.

“That’s what farming is,” he said. “Throughout real life, you have your ideals and what really happens.”

Holland shows wisdom beyond his years. Maybe it’s the influence of growing up on his father’s farm outside Sacramento or the fact that he was home schooled for most of high school, allowing him to spend more afternoons helping his dad and reading books.

“I’ve always been a little off-center as far as interests and pursuits,” he said. “I was reading a lot of Beat period [literature] when I was in junior high.”

Two of his favorite authors are Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, which might explain the traces of Zen philosophy that led him down a road less traveled to becoming an urban farm apprentice. He attended El Dorado Center, a branch of Folsom Lake College, for awhile and worked at a grocery store, but Holland said he doesn’t do well in “hierarchical structures.” It took only a week of canvassing for CalPIRG to realize he was in the wrong place. A stranger amidst the artifices of city life, Holland grew restless and bored and yearned to return to the farm.

“I do a lot better when everybody just has to put their head down and work hard and everyone’s participating and doing the work together,” he said. But he’s not just another hippie on the commune. He’s more like a toddler in a playground who, when his parents aren’t watching, helps build a towering sandcastle with all the other children.

Holland thrives on cooperation, which dovetails nicely with Soil Born’s egalitarian approach to food access. He recognizes how industrial agriculture corrupted what was once a more natural part of existence and made it difficult for underserved communities to secure healthy food at a decent price. He believes urban organic farming can be the great equalizer by providing people with better, healthier produce.

“If people realize that the best tomatoes come from your backyard,” Holland said, “They’re not going to buy the crappy ones in the store.”

Part of Holland’s job as an apprentice is to educate the next generation of suburbanites about farming. American River Ranch is one block from Cordova High School, and a class of students visits the farm weekly to watch vegetables transform from seed to food, and learn how with a little elbow grease and tender-loving care, they too can grow food in their own backyards.

Holland’s not sure what’s next for him after the apprenticeship ends in November. He hopes to travel Europe, but he knows one way or another he’ll keep farming. For this precocious agronomist, it’s only natural.