Longtime farmer Bill Spencer has a habit of calling his sheep “kids.” It’s watering time out at Windrose Farm in east Paso Robles, and the whole fluffy flock—one-week-old lambs, nursing moms, and shaggy old maids—trot happily to a big, plastic bucket filling rapidly with cool water.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- WORK WITH NATURE: During Thomas Hill Organics’ first Table to Farm Dinner held in late April, Executive Chef Tim Veatch worked with the spring bounty provided by Windrose Farm in Paso Robles.
In his straw hat and dusty blue jeans, Spencer is truly in his element. He’s not really one to do “sit-down interviews,” and his best quotes tend to escape from the corners of his mouth while working. If he’s not climbing through barbed wire, he’s probably fixing it.
Spencer cups the face of one little lamb, pointing out her unique fur, a mottled black and white cloud.
“Well hiya, Calico!” Spencer coos, revealing that he isn’t above playing favorites with his children. See, Spencer knows how to talk to sheep without making them skittish. He also knows how to humanely slaughter them without fear and undue stress.
Most of all, Spencer and his wife, Barbara, know how to get out of the way of Mother Nature, allowing the ruminants to work their ancient magic on the soil—abating grasses and clearing the way for healthy crops. Since 1990, the couple have committed themselves to doing no harm to the land.
Out here, “biodiversity” isn’t some vague term: It’s all around, from the 12 acres of vegetable rotations and 6 acres of apples and stone fruit and apple orchards to the 5 acres of sheep pasture. The remainder of the 50-acre patch of land is home to mostly benevolent animals and insects, a deliberate decision that has propelled the farm above and beyond the sum of its parts. This is the overarching theme of the day—and it will all culminate deliciously at Thomas Hill Organics’ first Table to Farm Dinner.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- NATURE’S CANDY: Spring carrots and beans make for a lush side dish.
The Paso Robles sun is still hot, the color of real butter, as the first wave of dusk settles over the valley. Once home to a rushing river, the alluvial soil is still rich with the ghosts of aquatic life, layered with nutrients that bolster more than 40 kinds of heirloom tomatoes and a dozen or so strains of garlic. We hop in Spencer’s electric golf cart and take off bounding over the bumpy dirt path, past newly planted potatoes and rusty farm equipment. We park in the cool, covered barn that serves as Spencer’s workspace. A clutch of bicycles leans against the metal siding, the best way for guests and farm workers to get around the 50-acre property.
On foot, I make a final pass through the farm’s bountiful greenhouses, where Barbara loves to linger over buds and branches. Stepping into the greenhouse is like stepping into a landscape painting, amplified. It smells hot and herbaceous like a steam room filled with mint and mustard, and I can feel cool pockets of wetness—sprinklers—as I walk the green rows. Tiny heads of lettuce the size of matchbooks give way to big, buxom bunches splotched with red and white speckles.
Between the greenhouses the biodiversity is palpable: Delicate tendrils of fennel climb higher than my head. Birds of all ilk flit around—or was that one a butterfly? Barbara is just wrapping up two FARMstead Ed classes, one on how to grow heirloom tomatoes and another on planting your own herb box. As the humans wind down, the crickets and critters spring to life.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- SPRINGING TO LIFE: New lambs graze on golden grasses at Windrose Farm in Paso Robles this spring.
I’m making my way toward the heart of the farm, toward the Spencer’s front yard, where their ancient “grandfather oak tree” towers above a long, wooden table. I’m walking toward supper, toward Thomas Hill Organics’ inaugural Table to Farm Dinner. It feels like the perfect way to spend the Sunday after Earth Day—consuming the greenery of spring with new friends.
A group of about 10 assemble on the lawn, drinks in hand. Spencer points to the grandfather tree, home to a large beneficial beehive as well as a host of birds.
“This tree is a great metaphor for life as we know it,” Spencer says. “It’s always surrounded by carnivorous oak woodpeckers, and the great mystery is, ‘Why are they taking all the time to pick up acorns and stuff them in an oak tree if they only eat meat?’ Well, the truth is that they’re farming. Farming worms.”
At the community table, harvest is soon delivered. New Thomas Hill Organics Executive Chef Tim Veatch, formerly of farm-to-table hot spot Camino in Oakland, is plating thick spears of asparagus over a creamy base of egg, yogurt, capers, and lemon. We can all smell the fat cooking off chicken skin in a nearby smoker—a massive antique fitted with a grill forged from an old steel wagon wheel.
This Table to Farm dinner may be setting with the sun, but Owner Debbie Thomas can assure you there are more on the horizon, including a dinner on July 9 at Adelaida Springs Ranch, home of Rangeland Winery in Paso Robles. A third date, location TBA, is slated for October. Like healthy crops, the settings will rotate, but the ethos remains: Dine closer to the ground and you will be more grounded to your dinner.
Hayley Thomas is waiting in the greenhouse for seconds at email@example.com.