Like many of the farmers I encounter, Jerome Cunnie of the Garden Keeper has been growing food since a young age and can’t imagine doing anything else. In high school, Jerome worked at a local nursery in the vegetable section and was encouraged to take home leftover starts – as those who grow food are always intent on limiting waste and maximizing productivity.
Jerome started with artichoke starts that he planted in his mom’s backyard in Sonoma – and found that growing things he had planted with his own hands was both rewarding and exciting. Jerome knew that he had to keep growing things – and not just as a hobby or limited to a backyard garden. The encouragement from his first employer and his resulting gardening success spurred a lifelong commitment to cultivating healthy foods.
I was especially struck by Jerome’s deep appreciation of his unique vantage point of seeing life come “full circle here at the farm.” He went on to say that he “feels blessed to work outside” and that he “remembers that every day.”
I was reminded of the words of American novelist and farmer, Wendell Berry:
“Farmers farm for the love of farming.
They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants.
They love to work outdoors.
They love to live where they work and to work where they live.
They like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children.
They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide.”
Jerome’s greenhouse at Sonoma Broadway Farms is filled with a sea of microgreens – young seedling plants that are harvested after a few weeks when only small leaves are present. Microgreens are more nutritious than their fully grown parents and are rich in antioxidants and minerals. Some microgreens contain higher levels of enzymes, which can make them easier to digest.
The concentrated flavor of microgreens makes them appealing to chefs and restaurants who use them for ther intense flavors and as dramatic, sculptural garnishes for their dishes. Jerome also delivers his microgreens to local grocery stores where home chefs can also cook with them – or add them to salads, smoothies, or sneak a few into kid’s meals. The day I visited Jerome I sampled wasabi microgreens that he was preparing to deliver to Morimoto Napa, where food is elevated to an art form. The few small wasabi leaves I picked and tasted were equivalent to a teaspoon of mild horseradish. Any doubts I had about the incredible flavor of microgreens were quickly set aside.
Another customer is the Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil, which has been awarded Michelin Star awards 13 years in a row and whose website states that it provides “a memorable feast for the eyes and the senses.” Other notable customers include FARM at Carneros in the Napa Valley, Angele in downtown Napa, and Sonoma favorites Harvest Moon Cafe, The Red Grape and El Dorado Kitchen.
It’s easy to lose oneself in the sensory experience that fine dining offers as the courses are placed before us. Few of us think about all the kitchen staff involved, let alone the farmers who grew the foods that are part of the menu. The reality is that people like Jerome Cunnie are a vital part of the culinary adventure at a place like Morimoto Napa (or at any of his other restaurant accounts) by contributing to the flavor, presentation, and uniqueness of their dishes.
I did wonder, can a young family man rely on farming as a full-time profession? The answer is complicated – and not without acknowledging some of the many challenges that even large farms face. Namely, curve balls from nature in the form of years of drought – and a historic fire. Just as Jerome was establishing his greenhouse at Sonoma Broadway Farms, the North Bay wildfires hit. Even though the farm was spared, choking smoke lingered, tourists stayed away, and restaurants had many fewer customers which caused an immediate and drastic reduction in orders – a frightening scenario for any new business.
The community slowed to a crawl as it coped with the realities and the trauma of a historic wildfire. And as a result, Jerome’s plans for his new business took shape much slower than he had originally planned. Other challenges unique to the Sonoma Valley include less access to open land for farming, competition from vineyards for available land, and restrictive permitting and water use regulations. There is little that is simple or easy when it comes to farming.
Even though they weren’t there the day I first visited, Jerome’s wife and two children are actively involved in the family business and the entire family is committed to a wholesome lifestyle. They live what they believe and are committed to sharing their love of healthy eating and living with others. Jerome’s wife, Audrey Cunnie is a typical wife and mother who wears many hats.
Audrey makes deliveries, ensures customer service and satisfaction, and manages the website and social media. Audrey is also a vegan private chef and she hosts pop up farm to table dinners using Garden Keeper microgreens and organic produce from Sonoma Broadway Farms. Some events are pretty simple and others are more elaborate and include live music, farm tours, and specialty cocktails. Audrey’s philosophy that we should all “live and eat in color” manifests in her pop up menu choices, event decor, and in her energy and enthusiasm for food and hospitality.
Follow Audrey on Instagram @thegardenkeepersgirl to be part of her pop up dinners (etiher in person or virtually!) and to enjoy her healthy plant-based recipes. If you are hesitant about the taste of vegan recipes, you may reconsider after seeing Audrey’s “summer stacks” and “blackberry nice cream” which are featured on her Instagram feed.
Beyond the obvious benefit of providing nutritious food to the public, conscientious organic farmers also safeguard their communities. Responsible farming keeps pesticides out of our soil, waterways, and ground water. Plants improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, edible flowers that are now part of some of our meals help support the bee and insect population, and plants reduce soil erosion and offer habitats for birds and other wildlife. The actions of organic farmers help ensure a vital balance in our natural ecosystems.
When I aked Jerome for suggestions of a couple of plants that would be easy for beginning gardeners to grow, he suggested tomatoes and kale (Red Russian is his favorite). Kale is edible as soon as you see green leaves and tomatoes are equally easy to know when to harvest. A substantial tomato harvest can be had from a single barrell or water trough- and both can be easily netted if birds or squirrells discover your crop. Too much? Start with an herb garden on a windowsill. Once you begin to eat fresh food grown by hand, nothing else will ever quite measure up.
I will also end with the wisdom of Wendell Berry:
“The care of the earth is our most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility.
To cherish what remains of it, and to foster it’s renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”
Small, urban, organic farmers like Jerome give me hope with the commitment they make every single day to the health of our community and our planet.
They need our support and patronage and are so very deserving of our respect and gratitude.