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With a patchwork of dreamy ranch and farm lands, the Half Moon Bay Coastside is a hub of vibrant food and horticulture. Offering a rare peek inside this dynamic agricultural community, the annual Farm + Fish + Flowers event guides participants through local farms, nurseries, and ranches that are not usually open to the public.

Formerly known as Tour des Fleurs, the twenty-five year old event held each July offers a wonderful opportunity for home gardeners, foodies, nature lovers, and anyone curious about how small farms inform local communities.

In recent years, prominent writers and chefs like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters have encouraged us to explore the origins of our food. Yet books and films could never replace the experience of visiting a working farm in real life. Like a Hollywood backlot tour for fans of food and agriculture, farm outings relay the daily struggles, clever innovations, and family histories that could enliven a fiery novel. Farm + Fish + Flowers captures these stories along with the breathtaking scenery that make the Half Moon Bay Coastside such a compelling ecotourism destination.

Oku Nursery

One participating site that exemplifies the rich experiences of local family farms is Oku Nursery. Family-run since its founding in 1902, Oku’s notable history includes helping found the San Francisco Flower Market in 1956 and being the first to ship cut flowers east of the Rocky Mountains when New Orleans needed blooms for All Saints Day. Today, Oku continues that innovative tradition by growing flowers and lettuces via hydroponics, or without soil. In greenhouses hand-built by the Oku family, fragrant lilies, vivid gerbera daisies, and lustrous ranunculus sprout from ground coconut husk which, unlike soil, is not subject to volatility. Nearby, state-of-the-art structures hold football fields of leafy lettuce heads resting over pools of nutrient-enriched water. When the nursery was established, it served a local market before shipping advancements sent everything back East. Today, thanks to a strong local food movement, Oku and other regional farmers have come full circle selling their crops to local restaurants and farmers’ markets.

Like Oku, members of the local ag community are thinking of creative new ways to diversify and sustain their farms. Educational nonprofit The HEAL Project transformed a gorgeous plot of farmland into an outdoor classroom for local school children. With the goal of imparting healthy eating habits and a respect for sustainable agriculture, the San Mateo County School Farm welcomes elementary and high school students to construct herb gardens, harvest produce, and prepare meals in an outdoor kitchen. There’s even a bicycle-powered blender for fresh berry smoothies.

Rocket Farms Succulents

“You wouldn’t believe how creative our kids are,” says Naomi Stern, the farm educator who engages young participants in Iron Chef style competitions. The farm’s berries appear each Saturday at the Coastside Farmers’ Market at a booth staffed by youth volunteers. Drop by and say hi, or swing by the farm on a Friday when The Heal Project invites the public to help harvest for the next morning’s market.

Over at Miramar Farms, a dramatically scenic farm is used to foster wellness and mindfulness in adults. Mark and Jane Battey fled the confines of corporate life to reconnect with their natural surroundings and share their discoveries with others. Senior staff from major firms throughout the Bay Area come to team build, develop leadership practices, and, as the driving instructions to the farm encourage, “take a deep breath.”

“Our setting provides the antithesis of a corporate environment where participants feel free to take off the armor,” says Jane who confesses to not being the picture of Zen back in her corporate days. As a bonus, Miramar Farms sits immediately adjacent to Figone Nursery, another Farm + Fish + Flowers participant, whose vibrant dahlia fields light up its surroundings.

The HEAL Project

To lend a sense of the region’s agricultural prominence, Farm + Fish + Flowers offers a behind the scenes look at Bay City Flower Company, one of the largest hydrangea producers in the nation. Just up the road, Rocket Farms grows nearly every rose and holiday poinsettia sold at everyday, big name stores.

Participants tour hangar-sized greenhouses of budding roses and otherworldly Venus fly traps, peppering staff with questions like how to spur stubborn basil plants or coaxing roses to bloom a second time.

The Coastside is home to innovative farmers like Ouroboros Farms who employ future-looking practices like aquaponics. Then there are those like Markegard Grass Fed who look to the past. With wooly cattle roaming grassy hills, frolicsome pigs sloshing in cooling mud, and Freedom Ranger chickens pecking at bugs in open fields, a visit here is like stepping back to a pre-industrial time. The sweeping grassland ranch feels like the cinematic setting for some classic western and is tended by the Markegards, a handsome family usually found dressed in dusty jeans and cowboy hats. Erik Markegard is a sixth generation cattle rancher who has stewarded this land for 30 years. Out in the fields, his wife Doniga and 8-year-old daughter Quill herd cattle with the sing-songy call of “ah-vai.” Visitors can find Markegard’s grass-fed and pastured meats at local eateries such as Old Princeton Landing as well as online at markegardfamily.com.

With an appreciation of the area’s rich legacy and tradition, Farm + Fish + Flowers also highlights historical sites that gave rise to the region’s agriculture boom. Participants step inside the 1850s James Johnston House, an iconic New England saltbox home that sits prominently atop a countryside hill. Attendees can also join a historian-led walking tour of downtown structures that date back to Spanishtown, the original name given to Half Moon Bay and the first city to be founded in San Mateo County.

Farm + Fish + Flowers participants are also invited to explore the docks at PIllar Point Harbor, home to one of the largest fishing fleets in Northern California. Dungeness crab, king salmon, and sand dabs are just some of the seafood that visitors can purchase directly from boats returning from long nights at sea. Other notable stops include the sustainable farming practices of Ananda Valley Farm, native drought-resistant plants at Yerba Buena Nursery, adorable goats and heavenly cheeses at Harley Farms, and traditional local crops such as Brussels sprouts and artichokes at Giusti Farms.

One of the easiest ways for visitors to experience the Coastside’s year-round bounty is via the weekly Coastside Farmers’ Market. Founder Erin Tormey leads Farm + Fish + Flower participants through vibrant displays of local produce while engaging with farmers and enjoying the literal fruits of their labor.

“It’s made my life very rich,” Tormey says of her role managing the farmers’ market and owning her own farm. “Every day I gaze upon something beautiful and soul nourishing. I’m sure there are people who have two commas in their paycheck that couldn’t say the same thing.”

HOW TO PARTICIPATE
The annual Farm + Fish + Flowers event is held on the last Saturday in July. Tickets are available beginning May 1st and sell out soon afterwards. Participants can choose from six itineraries that include three tour destinations. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber website at hmbchamber.com or call (650) 726-8380.

Garrick Ramirez is a freelance writer and photographer who loves sharing compelling destinations within California. As a native, he has yet to tire of exploring the many cities, small towns, and natural splendor found throughout the state. His travel guides have appeared in the SF Chronicle, Via Magazine, and The Mercury News among others. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.