An appreciation of the nine
hands of five local farmers
By Patrice Vecchione
Photography by Michelle Magdalena
Each hand has 27 bones, 40 tendons, and 20 muscles, giving us the ability to hold, rotate, bend, grasp, flex, parse, dig, fold, lift, prune, plant and more. Some of our bodies’ densest nerve endings are found in our fingers.
This past spring, interviews with local farmers about their hands took me on a tour of five rural locales of our Monterey Bay area—fields in Moss Landing overlooking the ocean; a hilltop farm in San Martin that’s home to many bees, rabbits and chickens, as well as three cows and one beekeeper; a sequestered Aromas farm where multitudes of bright lemons hang heavily from tree branches; land near Chualar, off River Road, where the asparagus had just begun shyly poking their green and purple heads above the soil; and finally, a greenhouse farm in the lush hills of Corralitos. Farmers Ronald Donkervoort, Lynne Bottazzo, Tom Coke, Maria Luz Reyes and Ken Kimes all took time out to discuss the most basic tools of their trade, and, in the case of one farmer—what happens when one is lost.
RONALD DONKERVOORT: Windmill Farm
Looking west from Ronald Donkervoort’s Moss Landing farm, the ocean greets you; on this bright morning, an ocean breeze rises up, too. Like many of us, one thing Ronald does with his hands is talk. But before our conversation can really begin, he tips his hat, says he’ll be right back and rushes off to quickly repair a small leak in his irrigation system. When he returns, he’s holding a very large red-handled screwdriver that emphasizes the points his hands make.
Ronald’s bright blue eyes are nearly covered by his low-to-the-forehead hat, but his effortless smile is radiant. Maybe that’s because he’s a man doing what he loves. Having just returned from a month’s camping trip near Death Valley, he’s happy to be back working the land. “You should have come last week,” Ronald says. “I hit my thumb with a 5-pound sledgehammer!” he says, pointing to the healing wound.
“My hands change throughout the year. After winter, they’re a little soft, and then they get roughed up by the season. I look forward to the end of winter; I’m ready to plant seeds again. It’s magic growing food. When farming, you can clear your brain.”
No chairs out here, so we settle down on the gate of his truck for a chat, looking out at the wide expanse of the growing field.
“I took my hands for granted, really, until another local farmer had an accident,” Ronald tells me. “Now, I’m more careful. I look at my hands in a different way. I couldn’t do much without them—I drive a tractor, bend over to set gopher traps, plant seeds.”
Ronald grows strawberries, potatoes, spinach and beets, “only heirloom,” he says, “nothing hybridized.” When I ask him about the farmers’ markets where he sells his produce, he replies, “People trust me. I grow their fruits and vegetables. I’ll say, ‘These potatoes were picked two hours ago. Cook them tonight.’ I hand them goods; they hand me money, and they tell me stories, secrets even, about their lives.”
Ronald asks if I’d like some strawberries before I go, hands me one basket and takes another himself. Out to the field we go, quickly filling both baskets with the sweetest berries that I don’t eat first. Before I drive away, Ronald holds up his hands, smiles and says, “Tonight, I’ll play table tennis with my hands!”
LYNNE BOTTAZZO: Amen Bee Products
After a greeting hug, Lynne leads me on a walk around her farm, stopping first at the bees. We crouch together under a low-hanging vine; the scents of orange, lemon and bergamot corral me, and they corral the bees that are Lynne’s livelihood. Once upon a time, Lynne—a striking, hardworking, silver-haired woman—was an opera singer. Her chickens, with feathers so dark they’re nearly black, lift their heads from their pecking in response to her cooing voice, as anybody would.
Lynne’s farm is on a hill, so we head up, walk beside nectarine, quince and apricot blossoms bright against the storm-readying March sky. Lynne shows me the result of drought on many of the trees. Holding a branch with sad-looking flowers, she says, “Look, no bees. So dry are these trees that the flowers have no pollen. No pollen, no bees.
“I don’t wear gloves when I work with the bees because I wouldn’t be able to feel them and likely they’d get killed. I need to be delicate with the bees, sensitive to their needs.
“I look closely at other women’s hands,” Lynne tells me. “First, they’re a sign of femininity and, second, a symbol of strength. They’re not only infinite doers, but also takers. Hands can animate or deflate, carry the weight of a baby or that of the world.”
She ducks into the hen house and returns, handing me an egg warm from the nest, which becomes tomorrow’s breakfast. Then I’m off, while Lynne continues the work of her farm, singing to the animals as she goes.
TOM COKE: Coke Farm
At 85, Tom Coke still farms his 12 acres. He says, “I’m not planning on retiring; this is my life.”
A handsome, angular, white-haired man who often wears denim overalls, Tom Coke thinks of himself as taciturn, but I tell him he’s too warm a person for that. Even his big knobby hands are welcoming. He points the way up the stairs and opens the door for me into his widewindowed home that overlooks the green expanse of eucalyptus. He and his wife Laurie built this house and shared it for many years. For a little while, though, Laurie’s failing memory has required the care of a skilled nursing facility. Before lunch, we get to the business of hands. “My hands used to do what I told them to,” Tom tells me, “but now, not so much.”
Holding his hands in front of him, he examines them before continuing, “I don’t find them outstanding in any way, but if character comes from nicks and crannies, then maybe so.
“The things I perform with my hands are essential—on a small farm you do everything. My hands prune trees, wash dishes, make my dinner. I’d be lost without them even though I put them at risk when I shouldn’t. They get chapped and the skin splits, and then I have to pay attention. My body, in general, has survived with very little care and served me well.
“I hoe, prune trees, cut down large trees—but don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do that. Though I’m not so good at it, I do some welding and the things tend to stay together. I do plumbing, irrigation, electrical—anything that needs to be done. Some things I can’t do anymore. In the past there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try.” When I ask what tender things he does with his hands, he hesitates before answering. “Anymore? Not much,” he says, staring off into the distance.
But his face lights up as he recalls, “A chicken was dying. Kids had come to visit, so I had to resurrect her. I picked the chicken up, stroked her, gave her food and water. I made a bed for her so she’d be protected. Been going on three weeks. She seems to appreciate the care, seems glad to see me.” I’ll bet that chicken’s glad to see Tom. His care is everywhere about this well-tended farm. “Hands allow us to know intimately, now don’t they?”
Then it’s time to toss the salad made from his lettuce, slice the quiche and sit down for lunch together.
MARIA LUZ REYES: La Milpa Farm
Maria Luz Reyes calls her farm La Milpa, a reference to an ancient agricultural system that comes from the Mayans. Like organic farming, it works with nature, honoring the need for land to lie fallow following years of production and encouraging the raising together of plants that benefit one another, like corn, squash and beans.
Her farm is set close to the hillside down a dirt track off River Road; it’s difficult to find, but there she stands in late afternoon at the edge of one of her fields, happily waving me down.
Maria grows a long list of vegetables—over 30 of them in all—including dino kale, cauliflower, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, artichokes, bell peppers, radishes and cilantro.
When I ask this petite powerhouse of a woman with a twinkle in her eye how she feels about her hands, she says she likes the feel of the earth on them, but she is embarrassed by how they look. Eighteen years of working in the fields has taken their toll. When harvesting tomatoes, the stalks prick her hands; the soil gets under her nails; the hard manual labor causes her skin to crack.
Yet her fingers are slender and pretty—she works her hands hard, but clearly she also tends to them. She says that when she goes to the market to sell her vegetables, “I wear gloves to cover them up.”
When I complain about my own hands and extend them to her, she looks closely, “And you don’t work in the fields?” We both laugh. Maria Luz Reyes’ studious youngest son has reluctantly left his homework to come out to the field to ably translate for us. When I ask, Edgar says, “Yes, I’m proud of my mother.” They both smile wide and long.
KEN KIMES: New Natives Farm
For nearly 40 years Ken Kimes and Sandra Ward’s New Natives has been always new—each crop of organic sprouts takes a mere 10 days to grow. Walking into the wheatgrass greenhouse at their Corralitos farm, one enters a moist, tropical, and oh, so green world. Ken and Sandra also grow alfalfa, pea shoots, sunflower sprouts, broccoli and beans. Enter the greenhouse where the arugula is being harvested and it’s like walking into an Italian kitchen.
When I come to this farm to talk about hands, it’s an entirely different story. A few years ago, at just the wrong moment, Ken reached into a seed conveyer while it was running, in order to pull something out. His arm got caught in the machine. That momentary action changed Ken’s life forever. He lost his arm.
Ken says, “Four seconds. Why that four seconds? Experience told me I could reach into the machine and do this. But I made a mistake.” It gets quiet, but that quiet isn’t calm at all. “Farmers work around dangerous equipment all the time,” Ken adds.
After a walk around the farm, we settle into Ken and Sandra’s small office; the cool spring morning rushes in. Ken says, “I took one look at my arm after the accident and decided I didn’t want to look at it again. Before this, I didn’t understand what trauma means. Trauma actually changes how the brain functions, causing the fight-or-flight mode to come to the fore.
“Not having two hands and trying to farm,” Ken begins, pauses, looking for the next words. “The best I can say is it takes a lot longer and it tries my patience. I still do most of what I did before—plumbing, electrical, whatever needs doing, but even after nearly four years, I still have to adapt to a beginner’s mind.
“The community support was incredible. Even while I was still out of it, fundraisers were being organized. People brought food. I figured if the community was going to support me like that, I’d better stick around.”
Ken holds up his one big hand. “Losing my hand was like losing a steady, trusted friend who was always there and never complained. I cannot believe I was ever unhappy in my life when I had two hands.”
Monterey artist and writer Patrice Vecchione’s latest book, Step into Nature: Nurturing Imagination and Spirit in Everyday Life, was recently published by Simon & Schuster/Beyond Words. For her upcoming events, go to www.patricevecchione.com.