Meet the owners of a Salinas Valley permaculture farm that grows unusual ingredients for top local chefs
It’s tiny, just a quarter acre of mixed flowers and vegetables tucked into the vast plowed fields of monocropped lettuce that surround it, but the All Good Things farm is a microcosm, a seed of possibility, a beginning.
Owners TJ Silva and Carli Cullen are young themselves and if they have stars in their eyes, they also have their feet (and hands) firmly in the earth. Their permaculture-inspired garden in Chualar, riotous with color and garnished with chance seedlings left to flourish where they germinate, makes a beautiful kind of sense. It is not the sense of tractors and straight lines. It’s a sense of abundance that pervades the farm, an awareness of the inherent beauty and value of life cycles, a trust in the beneficence of ecosystems—and regular applications of compost.
“We grow intensively and enough for everybody,” says Silva, as we walk through the garden, stepping over cardboard sheet mulch inoculated with Stropharia mushroom spawn. “That means enough for the bugs, for the birds, for the ducks and for us.”
The garden (and garden is the word I keep returning to, though it is indeed a working farm; it feels like a garden, full of personality and whimsy) is full to the brim; in fact, it’s spilling over into the margins and creeping to the edges of a small plot, outside the fenced garden. The farm as an entity is growing, too; the farmers have recently begun to work another plot of land, nearby. Still small by conventional standards, the new space is covered now in a rank overgrowth of poison hemlock, but the two can already see what it will become: an acre of food forest, with more fruits and perennials than their current garden has room for.
All Good Things farm began in 2017, a natural outgrowth of the excess from Silva and Cullen’s first attempts at subsistence farming. When they had eaten all they could, and given away to the neighbors all that they would take, the couple reached out to local food banks to take the rest, a practice that they still observe. A friend asked them if they planned to start a CSA, and the answer was a hearty “Sure, for you!” But the farm kept producing more than the growers could use themselves, and soon they realized that the CSA model could indeed provide a way for them to share the bounty of their harvests.
The farm now runs a CSA program for around 30 families from March through November, filling each box with a farmer’s choice blend of leafy greens like radicchio, mizuna, mustard greens and kale, as well as more obscure Asian greens and various heirloom vegetables from around the globe, which consumers may not have encountered before.
“We grow intensively and enough for everybody. That means enough for the bugs, for the birds, for the ducks and for us.”
“Try one of these,” Silva says, grinning, as he plucks a pair of 6-inch-long seedpods off of what looks like a blooming mustard plant. It’s rat-tail radish, grown for its wavy pods. The flavor is pungent without being overbearing, harboring sweetness from the half-formed seeds inside the sheath of a crispy brassica exterior.
CSA boxes will often include such delicacies as the rare radish pods or pepino dulce melons or Chinese cutting celery grown for its leaves rather than the ribbed stems we’re familiar with, as well as mixed bouquets of flowers.
In each box, the couple includes recipes and cooking notes, especially for more unusual ingredients, exposing their customers to cuisines and cooking traditions beyond the fertile green fields of the Salinas Valley.
It’s not all tatsoi and tree tomatoes, though. The farm, and the proprietors’ vision, is also full of flowers. Cullen worked for local catering company A Taste of Elegance when she and Silva first started growing and at one point, her employer asked if she had any edible flowers. She did, indeed. From that first encounter has evolved a thriving set of relationships with high-end restaurants and caterers who source vegetables, edible petals and bouquets from All Good Things. You might have smelled their flowers or tasted their vibrant greens at Crema in Pacific Grove, or at La Balena or Il Grillo in Carmel, to name a few. Cullen and Silva also provide produce and flowers for catered events, forage for wild mushrooms in the winter months and grow vegetables and flowers on consignment for weddings and special events. “Chefs talk to each other,” Cullen says with a smile.
Silva agrees. “Word of mouth has been our best advertisement. And social media, which I was always against before, but it’s really helped us since we started this farm,” he admits ruefully. It was through Instagram that the duo was able to first connect with executive chef Hollie Jackson of Crema and La Crème catering. After that, their business took off as the good word began to spread, from chef to chef.
The pair hopes chefs keep talking to each other, building momentum for the future. While Silva and Cullen begin to clear the hemlock that covers their new growing grounds, they are already looking forward to a time when they will farm their own land and set up permaculture farming on a larger scale. Someday, they know, they’ll leave this sweet little plot behind. As we stand, surrounded by blooming brassicas and swelling onions, we imagine what it will look like then, the flowers all gone to seed, the rows softened and indistinguishable.
So many wild seeds have been sown here that the ground will continue to sprout delicacies long after the two move on, telling the story of All Good Things in flavors and textures and the hum of pollinators, a tiny enduring oasis of diversity amidst plowed fields.
It’s only a few days after our meeting that I see fresh news from the All Good Things folks. TJ proposed to Carli, hiding the engagement ring in a box of dahlias they were planting. Spoiler alert: She said yes.
Jessica Tunis lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains and spends her time tending gardens, telling stories, and cultivating adventure and good food in wild places.