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Volunteer Elsa Rivera distributing food at The Big Share.

Big Sur residents make it through tough times together

We may all be people of this earth, but some of us are truly people of the land. For Clovis Harrod the siren call of Big Sur was irresistible. “It was like a lover who called to her,” says her granddaughter Helen Handshy. In the early 1950s, Harrod backpacked in Big Sur with a friend and it changed her life forever. Falling in love with the area, she left her husband in southern California and took her two children to start a new life in the coastal community, waitressing while building a homestead on five acres of untamed land. “I live in the cabin which was the first structure Clovis built; it has a plastic corrugated roof,” Handshy told us.

Although she spent her childhood in Big Sur, as a teen Handshy found herself restless for the outside world and moved away. Inevitably, she was drawn back. “Big Sur is not for everyone. It wasn’t always right for me. I came back because Clovis needed help with the property and it’s been a huge blessing. The experience has been amazing!” Handshy tends many garden beds and prolific citrus orchards and is constantly thinking about what to plant next—because sharing with others has become her life’s work. The pandemic made that clear.

Abundance from the humble farm started by her grandmother was part of the inspiration for The Big Share—a weekly food exchange where everything is free. Handshy and co-founder Joseph Bradford, with whom she worked at Nepenthe restaurant before 2020 changed everything, were worried about their coworkers and others who couldn’t get unemployment when the pandemic shuttered businesses along the scenic coast.

“What attracts people to this rugged and remote place is the very thing that makes it hard to connect. There’s no community center, no cell service,” she says. But when Handshy, Bradford and other community-minded residents started taking bounty to the Big Sur Grange every Monday to share, word spread quickly.

“We packed up veggies and citrus from our gardens in our truck. Other people brought what they had in abundance,” she says. “We encouraged people to disseminate to those in need. People started planning their trips around this exchange. If we can save 10 people a trip into town, it’s great!”

During lockdown, no restaurants were open and there are no grocery stores in Big Sur, so access to fresh produce was difficult. “You can’t get produce here unless you grow it yourself. It’s one of the biggest needs. People were so grateful,” she adds.

Helen Handshy and Joseph Bradford at Clovis Harrod’s farm in Big Sur.
Handshy returned to Big Sur when her grandmother needed help with the farm and that’s where the idea for The Big Share got its start.

Then others started bringing jams and prepared foods. Farmers called with excess produce. Donations of dried foods, eggs and dairy products came in. Someone arrived with a giant truck full of fresh chicken and Handshy had to scramble to rehome the bounty.

At one point, The Big Share was distributing 168 USDA farm boxes weekly. Handshy estimates the program has given away between 3,500 and 3,600 pounds of produce alone since it started last fall. Clearly, there is a big need.

Handshy says local chefs, like Nick Balla of COAST Big Sur, have pitched in to help. “Whenever we have excess produce we take it there and he turns it into something wonderful. He took fresh green beans and pickled them with horseradish.”

Balla, who moved from San Francisco to Big Sur three years ago, loves the community and shares the program’s values. “I like to work with what’s at hand, rather than what could be sourced. When Helen brought me extra potatoes and flour, we made focaccia and sourdough starter. We made 200 pounds of focaccia that we could happily share on Monday! We are super passionate about feeding and taking care of people.”

Beyond the pandemic, the fires, road closures and so forth, Handshy is thinking ahead to the next disaster and partnering with CABS, the Community Association of Big Sur. Coastal landowners and stakeholders started the group in 1962, largely to prevent the area from becoming a national park. Her program will take advantage of CABS’ nonprofit status, so that all fundraising and funding can be done through it.

“It will help us sustain this program, fund storage space and find a permanent home for The Big Share,” she says.

Big Sur resident Elsa Rivera, who also got involved in the effort, points out that it’s different from other food assistance programs. “It is truly a gifting economy of love and community. I’ve loved connecting important resources for Helen to help the local project grow and develop into a one-stop free shop where folks can come together safely to check on each other and feel connection when connection has been so lacking during COVID. It’s not focused on the subjective opinion of need; it’s sharing our humanity and friendship with each other.”

Another exciting piece of the program going forward is a garden incubator and seed exchange project underway on the 5-acre homestead.

“We want to help people start their own gardens, so we’re using our property as a pilot project to develop starts. We’re growing kale, lettuce, tomatoes. We’re spreading the love and we want everyone to do the same,” says Handshy.

Many who came to Big Sur decades ago planted fruit trees, but 90 percent of those homes are vacant now, with no caretakers. It’s an untapped and valuable resource, so they’re trying to contact owners to get permission to harvest.

If you have a garden in Big Sur that needs tending or harvesting, The Big Share team will help with that. About the only thing they can’t grow and provide is coffee. But given the generosity of the community, someone will likely step up and fill that need, too.

Says Handshy, “My dream is that every community in the world will be doing this. Share local! This is what I would like to see more of!” That dream is perhaps the most valuable thing she has to share.

The Big Share

About the author

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Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.