|Wiley Connell (left) and Chris Everett, harvesting red Russian kale.|
“Having a bunch of dirty-ass surf bums hanging out all day, growing fat-ass veggies? It takes a special sort of landowner to be down with that.” (laughs)
Shaggy-blond and goateed Wiley Connell, 24, is referring to pro surfer Dan Malloy and his wife, Grace, who own the 2.5 acres called Stoke Grove Farm off this quiet, dead-end street in Meiners Oaks, a burg of 3,500 in the heart of the Ojai Valley, 70 miles north of Los Angeles. In its previous life, the dirt beneath us fostered an orchard, which morphed into a petting zoo that included Bengal tigers. In 2012, a dentist sold the land to the Malloys, who leased it to Wiley, this morning in a blue Clark Foam shirt, work boots, and boardshorts.
“Dan and Grace are so fired up about farming and are so supportive,” he tells me, “but, at the same time, they really know what’s cool and are very relaxed about everything here.”
It is 10:57 a.m. One hour ago, 2014’s spring equinox occurred. Connell and Chris Everett, 25, stand by an oak tree near a small duck pond. They’ve been harvesting since 8 a.m. On the farm, Everett is Connell’s right-hand man, a head of dense facial hair framed by nipple-length blond dreads. A talented guitarist and vocalist in Pleasure (a local rock band that, thanks to friend Connor Coffin, recently recorded at Hurley—Pleasure will perform live at the U.S. Open), today Everett wears ripped jeans, a green trucker hat, sandals, and a paisley button-up he found in the antique store that once employed him. Workwear? Only at Stoke Grove.
The two friends begin washing oranges and grapefruits in a large plastic barrel, the yellow and orange orbs floating in freshwater, ever-precious after California’s winter of severe drought.
“Since spring is here, things are really restarting,” Connell says. “Our field is looking glorious after a crazy winter—hardly any rain.” He scratches his tan forehead and points to the field’s fallow east end, a deliberate rectangle of weeds. “In Wiley’s world, all that should be waist-high by now. Winter is a time of rest and you’re just chilling, for the most part, but then spring comes and the wheels start to turn non-stop. In winter, everything grows slowly because there’s not much light, and it’s cold, there are tons of aphids, the ground is as hard as a basketball court. It’s a time to just sleep and surf.” (laughs)
Since its inception in early 2013, Everett, who grew up surfing with Wiley, has been deeply involved with Stoke Grove. “I always knew it was Wiley’s dream to have a farm of his own,” he says, rinsing lettuce, “and as soon as he talked about starting Stoke Grove, I was amped to help him. I got myself fired from my job (serving beer at Island Brewing Co. in Carpinteria) and have since been working under him and his expertise. It’s been a blast—some of the happiest times of my life, for sure.”
Around the wet, knee-high wooden platform behind him and Connell, three of Stoke Grove’s volunteer harvesters are boxing a colorful mix of rainbow chard, carrots, fennel, Chioggia beets, oranges, grapefruits, two types of kale, three types of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and celery. In an hour or so, the boxes will be driven to members of Stoke Grove’s CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), a popular program in which the public buys food directly from those who make it.
“This ‘duce (produce) fires people up, and since we’re around it and we grow it, we get to be a part of that process,” Connell says, dropping grapefruits into the boxes. “People freak out when they eat the ‘duce, but they also freak out because the vibe has been brought. And also doing things in unison with the earth and the way the earth does it, but at the same time, being functional within society.” (laughs)
“Which is kind of hard sometimes,” Everett says, also with a laugh.
“What’s the overall Stoke Grove mantra?” I ask them.
“To have a good time,” Wiley says, nodding. “Yeah.”
“For sure,” Chris says, shaking water from a purple head of lettuce. “Uphold the vibe and stoke people out with some good ‘duce, man. Soak up the sun all day. Be out there in the rows, vibing with the plants.”
“Do what’s right, you know?” Wiley says.
“What is right?” I ask.
He hands me a carrot, pulled from the soil 15 minutes ago. I take a bite and chew. Ah, yes—this is exactly right.