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Photo Essay: Harvesting dreams

Published: Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Harvesting dreams
Palo Alto native makes weekly pilgrimage to sell his farm-fresh produce at downtown Farmers' Market

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Photographs by Norbert von der Groeben. Story by Andrew Thompson.

Early birds await the ringing of the bell that opens the market.

Every Saturday, Paul Fluke brings his crops to a little space between Forest and Hamilton Avenues where the true spirit of the open market manifests itself from 8 a.m. to noon.

His table at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market presents masses of shoppers with the arugula, broccoli, strawberries, parsley, squash and chard that were harvested at his Green Oaks Creek Farm in Pescadero in the preceding days.

Every nectarine and bunch of mushrooms, each fillet of fish at the market is the fruit of that vendor's own pride and labor.

"Most agriculture is just so removed and industrialized -- not very intimate," Fluke said. Here, "intimate" is perhaps the most apt word to describe everything from the organic production of the food to the friendly distribution to community customers.

A sign and an old oak mark the entrance to Green Oaks Creek Farm and Retreat in Pescadero. The farm is owned by Palo Alto native Paul Pfuke, who sells organic produce.

The idea for Green Oaks Creek was born when Fluke, a Palo Alto native, and his wife, Stephanie Jennings were graduate students in agricultural sciences at the University of Vermont.

"Everything you see around you has been an idea in my or Steph's head," Fluke said while cutting arugula at his farm on a hot Friday morning. "With a little effort, you see these ideas come to fruition, and then you're able to share it with others. So much of our work these days, you're just a cog in the wheel."

Green Oaks Creek not only provides Fluke and Jennings with their financial means and much of their nutritional livelihood, it's also a place of education, where those who have never created their own sustenance can gain that experience. The farmhands at Green Oaks Creek learn by performing much-needed work, and there is never a shortage of it on this 3-acre cornucopia.





Green Oaks owner Paul Pfluke waters seedlings in the greenhouse while his daughter, Anna, observes.


Lara Foy, an intern at Green Oaks Farm and Retreat, samples a strawberry in the field while harvesting food to sell at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market.


Burton Ring arranges the produce at the Green Oaks table at the market before the market opens.


Debora Metz carries a basket of food at the farmers' market.


Darryl Wong of Santa Cruz, totes boxes of organic strawberries to the barn.


Darryl Wong of Santa Cruz, totes boxes of organic strawberries to the barn.

While Fluke washed bunches of arugula in a basin next to the greenhouse in preparation for the next day's market, Lara Foy -- a farmhand who found Green Oaks Creek by word-of-mouth -- was bent over with a knife to harvest broccoli into a box she dragged down the rows. A few feet away, Jennings was on her knees picking strawberries and placing them into baskets.

It's taken long, hot, labor-filled days to nourish the produce in the boxes from seeds to food.

"Sometimes I have to really remind myself why we're doing it because it is really hard work and we don't make much money at all. I have to stand back and remind myself we're in a beautiful place and doing some good work," Jennings said.

Robin Pickard-Richardson and Daniel Klinkow, both visiting from Illinois, bring boxes of fresh picked organic greens in from the fields.

Early Saturday morning, Fluke set up his table in the parking lot on Gilman Street, the spot of the farmers' market. At 8 a.m., a bell rang and the people who had been eagerly waiting for the first pick of produce began their shopping. Two hours later, all of Fluke's strawberries were sold.

"I can't grow enough of those things," he said.

Any alienation that exists between people is removed at the market. Fluke talked with his customers, and they happily talked with him.

"I like the direct connection with the customers and just getting to know them," he said.

A man stopped at the Green Oaks Creek table and picked up a generously sized bunch of arugula.

"What am I going to do with this much arugula?" he asked.

"Make a salad," Fluke told him. "Put some strawberries on it, or some sweet dressing."

Customers peruse the organic offerings from Green Oaks Creek Farm and Retreat on a recent Saturday in Palo Alto. The farm grows organic vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit.

A woman standing in front of the table, noticing the absence of strawberries, chimed in. "Your strawberries were totally fantastic," she said.

When lunchtime came, Fluke went to barter with Ron Kent, a local vendor who runs Oaxaca Mexican Foods with his wife, Zaida. He asked Kent if he needed any vegetables.

"Do you have any celery?" Kent asked. Fluke didn't. Any lettuce? Nope. In fact, Fluke didn't have anything Kent needed at the moment -- but he would soon. So Kent made him a chicken enchilada, and Fluke told him to come back in the following weeks to pick up whatever he needed.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to give him," Fluke said while waiting for his lunch.

As the market drew to a close, Fluke walked around offering bags of broccoli, squash, and arugula to other vendors. A man wearing a Lion's Club T-shirt came around with a box that Fluke packed with surplus vegetables.

Burton Ring and intern Zack Azeez unload organic produce from their truck to sell at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market on a recent Saturday morning.

"It's a community event, and that's what I appreciate about the market," Fluke said of the place where two competitors can come together and willingly help each other at the end of the day, and where sellers take pleasure in their jobs and buyers in their errands. "I often kind of view it as more of a service."

Chief Photographer Norbert von der Groeben can be e-mailed at nvondergroeben@paweekly.com. Editorial Intern Andrew Thompson can be e-mailed at athompson@paweekly.com.

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