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Farming the Land & Building Community with the Bohemian Farmers Collective

When Peter Lowell’s opened in 2007 is was a mostly Vegetarian restaurant with a side of Veganism and Pescatarianism. Over the past 8 years, the menu has continued to evolve and now is highly omnivorous. Given Sonoma County’s affinity for animal husbandry – the community has responded favorably to this shift with only the occasional tiny rebellion.   Throughout it all, one of the dishes that as been on the menu since day one & has maintained its popularity, is the hearty and flavorful Gemischter Salat.   Delicate spicy greens, toasted pepitas, thinly sliced radish & beet all dressed in a roasted beet vinaigrette and finished with goat chevre – what’s not to love? While most can’t pronounce the name of this salad, they continue to order it with dedication and joy, often without even a sideways glance at the escarole Caesar or farm lettuces. It is for this reason, that we take a moment to share the story of this salad.

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For starters, Gemischter is a German word that means ‘mixed’ and Salat translates to ‘salad’ – simply put, ‘Mixed Salad’. While ‘Gemischter Salat’ is a more interesting name for a salad, it is also a small personal tribute to the time that the PL’s owner, Lowell Sheldon, spent cooking in Berlin restaurants in his mid-twenties. If that gives the origin story for this salad’s name, the true genesis for the salad itself begins with the Bohemian Farmers Collective. In Sonoma County, farming is not just a vocation passed generationally. Whereas historically certain children of farming families would stay and inherit the helm & yoke of the family business while others left for the metropolis of “higher” education and culture, these days farming is taking it’s rightful seat amongst the younger generations as a vocation full of passion, science, intuition, love of land and connection to the natural world. It’s high time.

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Among such people, is the Bohemian Farmers Collective, a group of four women farming various locations all within Sonoma County. The very same year that PL’s opened to the public, these women – Sue Davis, Carly Castagnola, Annie Klein, & Bree Douma — found themselves in a seminal moment that brought them to the decision to jointly farm a piece of land together. In Sonoma County, the cost of land these days is inordinately expensive. The “simple life” has become incredibly difficult to live if ownership of land is a part of that equation. People that want to homestead – a full time job in and of itself – are off working side jobs so that they can pay rent on the land that they are homesteading. Not so simple. Ultimately, what these women didn’t have in property they made up for in community.  There were and are plenty of people in Sonoma County that own land but that don’t have the time or inclination to farm it and some of these folks are more than happy to share. The Boho Collective isn’t just tending land & the crops growing there – they are tending human relationships as they dance the delicate dance of farming for profit on someone else’s property and they are doing it really well with most of their land & landowner relationships 6-9 years old and ongoing.

Getting back to the Gemischter though! As friends and patrons of PL’s restaurant, they sat down with Lowell one day to design a salad mix that the Collective would grow, wash, and deliver ready to serve for 9 months out of the year (the other 3 are used for cover crops). Together they decided on baby kale and mustard greens (no spinach or lettuces!) with a rotating splash of less well-known but highly nutritious greens such as Shungiku, an edible chrysanthemum varietal, Red Orach, and Golden Amaranth amongst others.

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The gift in this moment of synergy between farmer and restaurant owner has had a powerful ripple for both parties. For the restaurant, we are able to serve the Gemischter at the quality and consistency that we feel good about and for the farmers they have a steady income source for their product – a financial backbone that has allowed the Collective to branch out in riskier ways such as their new Seed Company set to go public this coming Winter 2015/16.   When such a love & respect-based reciprocity exists, relationships can deepen and deepen they have for the Collective and PL’s over the years. Early in the life of the restaurant when debts were piling up high & repayment seemed quite a ways off, some vendors severed relations. Others, such as the Boho Collective, through sitting at the table together and making commitments to the future, were able to weather the storm and in doing so grew closer. The Boho’s continued to deliver the Gemischter mix, agreements were kept, and from there a deeper sense of solidarity was established within the community.   For those prioritizing food – it’s locality, nutrient density, and it’s beauty – inherently these people are advocates for connective community as that is what it takes to foster such care with our food. Thankfully, for us, Sonoma County is full of such people.

We feature the Gemischter and its story not simply because of its success on our menu, but because its presence has been a creative point in our community whose ripple contributes to our sustainability. We harvest the story to remember how rich our lives are in the most simple of ways – planting seeds, harvesting leaves, preparation, nourishment, and the action that follows from such nourishment… how we all choose to use our precious energy – at the heart of everything we do we return to FOOD and the quality of our food’s story is a GAME CHANGER.

Wanna make the Gemischter at home? Read on…

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