Food security is when it’s local

Paul, Yael, and Zureal Bernier - Organic Garlic Farmers, Bernier Farms, Geyserville, California

News | 22 September 2020
Bernier Farms is a well-known organic garlic family farm that uses dry farming techniques in Sonoma County, California. Zureal with his parents, Paul and Yael, take a moment in their garlic drying shed which has some 14 varieties of garlic. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
“We’ve been farming the same way people have farmed for the past 80 years,” says Zureal Bernier. “We don’t use a lot of mechanized pickers, sorters or cleaners. It’s really hand-labor for the most part.”

Zureal Bernier and his parents, Paul and Yael, are well known around northern California for the high quality of the certified organic garlic they produce at Bernier Farms in Geyserville. For Yael and Paul, who have been at it since the early 1970s, farming is not just work, but an irreplaceable way of life.

“I grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula,” Paul remembers. “It was getting more and more developed and a lot of the wild spots were getting paved over. I did a lot of different jobs and just sort of fell into farming. I started out as a laborer and was never formally trained. I just picked up the knowledge that it took to keep going.”

Growing up as a city kid, Yael vividly remembers when her family sent her and her sister to work on a farm outside Sacramento one summer. “My sister hated it and she became a city person for the rest of her life. But I loved getting my hands in the dirt. That farming experience was a key moment for me. I loved the animals, drinking warm cow’s milk, and all the things that went with it.”

Zureal has been working on his parents' farm “from the time I was tall enough to pull weeds all the way into high school” he says. But it was the year Zureal spent as an exchange student at an agricultural school in Argentina that helped him decide on his working future.

“There were a lot of kids my age who decided they were going into agriculture. I saw it could be a viable direction for me, too. I came back and ended up going to school for it. I’ve worked other jobs, but I’ve mostly been in agriculture for the past 20 years.”

Zureal demonstrates how his father Paul’s invention – a sled for preparing the herb beds – saves time in planting new crops. Paul has rehabilitated several old Lamborghini tractors for the farm. Tractors were Lamborghini’s main product that preceded their state of the art luxury sports cars. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
Yael said they decided to “really diversify” the farm because they “went in the direction of selling to restaurants. We found that having a lot of choice on our product list really boosted our clientele quite well.”

Many restaurants had started promoting the “farm-to-table” label and then a larger number of people living in cities flocked to Farmers Markets to buy vegetables from the source, and this really helped them expand their product line. Paul said that they grow “probably 30 different vegetables, grapes, herbs, walnuts and fruit trees, especially figs. But our organic garlic is our largest crop.”

As the next generation, Paul has some ideas on how the operation will move forward. “I like what we do with garlic, grapes and the orchard but I am thinking of eventually narrowing down the number of crops we grow to about ten,” he says.

But one thing will not change, says Paul. “We will keep it in farmland. That’s what I will do for a full time living whether my three kids go into it or not. The more kids you have,” he adds with a laugh, “the better the chance one of them will follow in your footsteps.”

“The way technology is going, in the vineyards for example, machines do it all” says Paul. “It’s so mechanized, human hands don’t even touch the grapes anymore. But our hands touch what we grow. And we get paid for it.”

Not everyone is cut out for the hand labor that goes into farming and finding workers is always a problem, says Paul. But he is observing an interesting new trend in the potential labor force. “While kids from the country might be heading to the city, we are seeing city kids who want to come to the country,” he says. “Half of our field workers are college graduates. It may not be a life profession for them, but they see the value in it.”

From an early age, Yael loved having her hands in dirt and being on a farm. She started farming in 1974 and still loves working the farm. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
Over the past ten years, the Berniers have welcomed around 35 young people from around the United States and as far away from Europe to stay with them and work on the farm.

“The whole idea is to give them the farm experience,” says Yael. “We have gotten some really interesting people. Some of them have gravitated toward it permanently, either growing food or something in the way of making food policy.”

Paul and Yael are very proud of their fair treatment of their workers. “We’ve always felt that everybody should make a decent living. We pay almost double the minimum wage and that’s worked out for us. If we have to make our profit off of the people that work for us, we're screwed,” said Paul in a serious tone.

Paul described a sustainable technique that works particularly well for his dry farming of grapes: using pomace, the solid remains after pressing, as fertilizer.

“The machine crushes, presses and squeeze the water and sugar out of them and most people throw the pomace away. Grapevines work their whole life to make those leaves, stems and fruit. The pomace puts a lot of the nutrients and minerals back into the grapevines. And that's all we use. We don't even irrigate these vines. All we do is bless them and cultivate them,” said Paul as he holds a large bunch of plump red grapes.

The Berniers see the value in still doing things the traditional way. “We've never had the money to own a lot of land,” Paul says, “but an old Italian farmer turned me on to share cropping. You lease the land and don't have the expense of owning it. We’ve been successful with that. The landowners take some profit and we get the bulk of it.”

And it’s all been worth it. “Even though you work like crazy and there’s no stopping sometime,s” says Yael, “everything that the farming lifestyle affords you, when you are outside, with all the space around you, it’s just a very special way of life.”