Each month in our Ignite series we bring you stories to inspire you, give you new ideas, and let you see inside the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
@story and images MARLA CANTRELL
It’ is 101 degrees at Foundation Farm in Holiday Island just outside Eureka Springs, and the edges of the squash leaves are turning brown in the blinding sun. In the midst of the field is Patrice Gros, who is stooped over, assessing the situation. It is only the beginning of July, too soon for such heat, but it seems to come earlier now than it did when he first bought the place in 1994.
By then Patrice had already given up his career as a stock broker and financial adviser in Los Angeles. “I made a ton of money but is that really what it’s all about?” Patrice asks. “I was getting bragging rights out of my career. I had one commission check that I could have taken and bought a Porsche outright. It was ridiculous. I drove halfway to the dealership and thought, What am I doing?”
Born in Marseille, he’d left France to come to America to get his MBA at UCLA. “For the longest time all I cared about was how much more I would make the following year.” Money tumbled in, the trinkets of a privileged life followed, but by his late thirties all he was feeling was emptiness.
At his home he had an acre where peach, pomegranate and apricot trees grew. “I put a garden in. It pulled me into the world of nature, of sharing the world’s greatest food with others, of being outdoors.” He sought out an organic farmer in Santa Barbara. For eighteen months Patrice studied with him. When he was finished, his life in the financial world was over. “I made $250,000 the last year in the financial field. The next year, as a farmer, I made $2,500. I dropped two zeros but I was happy,” he says.
There’s no substitute for health, Patrice says. People chase wealth, but without health it is fruitless. So he started looking for a plot of land where he could build his own organic farm. In what seems like an ironic twist on this day, he says, “In Santa Barbara the weather was so good it was not even talked about. It was boring. I wanted to be in a place where weather mattered.”
It took him eighteen months to find the land that is now Foundation Farm, one of a handful of certified organic farms in the region. Patrice remembers seeing the land for the first time. He looks across the row of hoop houses where tomatoes grow in neat rows under shade cloth. “I get up every morning at five-thirty, run two miles, have breakfast, then work like a maniac for the rest of the morning. I’m almost sixty and I make little circles around the twenty-year-olds who work here. They’re always wanting to stop, and I say, ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ I credit the food I eat, the life I live. The produce I grow is rich with nutrients. I could never do all this without it.”
Just then, his friend Al walks up, two white buckets in hand. He’s been helping harvest today’s yield. “I have some other people besides Al, some senior citizens, who will come in to help. It’s a great community. All the fields are no-till. I do not touch the soil. I plant on top, layering mulch and organic matter. The soil thanks you because you’re being gentle with it, and it gives you all its wonderful plants.”
His system also helps him survive the dry stretches of summer. The plants, protected by the deep straw that surrounds them, are a hardy bunch. The drip system, fueled by a pond and a well, doesn’t waste a drop of water. It is quiet; there are no machines here, save the lawn mower Patrice uses to keep the space between crops tidy.
Partrice harvests one day and delivers the next. Inside his walk-in cooler are boxes of squash and basil, potatoes and onions, kale and at least five kinds of tomatoes. He delivers to several restaurants, farmers markets from Eureka Springs to Fayetteville, and Ozark Natural Foods.
Until recently he operated a farm school here, but it was a difficult undertaking, and the crippling heat sent many students scampering to cooler areas of the nation. Now, he’s joined WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), an initiative started in the 1970s to educate organic farmers. Those wanting to learn will contact Patrice and make arrangements to come to Foundation Farm for a few weeks to study his techniques. It’s critical to make those new connections, bringing in younger growers, since the average age of today’s farmer is between fifty and sixty.
“I want to do everything I can to encourage new organic farmers. I have workshops here as well. Part of every good farmer’s mission is to teach and to pass what we know along. I think I have another twenty years of farming left. After I’m finished, who will take over?” he asks. “Arkansas is a good place to farm. There is plenty of land, not too expensive, plenty of water.”
If he could tell people anything, it would be that this life of early mornings, of man against nature, of carving a living from the soil, is worth the trouble. He is healthy and strong, his food is wholesome, his family is happy. “If I had money to burn,” he says, “and I was sick, what would be the point?” He raises his right hand high above his head. “Health is up here,” he says. “Health is happiness.”
Patrice lifts the shade cloth that separates his lettuce from the noonday sun. In just days the USDA will issue a declaration that puts most of Arkansas under a disaster declaration due to the drought. Still, the lettuce is thriving, the green leaves shimmering in the bright light. Already Patrice is thinking about winter. He plans to grow strawberries in black cloth containers that look like oversized sausages, and sit atop wooden frames in one of his hoop houses. Beneath, the other crops will grow, and the entire space will fill with fresh food.
Patrice produces more than 20,000 pounds of produce each year on his six acres. The gardens are meticulous. Maybe it’s the French influence, the careful tending of the plants, the beauty of the fields. He is hoping, like all farmers do, that next year will be cooler. Beyond that, he has little to worry about. “At night, I think mostly about my children. I want to be a good father, a good husband. I want to work the land. I want to live to be an old man.”
For more on Foundation Farm visit foundationfarm.com.
Log on to wwoof.org to learn more on the organic farm initiative.If you’re interested, make sure you check out the farm and the farmer to make sure you’ll have the best experience possible.