Join us this season as we explore California’s celebrated wine country: the rustic ingredients, world-class destinations and passionate artisans, chef and producers who bring it to life.
Peter and Mimi Buckley founded Front Porch Farm in 2010 after years of life in the corporate world. Seeking a return to nature, and with a passionate dedication to organic farming and conservation, the Buckleys, together with a small farm staff, grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as heirloom wheat and wine grapes. In 2012, they brought the first Cinta pigs into the US at their sister farm, Acorn Ranch. We talked to Peter and the Front Porch Farm farm manager, Johnny Wilson, about life at Front Porch Farm and all that it entails.
What is your background?
I was a lawyer in San Francisco, and then I became CEO of Esprit-Europe and Esprit-International. I sold those companies in 1990 and returned to Bay Area to do conservation and education work. I founded the GreenWood School in Mill Valley, the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley and the David Brower Center in Berkeley. I co-created Corcovado National Park and Yendegaia National Park (both in Chile). I started farming in 2008, at Riverbend Farm, then Viridian Farm and then Looking Glass Farm. We settled at Front Porch Farm in 2010 and expanded to Acorn Ranch in 2012.
Have you always been interested in farming?
I’ve always interested in life: in plants, animals, and people.
What inspired you to acquire Front Porch farm?
We wanted meaningful, hands-on work, that engaged us with a like-minded community of folks. Especially after a life of being a manager. We liked the simplicity of farming and the never-ending asking and answering of questions (Why is that field doing well? What’s happening with the blackberries?)
Describe your typical work day.
Not sure there is a typical day…which is why farming is interesting. I might be pruning vines, weed-whacking around the fruit trees…or working with my daughter, Lake, to design a new Chef-to-Farm App…or working on wine bottle design. Every day is new. Happily, Johnny (Wilson) manages the operations and is the real decision-maker.
What is your farming and food philosophy?
Harmony and health. We work on getting everything in balance, and when things are in balance, they are healthy. That includes the health of the plants, the well-being of everyone working at the farm, the relationships between us and our customers/community and the balance between efficiency and beauty. There are many, many dimensions to both ideas.
Why did you decide to grow heritage wheat?
I thought wheat was a beautiful and practical crop for a new farmer (me). Wheat is a good crop for Sonoma, it likes to grow here, has a long storage life (years), and can be used in many different ways (flour/forage/feed supplement/etc.). We were lucky that folks got interested in heritage types and locally grown products.
What else do you grow? What is your favorite growing season?
The farm’s DNA is diversity. We grow wine grapes (and make very nice wines), maintain orchards (peaches, apricots, plums, figs and apples, each in several heritage varieties). Now that Johnny is managing the farm, we have extensive vegetable crops like lettuces, beans, melons, sweet corn, flint corn (polenta), tomatoes, peppers. We also have blackberries, olives, Boer goats (for meat), pigs, honey and Mimi is growing many types of flowers for the cut-flower market.
Tell us the story of the Cinta Senese pigs. What makes these pigs special? Why did you want to bring them over from Italy?
The basic idea was to figure out how to make the Northern Califonia oak woodland forest habitat economically productive. The Cintas are an ancient woodland animal, so they seemed like good candidates, and they have an incredible history. (Read more about the Cintas here.)
Tell us about your relationships with chefs and restaurants. Which restaurants use your produce or livestock?
We sometimes call our marketing RSA (Restaurant-Supported Agriculture). We talk to chefs a lot about what they like and why. We deliver to most of the local Healdsburg restaurants (Spoonbar, Campo Fina, Matteo’s Latina Cucina, Diavolo, BarnDiva, etc.) and to a few SF clients (Quince, Cotogna, Oliveto, Bar Tartine, etc.), in addition to other distribution channels.
What is the best part about living and working on your farm?
We are surrounded by all these beautiful growing crops, and working with folks who love the same things we do.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
This month it’s water, but we don’t think so much in terms of a challenge, but more so in terms of constant problem-solving, which is interesting and mostly fun.
What are your future plans for the farm?
To keep learning and getting better at what we do.
Do you cook with the produce you grow at the farm?
Definitely…that’s one of the joys of living at the farm. Just wander around at dusk and forage for a beautiful evening meal.
What are you favorite things to cook?
Very seasonal. I enjoy working with the pork that we produce. I make Porchetta with our Floriani (fresh milled) polenta in the fall. Mimi is a phenomenal intuitive cook; new things show up every week (and that is saying something—we’ve been married 27 years!)
What’s for dinner tonight?
I’ll have to go out into the field and look! But I know it’s blackberries for dessert.
How and when did you meet Peter?
I met Peter in Dusseldorf, Germany when I was working for Esprit as the Visual Director for the company.
We wanted to fall in love with the land, first and foremost. This happened in the first minute that we saw the farm’s beautiful alluvial valley nestled next to the wild corridor of the Russian River. After searching for four years, we knew immediately that this was home.
What is your role on the farm?
My main work on the farm is growing organic flowers as a value added product of Front Porch Farm. I also love to work on farm events and do all kinds of design work.
What is your food and farming philosophy?
As Michael Pollan says, “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” I try my best to imbue my actions with a conscious respect for all life and gratitude for harvesting/preparing/sharing it amongst family and friends.
What is the best part about life on the farm? What is your biggest challenge?
Sunrise, sunset, moonrise, cutting flowers in the first morning light, warm evenings, sowing, harvesting, celebrating the seasons with loved ones, full moon swims in the river, constantly learning from and paying attention to the land, and picking a sun-warmed peach on a summer afternoon. That’s a few of them. My biggest challenge is to get enough sleep~ there are just so many things that need doing and that I love to do it that it becomes difficult to wrap up all the projects and simply call it a day!
Tell us about some of your favorite dishes to cook using produce from the farm.
Kale Salad with Suncrest peaches, roasted peppers, apricot jam, pepper jelly, cornbread made from our flint corn and whole wheat flour, blackberry pie, peach ice cream, plum tarts, fresh eggs from our hens, any dish with our freshly harvested potatoes, the delicious Cinta pork from our beloved forest raised piggies, heirloom tomato gazpacho, pumpkin pie with our Winter Luxury pumpkins, Butternut squash soup (FP Farm grows the sweetest squash on the planet!), hibiscus and Meyer lemonade, and the list goes on and on and on……
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I worked as a massage therapist at the Zen Hospice in San Francisco for six years and treasure that time and all that I learned from that experience. Being a hospice caregiver really turns up the brightness volume on life. I have thought that if the farm ever disappeared I would like to start a small hospice or work in an existing one.
What kind of flowers do you grow? Which is your favorite?
I grow ranunculus, sweet peas, dahlias, stocks, snapdragons, roses, zinnias, delphiniums, hydrangea, foxgloves, hollyhocks, gladiolas, tuberose, companula, amaranth, sunflowers, narcissus, daffodils, godetias, peonies, echinacea, lavendar, strawflowers, and several other varieties of flowers. I love them all, and hold a special spot in my heart for sweet peas because they remind me of my mother.
I studied Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz and learned that most of the worlds environmental problems come from humans trying to provide for our basic needs; food, water, shelter. I gravitated towards agriculture because I learned about the ills associated with industrial style farming and I wanted to live a life that promoted my values and provided me with with a healthy lifestyle. Now I’m just addicted to it.
What brought you to Front Porch Farm? What is your role there?
A good friend and mentor of mine brought me here and meeting Peter and Mimi sealed the deal. I’m the farm manager here.
Tell us about the crops that you grow; what is the story behind planting the heritage wheat?
We grow all kinds of crops, if it belongs on a dinner table, we grow it. Fruits, vegetables, grains, olives, grapes… From the breadbasket to the glass. The wheat is interesting because it’s a crop that fits well into an integrated farming system. It’s a low input, low labor crop, and it grows in the offseason. It also stores well and has many uses from baking to brewing. Like most crops that have been “improved” by industrial agriculture, wheat has been bred to produce more, uniformly, and to fit into an industrial white bread baking system. We believe in whole grains and varieties that offer a diversity of taste and function, that can provide our local community bakers and brewers with unique flavors and textures. That’s where the heirlooms come in.
What is your food and farming philosophy?
It’s pretty basic. Our food needs to be delicious, nourishing and healthy, to be enjoyed and eaten with friends and family . Our farms needs to be respectful of the land, the soil, and the people who work it. Ecological farming systems create healthy food and communities.
What are some of the challenges of managing a farm?
There are many, but generally speaking when you manage a diverse farm the challenge lies in attempting to make all of your enterprises work together elegantly. There are so many moving parts to a small diverse farm that you really need to be organized and use your labor and time efficiently. The timing of your cultivation and plantings need to be aligned with your marketing and your labor, and you need to be aware of all of the things that take time that aren’t generally in peoples’ minds when they think about farming. It’s like any business, you need time to manage the books, do marketing, network, package and deliver products and maintain relationships with your customers. It’s not always just eating fresh peaches off the tree.
What is the best part about working at Front Porch Farm?
Working with great people and on this beautiful piece of land. It’s also infinitely challenging and interesting. I’m excited about what the future holds for this wonderful place.
Tell us about your relationships with the local restaurant/food community.
It’s a constant conversation, which is great. We grow things that we like to grow and what this land is suited for, then the chefs give us feedback, and suggest things to grow that they come across. It’s a dialogue that drives us all forward to being better farmers and chefs. In addition, there are local distributers that we work with that are helping small growers access more markets, which is what we really need. We also want Front Porch to become a hub for our farming and food community.. A place where farmers and community members can gather and continue the dialogue.
What is your favorite growing season? What crops do you look forward to harvesting the most?
Fall, definitely. It’s starting to cool down, the light on the farm changes and you start to see the returns on your hard work through the season. It also signals the beginning of our “slow” season and much deserved rest. My favorite crops to harvest are fruit trees and root crops. The trees because I love the environment that orchards create, being in a tree and picking ripe fruit is the best. One for me, one for the market… I also like harvesting root crops. Its gratifying to dig up crops from the soil and see what’s underneath. It’s like a treasure hunt.
Any future plans for the farm?
So many. The first is to dial in our marketing and production systems, then we’d like to reach out to the community and see in what ways Front Porch can become a resource for our farming friends and neighbors. More stone fruit too.
What are some of your favorite ways to cook/prepare the produce that you grow?
It’s kind of cliche, but simply. Olive oil and salt go a long way.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?