One of the many joys of living in the Santa Ynez Valley is the drive home. Once I realize I’m back in sight of this beautiful place, a sense of calm always comes over me.
A few months ago I noticed some new signage off the 101, close to the Nojoqui Park turnoff. “Classic Organic–FRESH Fruits & Vegetables–next right turn.” I made the turn onto Old Coast Highway and soon saw an old barn with a big Peace symbol painted on its side. Then I saw the fruit and vegetable stand. I stopped and I’ve been a regular shopper ever since.
Pulling off the quiet two-lane road at Classic Organic Farm & Market initiates a classic Central Coast experience. Proprietor Helmut Klauer may be in sight with JJ, his black and white Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix. If not, Shadow the black barn cat will keep an eye on you at the self-serve vegetable stand. The honor system is alive and well at Classic Organic: drop the money for your purchases into the big oak barrel.
Because Helmut plants lettuce every two weeks throughout the year, a leafy bounty is always on offer, with varieties such as romaine, red butter, and red leaf.
And, depending on the season, you’ll also find watermelons, cantaloupes, heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, chard, strawberries, radicchio, dandelion greens, fennel, beets, carrots, apricots, peaches and more. Herbs complete the shopping potpourri: spearmint, pineapple mint, thyme and garlic chives, to name just a few.
Helmut and his wife of 24 years, Solvang attorney H. Kathryn Lamat, have found that living and working by the side of the road is a dream come true for themselves and their family.
Helmut grew up in Long Island, New York. In the late 1960s, the California Dreamin’ bug bit him and he found himself in Venice, California.
A recent college graduate with an accounting degree, he initially worked for a medical concern “loading bottles.” At the first opportunity for escape, he went off exploring the mountains of Northern California and Oregon. He spent two weeks in the Oregon wilderness, driving off-road for 11 miles and then hiking for a further 11 miles.
“It was too darn far to hike out for food and I realized that I had a choice,” Helmut says. “Either I was going to grow food or become a Big Foot. So I became a farmer.”
From that point on Helmut learned how to farm through years of on-the-job training. In 1971 he met up with the people at Sunburst Farms in Santa Barbara and it was there Helmut began “my educational process with organic farming.”
He also met farmer Sylvestre Lechuga, who had lost his land to Santa Barbara developers. The two worked together the next ten years, managing crops for Sunburst Farms. “He and I formed a friendship that flourishes to this day,” says Helmut.
During those heady early years of the organic farm movement in California, Helmut helped form the first governing body of the California Certified Organic Farmers. CCOF was one of the first organizations in North America to certify organic crops.
A ten-year stay in Salt Lake City followed the Sunburst years, but Helmut and Kathryn moved to the Buellton area in 1995 where Helmut took a job as farm manager job at Nojoqui Farms, a short distance away from his current farm. “I had a great time on that job.” he says. Then in 2004, Helmut decided to “go it on my own.”
He opened Classic Organic and its rustic barn store in 2007. The farm grows produce according to a model for small-scale farming in which the health of the soil and environment is paramount, and the well-being of the farm workers is always important.
“I use no chemicals. Instead, I ‘grow and till’ the soil with cover crops such as vetches, oats and fava beans. I’ve farmed by this classic method for years; I feed the soil and the soil feeds the plant. Many years ago I asked myself, ‘Who knows better, the plant or me?’ I got smart and learned to listen to nature.”
The future looks bright for the barn store and the farm. Their new “Hen Hilton” built by Chuck Logan of Santa Ynez, brings pastured, organic-fed hens to the mix—California whites, Americaunas and Barred Rocks (—which produce some of the best-tasting ranch eggs available in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Helmut has an ongoing goal of passing on what he’s learned about growing organic food by giving local children a place to learn about organic farming.
To this end Helmut says, “Tours of the farm are available where kids can view laying hens and gather eggs, dig for carrots, collect ladybugs, and pollinate squash with Q-tips.
“Kids need to know that food comes from the soil and not supermarkets,” he explains, “which is why we are committed to helping educate our children.”
Drive out to Classic Organic and pull in off the road for some edible inspiration.