Edible San Diego — Sumer 2011
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The Good Earth: The King of Farming
Chelsea Batten

Part champion, part jester, Phil Noble is outstanding in his field

Photos by Dhanraj Emanuel

Phil Noble is one of the few farmers I have met who doesn't seem like he's counting the moments until I leave him to his tractor. In fact, he seems eager to talk, if not sure where to begin–perhaps because he's said it all before. His presence is one of the most prominent in San Diego agriculture–if there's an event for fundraising, publicity, urban planning or agriculture issues, it's assured that Phil will be there. He's a prime mover in the monthly meetings for the Farm to School program and serves as chairman of the San Diego Growers collaborative.

Every great cause needs a mascot, someone who makes people stop and pay attention. And Phil Noble has assumed that mantle, proclaiming himself the "King of Farming"; whether you take the title facetiously or not is up to you. In the china shop of committee meetings and tactful roundtable discussions, Phil takes on the bull's role, with a voice and an air of confidence that outweigh all others.

But if you think this is just a personality trip, you're wrong.

"Farming is serious," he tells me. "I expect people to see it as something really important." If he's going to make time to attend an event, he says, "I want people to do a lot of work and make a big deal that a farmer's going to be there."

Once you see his farm, it's easy to understand the reason for both his confidence and his forcefulness. Sage Mountain Farm covers 740 acres, bowled out against low foothills that are crept upon by soft green pasture grass. To the south is the reservoir that irrigates the farm and waters Phil's fledgling cattle operation. To the north is Round Top Mountain, where Sage Mountain Farm started 10 years ago.

Accidental farmer

The farm's inception was a surprise even to the Nobles, who had moved out to Hemet to facilitate their son's motocross hobby. The property, Phil says, was owned by "a 4-H lady"; at her encouragement, they brought in a little livestock to raise. Having a garden there was a given–Phil grew up helping his father raise vegetables, and his first entrepreneurial venture was peddling produce out of a red wagon to the neighbors on his block.

"We grew enough food for us and our neighbors," Phil recounts. "Then we had enough extra to take to market." It wasn't a plan, he says–"It was a 'why-not.'" The experience netted them about $50, along with an immediate following.

"A lady at the farmers' market recently said to me, 'I can't believe how passionate you are about your food. How did you get like that?' And I told her, 'It's because of you.'" To the woman's confusion, he explained, "I came to this market, and you came and told me how much you liked my food. You told me how much you liked my squash. You told me how you thought the colors and the shapes were amazing. You asked me if I'd be back the next week." Phil smiles with an uncharacteristically soft glow. "That's where the passion comes from."

Organic and proud of it

The wind in the valley is cool, but the sun is unrelenting. This might be the combination that gives Sage Mountain crops their uniquely hearty character. We walk past rows of dense, muscular lettuce heads– Outrageous red romaine with the gloss of peacock feathers, Concept greenleaf with leaves as thick as cabbage. But Phil bends over a flat of Freckles lettuce plugs, concerned about the powdery mildew showing up on them. I feel his concern–seed is expensive, especially when you never know if a faulty drip line or a phalanx of bragada bugs are going to result in a $150,000 crop loss, like Sage Mountain experienced last year.

With all the local credibility that the farm enjoys, I ask Phil why getting organic certification is worth it. He looks at me, nonplussed.

"It's the process that's expensive," he tells me. "The paper costs nothing. If someone tells you they're not certified because it's too expensive. . ." He shakes his head. "That's the craziest damn thing I ever heard."

Corrected, I go on to admire his rows of spinach. "That's the real spinach," he assures me. His satisfaction is childlike, and contagious, extending to every aspect of his farm. "Isn't this a nice ranch?" he asks me as we drive around the property; his tone is the kind usually limited to men who have just gotten engaged to someone way out of their league. As we slowly pass the reservoir, he declares, "We have the best water in the world."

Introducing me to Jake, his cattle-herding dog, he says "Have you heard of a New Zealand heeler? That dog can move a thousand-pound cow." We pass the corral where he keeps his horse, Snickers. "That's a cow horse, let me tell you. As we become more profitable, I'm going to be in that seat more. That's where I want to be."

Beef grown on superfood

Like the farm's produce arm, Sage Mountain Beef also began as a home effort that reached out to the neighbors. But then the produce buyers got wind of it. "Our customers demanded we bring our beef to market," says Phil. "I would say 'demanded' is a fair word." Sage Mountain Beef is now available from the Sage Mountain website, as a separate CSA subscription from the produce CSA that serves more than 300 members around San Diego and the Inland Empire.

Phil is aiming for a herd of 100 cattle in all. Right now, there are 19, with one to be born in a couple of weeks. The cattle of Sage Mountain Beef enjoy a diet you're unlikely to find anywhere else–besides the coveted grassland pasture of clover, alfalfa and prairie grass, they are also fed on watermelon, Butternut squash and other remainder produce from the farm. But the Sage Mountain trademark is "Green- Fed" beef, referring to the 400 acres of certified organic living wheat that they are allowed to pasture on. Phil explains the distinction between grain-fed and his "Green- Fed" approach: "What do you drink at a juice bar? Wheatgrass. It's a superfood." His website explains in detail the Polyface model he follows in raising his cattle.

Phil freely admits that the beef venture has opened him to more give-and-take in the farming community. "It's made me appreciate even more how hard people work to grow food." His website also solicits people's opinions and knowledge about the beef industry, inviting them to contribute to forum discussions or send in their requests and practical advice.

Since opening himself up to more learning opportunities, however, Phil has noted that not all local farmers are so eager to participate in community. "Some people are really guarded with their knowledge," he says. "It's kind of like if you believe in Jesus but don't tell nobody about it. It's not right.

"I want to do everything I can for the local food revolution that's sweeping across the country right now." He stares at the cows as they jog away from Jake the dog, who is asserting his authority in their midst. "I'd say it's fair to call it a revolution," he says, after a moment. "I did a lot of this for fun, but now it's become a lot more serious."

The CSA issue

One of his most serious efforts is to define, once and for all, what a CSA–which stands for "community-supported agriculture"– really is. He takes issue with corporations and distributors that market a "CSA box," which may or may not ever get money back to the farmers whose products are supposed to be included.

"If the farmer's not getting paid in advance, it's not a CSA." A true CSA, he asserts, is one that pledges money in advance to the farmer, and in return brings the shareholder all local, all seasonal produce.

He predicts a coming onslaught of large corporations that offer what is, essentially, a glorified form of online grocery shopping–ersatz CSA boxes that contain some items that might be locally grown, but significantly compromise on freshness and source identity. "A lot of them let people pick what they want in their box," he says. "That's just not right. It's not fair to a true CSA. It's a dishonor."

He hastens to add that there's nothing wrong with allowing customers to selectively combine the offerings of different farms. "There's some good people out there doing good things. I think that people who are sourcing from small local farms should be recognized. I just think consumers should know what a true CSA is."

Elevating sustainable farming

In making these kinds of "what it isn't" distinctions, Phil's mission is to portray the local farmer as a purist who stands apart from agriculture as a whole. His efforts are exhaustively clear on the Sage Mountain Farm website, which includes several short videos that educate the consumer, as well as beautiful footage of the Inland Empire and its potential for sustainable agriculture.

"If you look up sustainable in the dictionary, you might find our farm there," he tells me. His pride, born out of love for what he does and where he does it, is endearing. And his love for making people happy and healthy is what drives him to expand the kingdom.

Chelsea Batten is a writer and traveler currently based in Escondido.

"Farming is serious. I expect people to see it as something really important."

"I want to do everything I can for the local food revolution that's sweeping across the country right now."