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Marin's Green Gulch, a pioneer in organic farming, celebrates 40 years

Marin Independent Journal
Marin IJ

Sara Tashker, the 34-year-old head of the farm at Marin's Green Gulch Zen Center, grew up in a fertile California valley that grows Apples and Palms and Junipers. Also Googles and Yahoos and Yelps.

As a child of Silicon Valley, the daughter of computer engineers, Tashker never would have imagined that she'd find what Buddhists call right livelihood as an organic farmer, working the heavy clay soil in the foggy coastal canyon near Muir Beach, as she's done for the past decade, providing produce for Greens Restaurant in San Francisco and local farmers markets.

"It's kind of a miracle that I got here," she said one cool, overcast afternoon, leading me and photographer Alan Dep on a tour of the six acres of neatly cultivated rows of broccoli, lettuce, fennel and other crops that she's learned to grow and harvest, stopping to admire a brilliantly colored array of rainbow chard stems lying beside a dusty road that runs through the fields.

She wears her hair short, in a no-nonsense Buddhist cut, and has on her work clothes — jeans tucked into red rubber boots, a well-worn sleeveless jacket, a vegetable knife in a leather sheath sticking up from her back pocket.

"I grew up on the Peninsula, in the suburbs," she elaborated, smiling at the memory. "My parents didn't garden. My sister is a scientist. We weren't really outdoor people. I didn't know anyone who was a farmer. It was not on a list of jobs you

can have."

But she had gone to a summer camp as a kid, and that sowed the farming seed.

"It was kind of a ranch with a garden," she recalled. "That was my inspiration. I had seen that, so I had some inkling of what farming was."

After graduating from Bard College in New York, where she studied political science, she began searching for her career path. She knew she wouldn't be following in the footsteps of anyone in her family. And she wasn't interested in the kinds of high-tech occupations she saw all around her in Silicon Valley as a kid.

She was still asking herself, "Who am I and where do I fit in?," when she began looking for farms where she could apprentice and was accepted into the farm and garden apprentice program at Green Gulch in 2002.

For the past 40 years, in addition to being a residential monastery and retreat and conference center, Green Gulch has been a pioneer in organic farming, a place where young people like Tashker have come to learn organic growing techniques, how to live off the land in the context of Zen Buddhist practice.

"All the reasons I was interested in farming led me to Buddhism and Zen," she explains. "It's a deeper level of what I was looking for — to take care of something, to find personal responsibility, to live ethically. As the farm manager interviewing apprentices, I look for people who are in their body and have some sense of the physical world. I don't know if I had that when I came. But I was pretty excited, thinking, 'I can do this with my life. What a great thing.'"

On Saturday, Green Gulch will host "Feasting in the Fields," a farm-to-table luncheon featuring a menu by Annie Somerville, executive chef of Greens. Tashker will be one of the speakers, as will author and cooking instructor Eric Gower, Dave Stockdale, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, and events coordinator Olivia Maki.

The luncheon, a benefit for Green Gulch, is in celebration of its 40th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco Zen Center, both founded on the principles of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, as was the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Carmel, where she served as head student last fall.

"I know Sara as a very competent young leader who has been a joy to work with," said Green Gulch founding gardener Wendy Johnson, author of "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate." "She's an extremely dedicated, hard working, intelligent young woman who approaches the farm with a kind of readiness and presence that's quite wonderful."

As head of the farm, Tashker leads a team of 12, including seven apprentices and four staff people. She met her husband at Green Gulch, and now has a growing boy to care for, 2-year-old Frank, her first child.

"In Zen, a big part of it is the lineage that's passed down from Buddha to all the ancestors and then to us," she said. "And there is a farming lineage that has been an important and nourishing concept for me. Not only did I find what I wanted to do here, there have been so many people before me passing on this information and knowledge, taking care of this place, then handing it to me to take care of. So there's this feeling of lineage and continuity, about being part of something really large and deep."

After a decade of farming, Tashker will be moving into another job at the end of the fall harvest season. She'll take over managing the guest program at Green Gulch, overseeing the guest house and conference facilities in preparation for becoming the director of Green Gulch, the top administrative post, according to Emila Heller, a Green Gulch elder who has been Tashker's mentor.

"Sara came here with passion but not much farming experience, but she is now, 10 years later, a wonderful farmer, leader and activist with an ability to get the message out about how important it is for us to be connected to the land," Heller said. "She's incredibly competent and has a positive attitude about farming and people."

Tashker, who is also on the board of Marin Organic, makes no secret that this transition will be difficult for her emotionally.

"This is kind of my love," she said, gazing over the farm and fields that stretch almost to the ocean. "This feels like taking a break from that, but not losing that part of myself. Whatever happens, I feel that in my life I will be growing things. I will be farming."

By Paul Liberatore