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Healdsburg farmer dedicated to Middleton Farm

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Middleton Farm is well known for its colorful and orderly displays of an abundance of produce. Buyers flock to the stand for berries, asparagus and garlic, each in its own season.

From Bay Area restaurants to local farmers markets, the business has its staunch allies who purchase the organically grown fruits and vegetables. While big changes have occurred at Middleton in the past couple of years, one person continues to care for the property with dedication and a passion for locally grown food.

By way of a garden in Los Reyes, Michoacán, Mexico, where he learned to love the land as he worked at his grandfather’s side, Samuel Calderón Mendoza came to Middleton Farm in Healdsburg soon after immigrating to the United States. For more than 20 years, he’s worked the farm with a love and passion for growing produce that equaled Malcolm and Nancy Skall’s, the owners who first employed him.

While Malcolm Skall’s death in 1999 left Nancy Skall working the property as sole owner, Sam Calderón never failed to support the aging woman, until her death in January 2015, too, brought more changes to the farm. Skall’s daughters kept Calderón on the property and treated him fairly during the interim. He’s stayed in contact with them.

Middleton Farm is now owned by Annie and Montgomery Woods, who purchased the tract from Skall’s daughters, and Sam Calderón, 41, continues to be chief farmer of his beloved property. The farm is an 8-acre treasure of rich alluvial soil near the confluence of Mill and Felta creeks. Riparian habitat is filled with birds whose calls echo across the property.

“Farming is hard work,” says Calderón, whose calloused hands are a testament to his daily work with the soil. But he goes on to say, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

He notes that soil is everything and that nothing on the farm is “lost.” If the Farm to Pantry gleaning group cannot use the occasional glut of produce, it goes right into the line of compost bins so the nutrients can be incorporated back into the loam.

The Woods, who live in San Francisco, had been looking for farmland when the property came up for sale. They kept Calderón on for his expertise and for his dedication to the property, organic farming and local food.

“We are grateful to have Sam join our team after working at Middleton Farm for over 20 years with Nancy and Malcolm Skall. Sam is an exceptional farmer who is committed to organic produce and the local food economy,” says Annie Woods.

Each spring, he plants 4,500 new strawberry plants on the plot that includes 2 acres of orchards and 6 for planting beds. Asparagus waves its fernlike leaves in the late summer breeze, offering a hint of what’s to come next spring.

“I never thought I’d pay $11 a pound for asparagus,” said Lynne Brett of Geyserville. “But it’s the best ever.” Brett is a frequent visitor to the Healdsburg Farmers Market, and to the Middleton Farm booth.

Willie Cain agrees. He lives outside Healdsburg and gets “all my food” from the farmers’ market. He, too, is passionate for local food.

Calderón admits that attending to the farmers market booth takes second place to his joy of working the farm.

In the early years, he came to the market just to set up the booth for Nancy Skall, then returned to break down at closing. But he learned from Skall, who told him that he “always needed to be nice.” Now he says, “I want to be nice forever.”

Farmhands don’t get rich, but Calderón says that the Skalls always paid fairly and he’s buying his own home in Healdsburg, where he lives with his wife, Maricela Barragan, and son, Oscar, who is 20. Oscar Calderón Barragan works part time at Middleton Farm, though he has no interest in becoming a farmer like his father.

The Woods continue to pay him well for his work. He said his first priority was to stay on the farm and that wages were his second consideration when the Woods bought the property.

Calderón’s brother-in-law told him about the job one day when he was a new arrival, and while his brother-in-law no longer works in farming, Calderón is here to stay.

“Nancy was such a good person,” said Calderón, his affection evident. “She was a strong woman who never wanted anyone to see her when she was weak.”

Calderón’s grandfather, Samuel Mendoza, is now 88 years old and no longer farming, but he instilled a love of the land and farming in his grandson that reached across generations and nations.

On a farm in Cotija, a few hours away from Los Reyes, an 8-year-old Calderón planted each corn seed with care after his grandfather drilled a hole in the ground.

“He saved his money and bought a large avocado ranch,” said Calderón of his grandfather, who originally came to the United States as a laborer and worked in the citrus orchards of Ventura and Santa Paula.

Calderón’s uncle now works the property in Mexico.

Each day, when Calderón leaves work, he goes home and works in his garden.

Except, Calderón said, it’s not work when you’re doing what you love.

“I love my life,” said Calderón as he walks by his day-old “babies,” onions he set out the day before. “It’s my life, farming.”

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