Rain had muddied ranch roads, roused aromas of sage and ceanothus, and greened the hills to the cusp of enchantment. It gets that way around here. I headed north through the tunnel at Gaviota Pass, drove past Las Cruces, crested the Nojoqui summit, then turned off onto Old Coast Highway and pulled up in front of a barn with a large peace sign mounted on the side. Welcome to Classic Organic Farm & Market, where locals, and many out-of-towners, have been stopping by regularly for fresh produce since the stand opened in 2007. If you’re lucky, you might run into farmer Helmut Klauer or his wife, Kathryn Lamat, but most likely only Shadow, a friendly black cat, will greet you. After choosing what you need from the bounty on hand, you’ll deposit your money into an oak barrel by the door, feeling honored by the honor system. There’s an old-fashioned sense of trust and community here, and the place is undeniably charming. But the real reason customers keep coming back is that the produce is startlingly good.
To Klauer, it’s a matter of respecting the wisdom of nature. He came of age as a farmer during the early years of the organic farm movement, before the USDA’s “corporate-friendly” definition of organic, which allows methods he believes true organic farmers would never employ. The peace sign on the barn is his way of symbolizing this movement and its 1960s spirit, which is where his heart remains. But he lives it, too. He meticulously adheres to classic principles of organic farming, uses no chemicals, and lets the soil feed the crops. Here’s his in-a-nutshell explanation: “Plants exude substances from their roots that attract certain bacteria, which then go out and get nutrients and bring them to the plant. If I fertilize a plant, I disrupt that relationship and presume to know what the plant needs more than nature does. But I don’t. I tend to the health of the soil, and the soil feeds the plant.”
No one has messed with nature at Classic Organic; of that you can be certain. “That’s why everything tastes so good,” Klauer explains.” It’s not pumped full of inorganic fertilizer. If it was pumped full of inorganic fertilizer, it would be unbalanced. It wouldn’t have its natural nutrition and flavor.” The man is onto something. Take the greens, for example: Each variety has its own distinctive taste, be it sweetness, snap, or an appealing bit of bite, and there’s a palpable crunch and texture that you immediately realize has been lacking from your life. The selection of offerings is always intriguing, including year-round buttery romaine, red leaf lettuce, and dandelion greens, as well as seasonal treats: festive persimmons at holiday time, winter kale, and cabbage, tomatoes, and melons in summer. Look for an assortment of squash, specialty peppers, and herbs such as rosemary and thyme, or dried white sage bundled for smudging. There are beautiful carrots, plump and gnarled, and fresh eggs from organic-fed hens, and on this rainy day visit, three baskets of chanterelles gathered in the hills and still smelling vaguely of forest and earth.
In the early 1900s, this was a dairy barn; the Giorgi family made cheese here, which was carried to the Gaviota pier in horse-drawn wagons and shipped to San Francisco. In its new incarnation as Classic Organic’s farm stand, the interior of the barn has been given a cheerful ambiance and domestic touches, courtesy of The Farmer’s Wife. There are hollyhock seeds packed in tiny gift boxes and ready for planting, a sample of hand-sewn reversible aprons that can be custom-made to order, flannel bears, knick-knacks, and a guest book to sign. In a closed-off section at the back of the barn there looms a loom—Kathryn hopes to spend some of her time weaving colorful rag rugs this summer after she retires from her law practice. Sometimes she overhears visitors marveling about the vegetable displays and the fact that no one is there to check on whether they pay. She stays quiet. “It’s like the plants looking for the necessary nutrients,” she comments. “Our customers find a natural sustenance here that they may not have even known their spirit needed.”
Classic Organic is Klauer’s life work, and one of his goals is to educate kids about organic farming and make sure they understand where their food comes from. Consistent with his mission, he has become a crucial purveyor of advice and seeds for the students’ garden at Vista de las Cruces, Gaviota’s neighborhood school. He and Kathryn also offer tours at the farm where kids can hunt for eggs, dig for carrots, and get some of that healthy soil on their hands. There’s history here, and continuity, and a growing organic awareness. It seems especially fitting in this rural part of the county whose traditions of ranching and farming are still very much in evidence and whose natural beauty continues to amaze.
Get closer to the land at Classic Organic Farm & Market: fruits, vegetables, eggs, tours, and more with Helmut Klauer and H. Kathryn Lamat, 2323 Old Coast Highway, Gaviota. Call 714-4420.