Guest post by Rachel Meeker, a full-time volunteer on West Coast organic farms.
Tucked into the golden hills of the Santa Ynez Valley of Central California, the words “Shadow Creek” arch above a wrought iron gate. The gate features a giant iron oak inspired from the surrounding landscape, though it is easy to miss amidst the procession of theme park wineries winding along the road towards the iconic windmills of Solvang. If you pass through the open branches, you enter a place that tells the story of the valley itself.
This is the farm of Mike Santoro and the experience he offers to willing WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming) volunteers is a far cry from the tourist mobbed tasting rooms of neighbor wineries.
Unlike the sprawling green vineyards of the region, Mike does not grow any produce on his land save the wild blackberry cane that stubbornly flourishes along the back line of the property. Mike deals solely in livestock and poultry. With 50 years of experience, Mike can tell you the best way to raise and butcher any animal.
Walking through the farm, it is clear that like many locals Mike is also a connoisseur of all things eclectic. As the current custodian of Shadow Creek, Mike lovingly retells the layered story of the farm to every visitor and volunteer willing to learn.
Entering the farm is like entering the heart of the valley. The iron gates that separate the farm from the wineries beyond were hand crafted by a previous owner who also populated the property with metalwork sculptures, memorials to a time when the area was home to a different breed of Californians. Just past the gate, the road leads you across a narrow wooden bridge above the creek for which the farm was named. Wistfully, Mike can tell you of days not so long ago when the creek ran ancient, cool water year round until the deep aquifer upstream was appropriated to quench the needs of nearby vineyards. Passing over the creek, it is evident from the diminished wildlife that the land has been dry some time.
The diverse mix of buildings on the hot, dusty peak of the main complex lends the farm an old west feel. Rustic barns with tin roofs and livestock corrals frame multiple bird enclosures with exotic breeds of fowl ranging from chickens to African herons. Near the berry cane there is a rundown red schoolhouse from the 1800s, the oldest building on the property.
Right before this odd pseudo-town gives way to the rolling grassy hills of the valley is an abandoned racetrack from another previous owner. According to Mike, she liked to train dogs to fight on planes in mid-flight in addition to keeping race horses. Speckled through this landscape, hand-hewn dolphins leap from the dirt, metal cranes lounge beneath an oak, and a bronze stallion greets you as you come up the drive.
Facing the farm, you can see the many lives it has lived in a single gaze. If you turn your back, you can see the vineyards below. Along the crest, Mike stubbornly endures like the wild blackberry cane rooted beyond the dry creek bed. Though Shadow Creek is unique in character, it shares in the struggle of many other farms in the region who hope to maintain their identities alongside thirsty wine tasting trails.
Shadow Creek offers each visitor the opportunity to see a Santa Ynez worthy of cultivation, one that adds colorful layers to the spectrum rather that razing them for the unnatural green of surrounding vineyards. Hopefully, like the wild berry cane, these farms will continue to endure and thrive for future visitors to enjoy.