At Windrose Farm, Artists Embrace Country Life
For the LA creatives who attend the All Hands Weekend every month, tending the earth is its own reward â€” that, and a beautiful meal.
Driving up State Route 46 from Los Angeles, the city slog gives way to open, flaxen hills. The road carves through still-active oil fields, past dusty miles of almond groves, and beneath the towering figure of James Dean: a memorial to the actor’s last stop before the crash that took his life in 1955.
Starting in springtime, a flurry of curious spirits make this trek on the last weekend of every month to visit Windrose Farm in Paso Robles, a town on the central coast of California named for the oak trees that dot its landscape.
They come to work, mainly, but also to feast and luxuriate at a gathering known as All Hands. San Luis Obispo County is an Eden of lush farms and vineyards, but few are quite as welcoming as Windrose.
The farm’s owners, Catherine and Justin Welch, created the event with the LA-based chef and community organizer Saehee Cho, who lovingly prepares meals for the participants in the spartan farmhouse kitchen.
All Hands Weekend offers an uncomplicated proposition: you can offer your time, energy, and your hands to the work that needs to be done on the farm, and, in exchange, you can share in an opulent al fresco farm dinner.
An inkling of utopia
All Hands began as a way to gather community during the pandemic, when doing so felt strained and simply being together became its own luxury. All Hands also solved a practical problem: the Welch family were new owners of a 50-acre regenerative farm, and there was a lot to do.
Their four kids, aged 6 to 13, are eminently capable collaborators, but Catherine and Justin needed more help, and they wanted to invite it in a way that aligned with their ideals. They also hoped to expose more people to this way of living. â€śWe wanted to harness this energy and enthusiasm for small, family-run, organic, regenerative farming,â€ť Catherine recalls.
After a winter-long hiatus, All Hands is back for its second season. The threat of frost has thawed with the warming of the land. And visitors are arriving on the farm once again, mostly from Los Angeles, like me.
The majority are creative types, susceptible to romance, beauty, and inklings of utopianism. Some are friends and some are collaborators-turned-friends; others are strangers taking a chance on an invitation that sounded too good to be true. Some have experience farming or gardening; others are brand new to it all.
Among the volunteers runs a shared yearning for community, new perspectives, and connection with each other and the earth. â€śItâ€™s 100 per cent romantic,â€ť Cho tells me. â€śAnd whatâ€™s wrong with that?â€ť
Here, romance, beauty, and community are perhaps the reward for caring enough to take the drive, to spend the time.
9 a.m. – Getting thereÂ
I pull into a dirt clearing and join a handful of parked cars. As I open my door, a tall, wiry-haired dogâ€™s face appears. From my last visit, I remember that her name is Macie. Some of the volunteers arrived last night, so I assume they are already hard at work in their jobs for the day. I follow Macie, who seems to know where to find the group.
She leads me to one of the greenhouses. Everyone is crouched low, pulling up weeds from around the agave plants, careful to leave the neighbouring camomile undisturbed. When they first got started, Catherine and Justinâ€™s intention was to make their own agave spirits. But agave plants grow slowly. It can take between 7 and 12 years for one to reach harvest maturity. Thankfully, thereâ€™s plenty to keep them busy in the meantime.
10 a.m. – Planting potatoesÂ
More volunteers trickle in. The energy is low-key but excited as people introduce themselves. Justin walks us over to a cleared field, explaining that weâ€™ll be planting potatoes.
Over the course of two hours, we plant about 4,000. The two youngest Welch kids join us, eager to share their techniques â€” showing us just the right cadence of dig-plant-cover. Thankfully, the soil is soft and pliant after a spate of late season rainfall.
I think about the pleasures of teamwork and of refining a repetitive task, turning it into its most streamlined series of subtasks.
1 p.m. – Lunch, leisure, camp
For lunch, Catherine has set up a DIY sandwich bar, smacking of schooltime nostalgia. We all sit outside the kitchen, sharing stories and playing giggly improv games with the Welch kids. Some of us wander off to pay a visit to the farmâ€™s Kunekune pigs, lazing in the shade.
Feeling replenished, we pitch our tents in the farmâ€™s apple orchard. This will be our lodging for the night. I take several photos of the idyllic scene: my small tent nestled in the young spring green of the trees, apple blossoms just beginning to show their faces. I realize this is the first time Iâ€™ve looked at my phone in hours.
2:30 p.m. – Planting sunflowers
Another exercise in repetition. We plant several varieties of sunflower, some 2,000 in total, in the field next to the communal farmhouse and kitchen. This is Windroseâ€™s first season planting sunflowers, and theyâ€™ll be sold at market in bunches come summer.
4:30 p.m. – Dinner prepÂ
A few of our group peel off to haul the wooden table and chairs out to the apple orchard, where weâ€™ll be eating dinner. The table is set with oranges, spiralling taper candles, and flowering branches snipped from nearby trees. The plates are mismatched.
Meanwhile, Cho has pulled a few more of the All Hands volunteers into the kitchen. Joseph Calvo, a photographer in LA who brought his own miso chocolate chip cookies to share with everyone, is now on vinaigrette duty. Kenny Ng, a writer living in LAâ€™s Filipinotown neighbourhood, is fastidiously prepping vegetables.
As dishes roll out, they are placed neatly, if unceremoniously, in the back of Catherine and Justinâ€™s â€™97 Land Rover, which Catherine drives out to the orchard, like the most glorious UberEats delivery of all time.
7 p.m. – Orchard dinnerÂ
â€śThere is some sort of magic that happens at the table when Saehee sets the food down,â€ť explains Chloe Chappe, a personal chef living in Los Angeles who has been to several other All Hands gatherings.
Part of that magic is that every single ingredient â€” the stinging nettles that became a toothsome pesto, the lacinato kale, the rice dotted with flowering cilantro, and the radishes we dipped in homemade romesco â€” can all be traced to their point of origin. Some have been harvested here at Windrose, their seeds planted during previous All Hands Weekends.
â€śLove and care translate into some type of nourishment,â€ť Cho tells me. â€śYou eat food like this differently. You appreciate it. You meditate with it.â€ť
When sourcing supplies for the orchard dinners, Cho partners closely with fellow chefs and local farms. Part of her mission is to close the gap of food waste: the green beans, prepared in hoisin and mulberry sauce, were salvaged from a fashion party earlier in the week, which had much more than they needed.
We spend all day crouching low in the dirt so that we understand the food weâ€™re eating here at the table. The dinner stitches together the dayâ€™s work with its reward.
10 p.m. – Winding down
After weâ€™ve had our fill of food and tableside conversation, we begin packing up. Since thereâ€™s no dishwasher in the farmhouse, everyone helps with the washing and drying. There are a few rounds of card games, along with a shared bottle of homemade nocino, an Italian liqueur made from unripe California walnuts in their still-soft green husks.
Eventually, everyone trails off to the tents to tuck in for the night. As I drift to sleep, I think about how this type of life â€” and planting food, in general â€” is a supreme act of optimism. We plant seeds in the hope that they grow strong. We give them care; we wait and see; we go about our day.
In the distance, I can hear the guttural snorts of the Kunekune pigs.
8 a.m. – Sunday morningÂ
A mist hangs in the trees and surrounding green. The morning air is damp and chilly. Thereâ€™s coffee, tea, and some food set out in the communal kitchen. Everyone seems to agree: weâ€™ve all just had one of the best nights of sleep of our lives.
Windroseâ€™s bee guy is at the farm, and weâ€™re invited to watch while he does some hive maintenance. He tells us that, unlike most raw wildflower honeys, honey made from sage resists crystallizing, maintaining its glassy viscosity. But thereâ€™s no forcing it. The bees will go where they please.
Justin brings us to the pasture where the flock of sheep and lambs grazes. Windrose has been gradually weaning the lambs, and this morning we take a little cross-farm jog with the ewes, the dogs barking and the kids, all of us, laughing as we go.
Dana Covit is a writer, researcher, collector, and nature enthusiast based in Los Angeles. She grew up on the East Coast, where flowers are fleeting and fruit-bearing trees are fairy-tale stuff. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Broccoli Magazine, Sight Unseen, and more.