Val and Kurt Dambacher invest a lot of their time in farming for self-reliance.
Photo by Thomas Kirchen
Val and Kurt Dambacher at a friend’s farm. Soay sheep, which Val raises, are grazing in the background. Between Dambacher Family Farms and FoCuS, they are busy 24/7.

Sometimes change brings with it all those uninvited emotions you wish you never had to experience—the loss of stability, fear of the unknown and imagined negative endings to an otherwise undisturbed routine of life. But life has a way of throwing curveballs, and so it was that the recession of 2008 brought with it the reality that my husband, Kurt, and I were so deeply entrenched in real-estate leverage that the only way out was to change. We closed the door on our business in early 2009, sold our farm and rental in Oregon, and decided to take a break, hoping the answer of what to do next with our lives would appear in short order.

Kurt wanted a chance to go on the ultimate fishing trip, taking a month or longer to fish for salmon on the coast of Oregon. Being an avid gardener and animal lover, I decided to spend some time working on other people’s farms, hoping to get a glimpse of a future I could somehow settle into. At the age of 60, the playing field was narrowed to those jobs that did not require immense brawn but could use an honest, capable person.

I got positions in Hawaii, Orcas Island, South Carolina and Oregon, some with friends who wanted a farm sitter and some with new acquaintances through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, as a WWOOFer. I worked from May to December at the various locations, and became better educated in farming techniques and resource managing. I also learned what was most important to other people and what mattered the most to me in my life.

A Grand Idea

Kurt and I met up again for Christmas in Sonora, California, where he was helping his dad who had recently had a stroke and needed some assistance maintaining his property. Kurt’s family was from Sonora. John Henry Dambacher had arrived during the Gold Rush days and had seven sons, making an odd name like Dambacher one of the more common last names in Sonora today. Therefore, it was no stretch to put together a Christmas dinner for over 30 people as a spur-of-the-moment event.

During that Christmas dinner we discussed the idea of creating a family farm, with everyone able to grow vegetables for the family and maybe even grow food for the community. It took little time for the elders of the family to offer up whatever they had to help us all get started. They gladly donated deer fencing, gates and even a tractor and a greenhouse.

Magically, one cousin volunteered his land, another cousin appeared with equipment to put in a perimeter dirt road, and his sons showed up to weld gates together. By early 2011, the family had prepared the 3-acre garden for our first season.

What was happening? How was it possible to have such gifts showered on us from just an idea? I believe our sincerity in wanting to create something that would benefit the entire family and community brought forth in other family members a willingness to help in any way they could. What we were seeing firsthand was a micro view of how an entire community can become energized into action for the benefit of everyone.

Staying Prepared

Ideas are one thing, action another. Often what creates action from a thought is the recognition of a need to change. The recession in 2008 surprised many people, but it also led to the acknowledgement that we as individuals and our communities as a whole are vulnerable to economic changes most cannot foresee.

In January 2010, a man named Chris Martenson came to Sonora to tell his personal story of change, when he realized that downsizing and promoting community discussion of alternative ways of living were his next steps in life. He was sponsored by a nonprofit group called Foothill Collaborative for Sustainability, or FoCuS, whose mission is to help create resilient communities in the Sierra Nevada foothill region of California.

The foothills are quite isolated from larger cities and freeways, and have become reliant on imported essentials like food for day-to-day living. Martenson spoke to a standing-room-only crowd, explaining how easily communities could become paralyzed by any number of emergencies. We all knew this was true—it would not take much of a disaster to stop food from flowing up to the mountains. Many of us did not even have food and water in storage for an emergency.

At the end of Martenson’s talk, he said, “All right, now you have heard my story. What are you going to do about it?” Kurt and I realized our answer had to come from the work we could do at the family garden and the service we could donate to the nonprofit organization FoCuS, which might help the counties in our area get a step ahead of the next emergency. We began helping FoCuS as volunteers, then later became members of its board of directors.

FoCuS collaborates as often as possible on its yearly events. For example, we team up with master gardeners to present our annual Seed Share event, and utilize their volunteers to help man the Seed Library, which is located in our county library building.

Perhaps the event FoCuS is most known for is the annual Potato Patch. It began as a plea from a local farmer to his neighbors to help bring the potato harvest in before a massive storm hit. After hearing Chris Martenson, many of us FoCuS volunteers decided to do a Potato Patch at a farm in Columbia, a nearby town. It was such a success that FoCuS has continued the event from 2010 to present. Every year we depend upon a member of the community to volunteer land for the next Potato Patch.

High School’s In

Last year’s Potato Patch truly put FoCuS on the map. Our local Sonora High School had been preparing a plot of ground it had acquired for an agricultural learning center. It called the property Wildcat Ranch, and was looking for a good way to begin working the land for crops.

We were invited to do the FoCuS Potato Patch at Wildcat Ranch in collaboration with the high school students. It didn’t take us long to round up enough volunteers, including the students, to contour and plant a nice half-acre potato patch. The local newspaper was happy to cover the event and share in all the excitement that FoCuS and the high school were generating as they educated students and adults about growing their own food.

One of the teachers at the high school was also the director of the ranch property, and he patiently watered all the potatoes with our drip system, as needed, until they were harvested in the fall. The students weighed, sorted and sold the potatoes at our local food buying cooperative. In addition, they donated several hundred pounds to the local food bank. What a great real-life project for learning about marketing, math, science and human nature.

The last five years Kurt and I have been in Sonora have shown me how working together and volunteering time with a nonprofit organization can empower the individual as well as the group. It generates a feeling of camaraderie with others, lets me know I am not alone in the value I place on a reliable, local food source, and helps me feel I am doing everything I can to improve life in our region.

This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

Up Next

8 Shelters for the Great Outdoors

Be prepared anywhere, anytime with on-the-go emergency shelters!