Letting the plants grow

At this hand-powered Madera County flower farm, bouquet colors don't match, potatoes show up among the zigzagging zinnias and the well just ran dry -- but that's a source of entertainment as well as alarm.

"Everybody quiet," says John C. (or "young John") Warner, 45, before his brother Ray drops a pebble down the empty well. It falls 280 feet, sending back eerie "dwoooops" suitable for a sci-fi sound effect.

The assembled Warners giggle.

"Talk to the well, Ray," says 17-year-old sister Glory.

Ray, 20, drops down and shouts "Here, water-water-water" into a hole that distorts his voice.

The Warners giggle again. It's been a good well: It let them support their family for 13 years. They'll just laugh and dig 100 feet deeper.

Whole Systems Agriculture flower farm -- at 2 acres, really a giant backyard -- was John Warner's answer (he's "old John") to the dilemma of how he was going to "take care of all these kids," back when his six children were younger and he was making $6.25 an hour teaching agriculture for the California Conservation Corps and collecting a retirement pension from 29 years as a teacher in the Los Angeles area.

The Warners sell flowers twice a week at a farmer's market and to the occasional florist who comes out to buy blooms en masse for a wedding. The business has a Web site that offers tips on baking bread and protecting the planet, but little information on how to buy anything from them. It's not a high-dollar enterprise, says the elder Warner, but it provides a rich life.

On a recent day at the flower farm behind a ranch house in a semirural neighborhood of lawns and rosebushes, the voice of Warner, 72, is heard through his children, long before he makes a personal appearance to announce that his parenting "was not entirely consistent by any means."

"Our dad says ..." is a common refrain. According to this hearsay, Warner likes science, doesn't like lazy hippies and attributes the fall of the Roman Empire to the tilling of the soil.

The Warners don't till. They put mulch over the top to keep down weeds instead of turning up the earth.

Tilling degrades the land, Ray says, but with mulching "it gets better every year."

There's a long row of small tractors behind the defunct well on this no-machine farm. The Warners have never used any of them -- for one thing, none of the tractors works. Neighbors just keep giving them broken tractors, figuring they can fix and use them once they change their minds about not using machinery.


Some weeds have burst through the mulch and grown "taller than all these kids," as John C. puts it.

Ray eagerly shows how he's been using a scythe to whack them down. John C. nods approvingly.

"There's not another farm in the San Joaquin Valley using that tool," says John C. about the curved blade that these days is usually only seen at Halloween in the hands of the grim reaper.

"We are a 100% hand-powered farm," Ray says.

He's recently back from "wwoofing," taking part in World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The idea is to exchange work at farms worldwide for food and a place to stay.

After several e-mail exchanges, Ray went to work at a farm in Costa Rica, but when he got there he found the farm was nothing more than a couple of banana trees.

"It was a hippie rainbow-gathering type family," he says. "We laid in hammocks all the time."

He came home eager to work on the family flower farm. He's a Fresno City College student planning to transfer to Fresno State and major in agriculture -- although that may be too much the other direction from Central-American-counterculture-hammock-swinging for him.

"I hate industrial agriculture," he says. "It's the No. 1 cause of pollution, totally reliant on fossil fuel. Growing up in this area makes you think a lot about that."

When John-the-dad emerges, he talks about "peak oil" -- the concept that oil reserves are finite and will run out and a global economy based on oil will soon face dire consequences.

But then he explains that he didn't set out to create a hand-powered flower farm on principle; it just evolved that way. They couldn't compete with big, tractor-powered farms anyway, so they started doing things by hand.

"I am a man of principle and practicality," he says.

They grow flowers because he has a degree in ornamental horticulture -- but also because there are few flower farms in the Central Valley and they can avoid the competition that vegetable and fruit farmers face.

Together by choice

Warner unflinchingly relates the family history. His first wife, the mother of his two oldest sons, committed suicide after a long, debilitating battle with depression. His second marriage brought the four younger children. When that marriage broke up, he became the primary caregiver.

"She still comes here and helps plant the potatoes, though," Ray says.

The elder John remarried two years ago. Georgia runs the farm's Web site. One son, Erik Warner, 43, wasn't interested in farming. He is in Beijing right now helping to design lights for the Olympics.

When the younger brood was small, John C. concentrated on raising the flowers to make money and the elder John studied up on parenting.

"I read a lot of childhood education and philosophy. Basically there's two styles of parenting. The authoritative style is largely favored in this area. I chose the permissive model."

When those books failed him and his children were squabbling at the dinner table, Warner turned to reading works on organizational management.

"The system theories which I studied showed that every societal unit demonstrated more harmony in relation to more available space. It is poor practice to require togetherness," he says.

Warner made the dinner table a communal space where the family could gather when and if they wanted.

"I got everyone their own personal 13-inch TV. My strategy was that with each of them in their own room in front of their own TV, there wouldn't be squabbling. A personal TV is a birthright in this family."

The children eventually turned off their televisions and spent more time with their siblings.

"I'm really surprised," Warner says. "I let them follow their hearts. I didn't use any coercion."

Flowers make us happy

On this evening, John C. is cutting flowers for the Wednesday and Saturday Vineyard Farmers Market at Blackstone and Shaw avenues in Fresno. Lately, it's been their only market, because they sell everything they can produce.

While working his way through the colorful rows, John C. notices some potatoes growing amid the zinnias and sunflowers.

"These are Swedish peanut fingerlings. Just a good eating potato. I must have thrown a few over here," he says, holding one up. "They sell them for $6.99 a pound at Whole Foods. This is [worth] a quarter right here."

There are also onions in the row. It was an accidental planting, but it's working.

John C. says he pays no attention to color or shape when putting together bouquets.

"I just go down the row and when I get a handful, I'm done."

He has regular customers. Every week, a guy on a motorcycle comes and throws a bouquet into his bike bag. There's an older man who used to always come each Saturday with his wife. Now he comes alone and buys flowers for her grave.

John C. has given up on guessing which bouquets people will choose.

"They look and look and then always pick the ugliest ones to me. I've given up saying, 'Hey, this one is fresher and stronger.' They're looking at colors and stuff."

Business hasn't dropped at all during the current hard times when people are scrambling to afford groceries.

"It's because flowers make people happy," Ray says. "There have been studies."

Warner's four younger children have plant names for their middle names.

"I read a Sufi philosopher who said, 'If you want better people, give them better names,' " Warner explains.

Emanuel Elderberry, 24, is in his room ripping up floorboards for a remodeling project.

He returned from two tours of Army duty in Iraq with a combat disability.

"But he is in essence the same person," Warner says. "An elderberry holds its own shape."

True Buckeye, 25, is a master gardener, and an expert in permaculture -- agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.

"It has been said of the buckeye that he who plants it is thinking 100 years ahead," Warner says. "True believes in working for the future."

Ray Sage was named for rays of sunshine, and his plant name symbolizes wisdom.

"Ray has followed that. He's into philosophy and yoga," Warner says.

"I'm not into yoga," Ray says.

"But Ray, I watched you sit cross-legged this very day," his father says.

"I think it's comfortable," Ray says.

Glory Laurel was named with broad symbolism in mind, Warner says. "It's wide-ranging: poet laureate or laureled athlete."

"She does get straight A's," Ray says. "And she's No. 1 on the diving team. It's a good name."

Warner says there are parallels to be drawn between his family and the flower farm.

"I don't worry about straight rows. I let the plants grow as they do. We just provide for their needs. And this farm supports us," he says.

"All these kids haven't been in straight rows. They've had their squabbles. But they're quite loyal and supportive of each other. They're here. And they're all happy."