Jim Nelson runs Camp Joy Gardens, a sunny, redwood-ringed 4.5-acre farm in Santa Cruz County’s San Lorenzo Valley. One of the Santa Cruz area’s first farms to shun chemical pesticides and fertilizers, Camp Joy was inspired by the example of Nelson’s mentor, Alan Chadwick. Employing biodynamic principles, the farm grows a bountiful harvest of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other products using home-grown hay mulch, cover crops, fertilizer from on-farm goats and chickens, and other organic inputs. A community supported agriculture program distributes weekly produce baskets to twenty-five local families.
As a non-profit educational organization, Camp Joy offers tours and programs for local schools, presents workshops for adults, and hosts apprentices from all over the world. Locals flock to the annual spring plant sale and fall open house to wander the colorful orchards and gardens and to buy seedlings, fresh bouquets, dried wreaths, honey, jams, candles, and other farm products.
Nelson was an early protégé of Alan Chadwick at the UCSC Garden, where he met his first wife, Beth Benjamin. After leaving the Garden, the couple briefly experimented with farming in Canada. They eventually returned to Santa Cruz, where one day Chadwick shared with them a letter he had received from a Boulder Creek landowner, Cressie Digby, who expressed interest in providing four acres for young organic farmers to cultivate. In 1971, Nelson and Benjamin established Camp Joy Garden on Digby’s land.
In this interview, conducted by Sarah Rabkin in Jim Nelson’s home at Camp Joy Gardens in Boulder Creek, California, on August 20th and October 23rd, 2008, Nelson talked about the founding and early days of the UCSC Garden, his experiences with Alan Chadwick, the creation and evolution of Camp Joy, and his philosophy as a farmer-educator. Two farm dogs slept nearby on the living-room floor, and the scent of ripe pears drifted in from the kitchen, which was filled with crates of newly harvested fruit.