A few years ago I wrote a number of profiles on the wonderful food vendors and nurseries at the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Market at Cabrillo College in Aptos. I am re-posting a few of them here.
The Astones: a Life of Discovery through Protea Plants
Words that come to mind after meeting with Mike and Tina Astone are: curious, life-long learners, thoughtful stewards of the land, lovers of the great outdoors, and risk-takers. They live and work on their property overlooking a beautiful valley. It wasn’t always that way—when they arrived, the property was like a desert after being denuded by ground squirrels. They transformed it into a lush environment filled with birds, honey bees and all matter of other insects and animals. The beauty of this valley is one of their greatest joys, and their biggest source of pride.
Mike and Tina met in the Santa Barbara area in the late 1970s. Tina was attending college taking general education and business classes, and Mike was working at a winery helping with everything from planting to wine-making. In his spare time, Mike enjoyed pouring over the winery owner’s books on botany, and became fascinated by the protea plant. He had been looking to start a business of his own and the idea of a protea nursery took root. Tina agreed to join Mike in the venture.
In 1980, the pair moved to Santa Cruz where Mike planted 15,000 protea seeds in a huge field belonging to a friend on the Westside. Soon, they were able to pull together funds to purchase the property in Aptos, bringing with them some 5,000 protea sprouts. Their education began immediately with a rude lesson by voracious gophers and deer. Once gopher baskets and deer fences were in place, their plants began to flourish as a result of what Tina calls, “benign neglect.”
In the early days of the business, Tina focused on raising their two boys, while Mike ran the nursery. As the boys became more self-reliant, Tina became actively involved in the operation. They work efficiently as a team; Tina takes care of the financial and accounting side of the business, and uses her creative talents to make wreaths. Mike tends to the agricultural side of the business, and sells at the farmers market.
Tina and Mike have never stopped learning; every day at work, they reflect on what they see. They have compiled a rich body of knowledge. “The opportunity to discover new things is what makes life exciting,” said Tina. After 20 years of trial and error, Mike finally got a certain protea to root, and he is excited about it!
The Astones enjoy making people happy, and that magic happens at the farmers market. “It makes me smile to see customers’ faces light up with amazement at these unusual flowers,” said Mike. “We bring different varieties to the market each week, and we invite folks to come by and enjoy the display. For those who want to grow a protea at home, we have lots of lessons to share.”