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04.16.08

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Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Booth for One: Talk show host Michael Olson gears up for another weekly edition of 'Food Chain" at KSCO's Portola Road studio.

Farm to Fork

Broadcasting from KSCO in Santa Cruz, radio show host Michael Olson talks food and farming.

By Christina Waters


Adjusting headphones, synchronizing clocks, uplinking with satellites and cueing up a bank of keyboards, Michael Olson gets ready for Food Chain, his 9am Saturday morning show on KSCO-AM (1080). Olson is a lifelong hunter and gatherer of lore about how we eat, where our food comes from, why agriculture doesn't have to be big to be profitable and myriad other farm-related themes. "I've been trying to avoid being a farmer my whole life," he grins as he finalizes preparations for another hour of interviews with guests (one in the studio, another on the phone 3,000 miles away). He has done this particular radio gig 583 times before--an amazing record, even for this media veteran. Perennially tanned and exuding energy, Olson is dressed in blue jeans, a crisp white shirt and a heavy gold watch. The broadcast studio, whose walls and ceiling are curved for soundproofing, is completely carpeted. Everything, including the control island, is carpeted. A red "On the Air" sign suddenly lights up.

"It really is like flying," he explains. "Something always does go wrong, but you have to stay cool." I ask him what's the worst thing that ever happened. "One time my guest just didn't show up." So he fielded phone calls the entire hour and managed to get through it. No wonder he's also the station manager.

Today's show deals with controversies over pest control: whether to try to trap unwanted critters, kill them or accept them. As the show goes live, Olson introduces his two guests, quickly opening up the main themes.

"We're here talking about pests and bugs that eat our food," he says, segueing beautifully into an invitation to the listeners. "And we're interested in knowing what bugs you."

During the next 50 minutes Olson keeps the show moving and keeps it fresh. Callers want to know about gophers, about ticks. They offer their own solutions for dust mites, termites, skunks. "Pick up your phones and join us," he invites, keeping a lilt in his voice even when plagued by the inevitable blowhard. By 9:45am the call board lights are pulsing. "It always gets busy toward the end of the show," he confides. Olson politely thanks a caller who's about to launch into a rant and shuts him up with one push of a button. "I'm in control," he winks. And the hour is magically over as quickly as it began.

Down the hall from the studio, Olson's office is lined with literature on the subject closest to his heart--food, farming, the business of agriculture--and a copy of his own latest book, an oral history of his father's World War II experiences titled Tales From a Tin Can. Olson knows military life firsthand.

"My grandparents had a farm in Montana and I hoed enough weeds as a kid that I wanted to get out of there. The Navy gave me the opportunity to do that," he says.

But farming stuck with him. Everywhere he went, primarily in Asia, he gravitated toward the countryside, eager to see how agriculture was done. Olson was quickly impressed with "the mind-boggling intensity of the agriculture" in the populous Asian nations. After the Navy, Olson went to UCSC working on a degree in English and Chinese literature. "But I stumbled onto a guy named Alan Chadwick digging in the garden. And there were all these pretty girls involved in that garden and I thought, now that was the way to go."

After UCSC, Olson worked with David Brinkley's NBC Magazine. "We did a piece on the survivalists living on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. And the Montana boy in me saw all this land they had and I wondered how they could make money with it." The answers are gathered in Olson's book MetroFarm, a fact-filled collection of sagas from successful small farmers about how to help people not lose their money.

"I collected case studies of small farmers in the city, the ecology of their lives. As I learned from Asia, and Alan Chadwick," he says, "small is not necessarily small."

The book that launched his career was published 10 years ago, "When the idea of putting farms back into the city, and real people back into agriculture, was heresy."

Of his day job, he admits that he loves it. He never fails to find a story worth telling. "I'm like a trout in a stream," he says, "waiting for flies on the surface."

FOOD CHAIN airs on KSCO-AM (1080) each Saturday at 9am. Visit www.metrofarm.com for more information.


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