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The passions of Galt’s Charity Kenyon

As a media law attorney, she was known for her zealous defense of the First Amendment. Now, she provides regional leadership in a campaign for slow and natural food

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Posted: Saturday, September 24, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 5:58 pm, Sat Sep 24, 2011.

Nothing but the rustle of leaves and the buzz of bees working on their hives disturbs the utter tranquility of Charity Kenyon's farm, just west of McFarland Ranch in the outskirts of Galt.

Kenyon, dressed in capris and a flower-print shirt, wanders proudly around her home in clogs with three freshly laid eggs cupped carefully in her left hand.

Occasionally she stops wandering through her vegetable garden to pluck an errant weed from a cluster of freshly planted beets.

At one point, she stops and looks down and begins to describe just how much time and effort it takes to plant the vegetables that now look like small leaves just sprouting from the raked soil.

"I planted 80 seeds last week, three to four hours every morning," she gently grunts as she pulls up a weed that, to the casual observer, looks no different from any other greenery in the vegetable bed. "Out here, you really have to work around the heat."

Kenyon, 60, is a Central Valley icon in the slow food movement.

She is bringing the grassroots campaign for good, clean, fair food from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

But Kenyon's advocacy of food follows another fascination the law.

For 34 years, she served California as a leading First Amendment lawyer, representing news media before state and federal trial and appellate courts, a passion she worked to perfect since she started law school at University of California, Davis in 1977.

But roughly eight years ago, Kenyon was given an article by her husband, Mike Eaton, on the slow food movement.

"Here, this is you in a nutshell," Eaton told Kenyon.

And he was right.

A mentor who could 'read the soil'

Kenyon's mother did not grow beets, broccoli or beans like her daughter.

In fact, Kenyon's mother was lucky if she could grow flowers.

The closest Kenyon's mother got to pruning and planting was with the help of Mr. Abe, the family gardener who took care of whatever flowers and plants sat out under the window sills of Kenyon's girlhood home in Orinda.

"My mother had the most amazing black thumb," Kenyon said. "She could kill just about anything."

Kenyon's parents did excel in the world of academia, however.

Her stepfather was a professor of mathematics at UC Berkeley, and her mother was a math teacher as well as the treasurer of a Unitarian church.

Academics and community service played a big role in Kenyon's life growing up, so her interaction with gardening and growing fruits and vegetables did not start early on, save for the infrequent conversations she had with Mr. Abe.

And while Kenyon said her mother did not personally invest any time in her garden, she insisted the family have a fresh salad at dinner every night, something Kenyon now believes was her favorite part of the meal.

"It never bored me that we had a salad every night," she said. "It was the way we learned to eat."

When Julia Child rose to popularity in the mid-1960s, Kenyon's mother obsessed over Child's recipes and methods of cooking, becoming what Kenyon called a "masterful cook."

Kenyon and her two sisters, Emily and Suzanne, lived in a "privileged" environment, she added — but it was not because her family was prosperous or lived in a huge house. Rather, it was because the family spent nearly every night eating dinner together.

"We would sit around the dinner table and tell each other about our days," she said. "Families don't really do that anymore. But it was our time to be together."

Kenyon did, however, grow up in the Civil Rights era, and as a junior in high school made the conscious decision that she was going to one day be a lawyer.

So in 1970, Kenyon headed to UC Santa Cruz, where she enrolled at Merrill College with the intention of majoring in community studies.

As part of her curriculum, Kenyon was required to take one elective course of her choosing. Not sure what she wanted to do, she was perusing class options when a gardening class with the UC Santa Cruz Garden Project caught her eye.

Getting into the course was extremely competitive, however.

The class was taught by famed English master gardener Alan Chadwick, who was a leading innovator of organic farming techniques and an influential educator in the field of French intensive gardening.

But somehow Kenyon managed to secure a spot.

And after her first day in class, Kenyon said she was hooked.

Whether it was growing beans and flowers or learning techniques like double digging — a method of bed preparation that aerates soil to a depth of two feet — Kenyon said Chadwick's class was "intense."

"Just by touching the dirt, (Chadwick) could read the soil ... and eventually the rest of us began to as well," she said. "It's like a sixth sense. Each soil is different, and there is always something more to learn."

From law school to law practice

Kenyon was still in her first year of college when met her husband, who at the time was the resident assistant in her dorm.

While Kenyon was just learning the ins and outs of gardening, Eaton had been toiling the soil nearly all of his life. He was raised on a walnut orchard in Yucaipa, a small city located roughly 80 miles east of Los Angeles.

Growing up, Eaton said there was always some sort of livestock running around the orchard: chickens, rabbits and even a pig.

A self-proclaimed environmental activist, Eaton met Kenyon shortly after she arrived at UC Santa Cruz and the two bonded over their shared interest in gardening.

After Kenyon graduated with honors in 1974, the couple relocated to Sacramento when Kenyon was accepted at UC Davis' King Hall School of Law.

Attracted to the school because of its stress on public interest and its drive for social justice, Kenyon said the school was "a good fit."

At UC Davis, Kenyon took a course in constitutional law with Professor John Poulos. A practical man, Kenyon said he nevertheless taught the class all types of exciting things most young lawyers do not get the chance to learn.

It was Kenyon's first taste of the First Amendment, and she liked it.

When Kenyon graduated in 1977, jobs were scarce.

Women were not sought after by law firms. Typical occupations for women included being flight attendants, librarians or secretaries, not lawyers.

"There weren't many women in law school at the time," she said. "I think I had no idea that I was out of step with society's expectations."

But Kenyon got lucky. She secured a job with Sacramento firm Diepenbrock, Wulff, Plant & Hannegan, which at one point was Sacramento's oldest law firm.

At one point, Kenyon's law firm was asked to defend a news reporter's right not to disclose his sources to the district attorney and defense counsel in a murder trial involving members of the Mexican Mafia.

Kenyon was given the opportunity to work with the defense on the reporter's behalf on the case, whose defense team also included Bill Shubb, now Chief Judge emeritus of the federal district court in Sacramento.

"I was a civil lawyer with the unusual opportunity to practice constitutional law," she said. "The rest is history, as they say."

Though the reporter ultimately had to disclose his information, Kenyon was not deterred.

For the next 22 years, Kenyon's work emphasized appellate practice, or working with a court whose jurisdiction is to review decisions of lower courts or agencies. She also represented various news media outlets, including the Lodi News-Sentinel, and public contracts disputes.

Kenyon was a key figure in helping to improve the state's shield law. The shield law protects journalists seeking to maintain the confidentiality of an unnamed source or unpublished information obtained during news gathering. For journalists, the shield law is a crucial tool to gain the trust and confidence of sources.

Kenyon gained a reputation as a strong defender and expert on California's shield law, especially as it pertains to newspapers, according to Jim Ewert, legal counsel and legislative advocate for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

"She was able to get access to courts and court records when agencies refused to provide it. Any time a newspaper finds itself in some sort of legal quagmire, Charity was the one that (newspapers) call," he said.

When Kenyon's firm closed its doors in 1998, Kenyon was still at the height of her law career.

So, she decided to become a founding partner and created the firm Riegels Campos & Kenyon in 1999.

Shortly thereafter, Kenyon became entrenched in one of her most prominent cases.

In 1999, Kenyon handled an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on behalf of media outlets, including The Sacramento Bee, seeking access to information in the "Unabomber" trial of serial bomber Theodore Kaczynski. His mail bombing spree spanned nearly 20 years, killed three people and injured 24 others.

Kenyon successfully represented a coalition of newspapers and broadcast news sources — dubbed the Unabom Trial Media Coalition — to gain access to anonymous or semi-anonymous documents associated with the "Unabomber" case, said executive director of the CNPA, Tom Newton.

The documents that were released to the media helped reporters better detail and relay information from Kaczynski's trial to the public.

'Are you serious?'

In 2000, Kenyon and Eaton came across a real estate offer they could not refuse.

Having lived in Land Park in Sacramento since 1984, both were looking for a little change of scenery.

The property was located on five acres of fertile land on the outskirts of Galt. It was peaceful, good for gardening and was being sold at a price Kenyon and Eaton thought was too good to pass up.

But it took more than just signing a check to turn the lot into what is now two acres of farm land that includes 100 hops clusters, roosters and rows upon rows of fresh tomatoes, heirloom beans and melons.

It sounds like paradise, but 10 years ago, it was a barren stretch of land that was treated more like a dump. Littered with discarded food wrappers, empty whiskey bottles and several abandoned cars, the property needed a lot of work.

Hiring an architect to help construct their home, Kenyon and Eaton camped on the west side of their property throughout the two-year remodeling and building process.

On occasion, the husband and wife duo would travel to the Cosumnes River to get away.

Building could be stressful, between approving permits and the trash collection that seemed to go on and on.

At the time, Eaton was manager of the Cosumnes River Preserve, and Kenyon enjoyed bird-watching.

One weekend in 2001, Eaton invited his friend, Bill Yeates, also a lawyer and bird-watching enthusiast, along for a trip to the river.

At one point during the mini-vacation, Yeates balked when Kenyon, at the height of her career, proclaimed she was thinking about retirement.

Yeates did not want to believe her.

"I took one look at her and laughed and said, 'Why don't you come and join me instead?'" he said.

Two weeks later, Yeates got a call at work.

It was Kenyon, who cut right to the chase.

"She asked if I was serious, and so I said, 'Are you serious?'"

Kenyon and Eaton finally moved into their home in 2002. Kenyon was still working hard as a lawyer, but by 2007, when she took Yeates up on his offer to form a new firm, she was also heavily entrenched in a newfound passion — the slow food movement.

A mover and a shaker

Kenyon had been made aware of the slow food movement prior to the article Eaton had given her roughly eight years ago.

Always enjoying fresh food, however, was not as simple as Kenyon thought.

Yes, she had grown vegetables. Yes, she and her husband had always had a garden together since their days in Santa Cruz.

But farming their food and making the land usable for sustainable farming was another matter.

Kenyon loved the "do it yourself" idea that the slow food movement reinforces, from planting your own grains to chomping on freshly plucked prunes that have just been drizzled with honey.

"Slow food combines our interest in farming and food and civil rights and protecting the environment," she said. "Changing the food system for the benefit of the health of people and the planet is about as fundamental as advocacy can get."

Fueled by her appetite to go "back to the basics," Kenyon joined the slow food movement's Sacramento chapter.

From there, Kenyon's desire to promote the ideals of the slow food movement quickly spread. The Sacramento chapter needed to be seriously revitalized, which Kenyon tackled the challenge without abandon.

She revamped how the chapter was organized, how it promoted its events and how others could get involved in a movement some saw as controversial due to its push to move away from fast food and return to farming the land.

Kenyon worked to have people understand that there is not necessarily anything wrong with the idea of fast food, every once in a while. But when it becomes a consistent presence at your dining table, Kenyon said then people have a problem. It

From there, she pushed to have other cities and counties join the movement. She even became an advocate for Lodi when residents decided they wanted to start a chapter.

Randy Caparoso, a sommelier and writer who lives in Lodi, had gathered some friends and colleagues to see what it would take to have Lodi join in on the slow food movement.

Caparoso, who had worked in Hawaii for more than two decades and was a founding partner of the Roy's restaurant chain, had been one of the driving forces to have restaurants buy local, fresh produce rather than ship in food for their cuisines.

He said he felt that Lodi, like Hawaii, had a lot of potential to be a leader in the state's slow food movement with its fertile soil and many fruit and vegetable options.

Caparoso and his fellow foodies, who started seriously considering forming a slow food group in October 2010, turned to Kenyon for advice on how to get things started.

She began showing up to meetings and constantly emailing group members back and forth with ideas on how to get things ready for the Lodi slow food chapter.

By March, a slow food movement had officially been established in Lodi. Four months later, the chapter boastsed more than 150 members.

Caparoso said Kenyon is always willing to provide help and guidance to the Lodi slow food chapter, such as improving communications or organizing meetings.

She is able to do all of this despite the fact that she is still a practicing attorney as well as the head of the Central Valley slow food movement.

"She is never without advice," he said. "She truly lives this. She is proof that it can be done."

'There is nothing quite like plucking fresh sugar off the tree'

Back in her home in Galt, Kenyon wipes a drip of sweat that had been creeping down the side of her forehead.

It's boiling outside, and the sun was beating down on the newly-planted winter garden that Kenyon hopes will reap a good harvest of broccoli, cabbage and carrots.

Once inside, Kenyon fluffs a pillow and stares out to her porch, which faces west towards the Delta. She points out to a bench, hidden in the shade of a sagging branch of a tree.

She looks a little longer at the dry ground and brown, uncut grass that stretches from the bench — also the end of her property — back to her porch.

With two acres of land already in full use, why not start on the west side of the house?

Kenyon shakes her head. She is done, she says. They have more than enough to do to keep them busy.

Eaton's 87-year-old mother, who lives three miles away, even comes over to help shell beans when it is needed.

There is so much work, in fact, that Kenyon is ready to move on from her days as a lawyer and focus solely on her involvement with slow food and preserving a world where people understand that we are what we eat.

Kenyon has decided to retire on Oct. 1, though she plans to keep her bar license current, just in case some legal matter pops up that she cannot refuse to undertake.

She is more interested now in helping others learn just what it takes to step away from fatty foods and return to food from the vine, literally.

"There is nothing quite like plucking fresh sugar straight from a tree," she says, as she pops a fig in her mouth.

Along with promoting the slow food movement, Kenyon is leaning toward trying to push for more sustainable lifestyles, including water and energy conservation.

"We act like there is no end," she says. "We are running out of water. We are running out of oil. How we live right now is not sustainable, and we know that."

So while Kenyon is stepping away from her law practice, which she says "is the right time to do so," it is fair to say Kenyon will not be slowing down.

Rather, Kenyon is stepping up the slow food movement, which she talks about with a distinct smile on her face.

Be it prunes or pretzel beans, Kenyon cannot get enough of the farming life.

Walking through a gate that leads to her fruit trees, Kenyon stops to coo at one of her roosters, Gaspar.

She smiles when he cocks his head to one side and responds with a loud, distinct squawk.

"This is where I am meant to be right now," she says. "And it's great."

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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