Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “CSA”

Born this way: Soil Born Farms

Across a field of potatoes, broccoli and green beans, came the crack of a bat and male voices hollering from a dugout. In the middle of a farm tour at Soil Born Farms in Rancho Cordova, a baseball game was underway at nearby Hagan Community Park.

Urban farm meets baseball game

Across another field, this one filled with wispy asparagus, swiss chard and collard greens, bicyclists swooshed past along the American River Bike Trail.

American River Parkway cyclist

Both were reminders that this is an urban farm, one attempting to connect a bustling and active community to its agricultural roots, and getting them to grow and eat fresh, seasonal food along the way.

Soil Born Farms veggie signs

My family and I visited Soil Born Farms at American River Ranch for its annual Day on the Farm Celebration this past weekend.

Soil Born Farm signs

The nonprofit, educational, certified organic farm pulled out all the stops, with workshops on everything from composting and raising chickens to seed saving and the importance of bees. Cooking demos taught new ways to tempt kids and adults to eat their veggies. Participants could meet the farm animals, tour the youth garden,

Soil Born Farms youth gardenas well as the farm,

Soil Born Farms tour

visit the newly constructed outdoor classroom,

Soil Born Farms, outdoor classroommake eco-friendly crafts, hear some live music, eat organic hot dogs and ice cream, and, of course, stop to smell the flowers.

Lily and the poppies

Shawn Harrison and Marco Franciosa began Soil Born Farms in 2000 as a for-profit farm, transforming it into an educational nonprofit in 2004. It has grown to operate two urban farms on 55 acres in Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, with a focus on promoting urban agriculture, sustainable food systems and healthy food education.

The historical American River Ranch has been farmed since the 1840s. Soil Born Farms leased the land from Sacramento County in 2008.

On any given week, the farm may have a class or event intent on teaching people how to “grow your groceries.” Among the June class roster are topics such as weed management, the business of starting a small farm, and how to make herbal medicine.

But the owners, farm apprentices and volunteers here aren’t just teachers; they’re doers. They also operate a CSA program; sell at the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op and Midtown farmers market; operate a farm stand; and help Sacramento-area restaurants like Grange, Magpie Cafe, and Mulvaney‘s do the farm-to-table thing.

Soil Born Farms education coordinator Sarah Barnes, our farm tour leader, is in her third season with the farm. She began as an apprentice in 2011, when she spent the summer living in a tent on the farm. Before coming to Soil Born, the Connecticut native was a fourth grade teacher in New York City, who knew little about gardening, much less farming.

“The more I learned about how our food system works, the more I wanted to learn how to grow food myself,” she said. “I wanted to be on a farm that was not just commercial but also had educational programs. So here I am, on the other side of the country, in Sacramento, California.”

Pick and grin: Pacific Star Gardens strawberries

UPDATE for 2013 season: This wonderful farm took a hard hit in April, when hail decided to fall from the sky, hellbent on its strawberry fields. (Read “Twenty minutes of hail pound strawberry farmer,” Western Farm Press.) While there are some surviving strawberries, they’re nothing like they were last year. But don’t give up on them. They do have some fine-looking garden transplants for sale. We’ll definitely be back next year for the berries. 


Debbie Ramming spends several hours a week as a self-described “lunch lady,” accepting the lunch money from school children before they fill their plates with tater tots and chocolate milk. But for the other part of her life—the majority of it—she is an organic farmer with her husband, Robert Ramming. Together, they own and run Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland, Calif., where they focus on feeding local families organic fruits, vegetables, free-range eggs and heritage turkeys.

“We’re living his dream,” said Debbie, tilting her head toward Robert. We were standing in a shade structure at the entrance of their farm, where visitors—my family and a few friends among them– were grabbing empty white buckets to fill in the nearby strawberry field.

Robert says he grew up in Lompoc, Calif., during the 1960s, when the “back to the earth” lifestyle was underway.

“You go back to what you wanted to do as a kid. So this was my mid-life crisis,” he said of the farm. “That was 20 years ago.”

The Rammings started Pacific Star Gardens in 1994 and immediateley started to convert the 40 acres of  conventionally farmed land to certified organic. The first chunk of the farm was certified organic in 1995, and by 2000 all of it was certified organic. Now that the couple’s four children have grown up and moved on, Debbie and Robert run the farm themselves, with a few volunteers for extra help.

They offer a CSA veggie box (10 weeks for $100), u-pick fruits (strawberries, ollalieberries, blackberries, apricots) and subscription chicken and duck eggs.


Later in the summer, they’ll sell their tomatoes and melons—which they’re best-known for—at farmers’ markets in Davis (Wednesday night only), Lake Tahoe and Woodland. Aside from the farmers’ markets, the Rammings don’t make deliveries. So those who want their food need to come to the farm to get it.

“We want people willing to come out and know the farm and understand the ebb and flow,” said Robert.

How to pick a good strawberry

The Rammings found some very willing customers in me, my husband, daughter Lily, our friend Max and other friends Ben, Lisa and their 3-month-old daughter, Josephine. We enticed our friends to the farm north of Davis with visions of strawberries. It was an easy sell. We simply promised them the best strawberry shortcake they’ve ever eaten.

The Rammings grow two varieties of strawberries: Camarosa and Chandler. The Camarosa berries are large, lovely, and built for a shelf life. While both types are sweet, the Chandler strawberries are smaller and packed extra full with sweet flavor.

The strawberry season runs from about April to late June, and I think we hit it just right. The berries lit up the field like little red sirens. It seemed hard to go wrong, but I asked Debbie what to look for in a good berry, anyway.

“You want it to be a nice bright red—a shine, not dull,” she said. “And you want it to be red all the way to the tip and on both sides.”

We all set about filling our buckets—except for Lily, who, with the logic of a 2-year-old, couldn’t imagine why anyone would put a ripe, sweet berry into a bucket when they could just as well put it into their mouth. At one point, she sat hovering over our bucket of berries and ate one after another with fierce, single-minded dedication.

Luckily, the  Rammings don’t mind if visitors eat as they pick. Though a sign at the entrance pointedly encourages a reasonable approach.

With just the two of them running the place, the Rammings don’t really advertise. They rely on word of mouth.

Max, who has lived only a few miles from the farm for years, said he had no idea Pacific Star Gardens existed. “My first thought was, ‘I need to tell everyone about this place,’” he said, hunched over rows of strawberry plants. “But now I’m thinking I want to keep all these berries to myself!”

With bellies and buckets full, we returned to the entrance to weigh and pay.

A mounded bucket is $13, and each of ours ended up weighing between 5 and 6 pounds. I’m a seasoned strawberry consumer, the fruit being one of the few things my daughter will reliably eat. So I know that a pound of organic strawberries at the supermarket can cost $4-$6 dollars. About $30-worth of organic strawberries for $13 is one deal I’m already planning to return for before the season’s end.


Location: 20872 County Road 99, Woodland, Calif.
Hours: Daylight to sundown.
U-pick:  Certified organic strawberries and apricots ($13/bucket)  ollalieberries and blackberries ($4.50/pound)
CSA: Veggie box (10 weeks for $100); eggs ($5.50 for subscribers, $6 for nonsubscribers)
Farmers’ Markets (melons and tomatoes, mid-summer): Davis Farmers Market (Wednesday night only), Lake Tahoe on Tuesdays, Woodland Farmers Market
For more information, call (530) 666-7308, Look them up on Facebook.

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