farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Family friendly”

A zinger of a Zinnia Patch

Sorry, guys, but if you live near Woodland, Calif., you have no excuse not to give flowers this summer to your mom, wife, girlfriend, grandmother, or any other target of affection. Actually, ladies, that goes for us, too.

Sitting somewhat mirage-like off the side of a highway and behind a handpainted sign that says “Free Flowers/Flores Gratis” is a stunning sight: two acres of brightly colored zinnias …. free for the taking. It’s the vision of Zinnia Patch farmer Mark Mezger blossoming into view in bee-laden bursts of pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, whites, purples and fuschias.

Field of zinnias

So earnest is Mezger’s hope that people will not only come and enjoy this site, but also take some flowers for themselves and others who could use a brightened day, he has set out a table of empty vases for visitors to fill and take home.

Vases awaiting zinnias

The flowers are in bloom mid-June through September, and the patch never closes. (Picking zinnias by moonlight sounds pretty romantic, no?) There is a catch.  It’s really more of a request, as there are no “flower police” to enforce it, but it’s worth taking to heart:  He wants visitors to also pick a bouquet for someone who couldn’t come, preferably a senior citizen.

When my family visited a couple of weekends ago, I brought my senior citizen with me (sorry, mom, but it’s true!) … my mother. Isn’t she cute?

Mom picks zinnias

It was a hot day under the sun, and daughter Lily was pretty whiny in the heat, but it’s hard to be unhappy when you’re surrounded by a field of zinnias. (But darned if she didn’t try…)

Mother-daughter zinnia walk

What could have driven a man–and several volunteers– to plant two acres of zinnias and just give them all away? Was this some sort of love tribute, a la the Taj Mahal, farmer-style? Is he striving for the title of Patron Saint of Free Beautiful Flowers?

It turns out that Mezger started the zinnia patch three years ago after a farmers’ appreciation dinner and dance at a barn in nearby Zamora. Each table at the dinner had a bouquet of flowers. There were so many flowers that, when the party was over, the generous Mezger delivered more than 30 vases of them to retirement homes in Woodland. The delighted look on the people’s faces as he gave them their flowers inspired him to grow this patch so he could continue to give back in this way to the community. Now, every day, he has someone come out to pick zinnias and take them to retirement homes around Woodland.

bee on zinnia

Since our visit, the Davis Enterprise “scooped me” 😉 and wrote a nice article about Mezger and his Zinnia Patch. The Woodland Democrat also wrote about it in March, when Mezger was selected as Woodlander of the Month. But since not everyone in the world reads our local papers, I thought I’d share what was probably the prettiest farm visit I’ve experienced yet. Thank you, Mr. Mezger.

A Lily and some zinnias

To get to the Zinnia Patch from Davis or Sacramento, take Highway 5 north. Take the Yolo Exit off to the right. Turn right at the top of the offramp, then left on Highway 99W, running parallel to Highway 5. Drive about 2 miles to the zinnia fields on your left. Bring scissors.

Zinnia bouquet

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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.”

Almond blossom special

My family and I drove out to the Capay Valley Almond Festival this past weekend to catch the almond blossoms at their peak.

Almond orchard in bloom

The festival, which dates back to 1915, encompasses a 21-mile stretch of Highway16 and is hosted by the towns of Rumsey, Guinda, Brooks, Capay and Esparto. It originally began after the fall almond harvest but later switched dates to take advantage of the spring blossoms.

According to festival organizers, almonds are California’s largest tree nut crop. They’re a $2 billion industry in California, with more than 6,000 growers devoting 530,000 acres in the Central Valley to almonds. Festival-goers are encouraged to admire the blooms of these trees in the Capay Valley using the Blossom Trail Map.

Bee with almond blossom

When we passed by Esparto Park around 10:30 a.m.,  a busy little festival was underway, complete with a classic car show, pancake breakfast and novelties like almond churro shortcakes. By noon, traffic was backed up to the I-505 and an influx of weekend motorcyclists had arrived, understandably drawn to the idea of a beautiful drive in the country followed by live music and barbecued ribs.

But for us, the main attraction was a few more miles down the highway, and off to the side of the road — almond orchards in full bloom.

Shoulder-ride in the almond blossoms

Lily in the almond tree

Some of the trees were at their peak, while others looked like they’d prefer to bloom this weekend. After all, the festival may be over, but the days of almond blossoms are not.

Capay Valley almond blossoms

Navel-gazing among the orange trees

Someone recently told me that the winter is hard for them because they miss fruit. I looked at them somewhat incredulously. “You don’t like mandarins? Oranges? Pomegranates? Kiwi? Persimmons?”

I know it’s not quite the same as the summer months, but to me, winter offers just another sort of abundance. Case in point: this weekend.

My family had so much fun picking persimmons with Village Harvest-Davis a couple of weeks ago (read “Pantry-bound persimmons, Jan.1, 2013), that when we heard the group was having one of its biggest harvests of the year — picking navel oranges at a Winters orchard — we bundled up in our coats and hats today and joined them.

Navel orange crop view

Despite temps in the low 40s, about 75-100 volunteers came out to pick fruit for the Food Bank of Yolo County. The property was a private one, belonging to a couple who had about 100 more orange trees than they could harvest for their own needs, so they donated all but two rows of oranges to Village Harvest.

Village Harvest volunteers go forth

I think, perhaps aside from California, most of the world thinks of oranges as a warm-weather fruit. Indeed, Valencia’s, which are often used to make orange juice, peak in places like Florida and Southern California in May, June and July. But Navel oranges, which are weighing down tree branches all over Northern California right now and are a great orange to snack on, peak in these parts in January, February and March. That means now.

Navel oranges

Lily was pretty miserable in the cold weather, so she wanted to be held the whole time. But I’ve learned to do a lot of things with one hand since having her– now I can add picking oranges to the list.

Kat & Lily in the orange tree

Grant & Lily in the orange orchard

With so many volunteers, we made fast work of the 100 trees and soon were putting the last of the oranges into crates — roughly 6,000 pounds in the end.

Carrying oranges

Volunteers sort oranges

I’ve always marveled at nature’s way of giving us what we need when we need it — like vitamin C in the coldest part of winter through orange crops like this one. By the looks of our chapped cheeks and hands at the end of this day, we just may need it!

Navel orange harvest

THE NUT SHELL

For more information about Village Harvest-Davis, visit VillageHarvest.org/Davis/, contact Joe Schwartz at joe.schwartz@villageharvest.org, or call 888-FRUIT-411 (888-378-4841).

A day of picking tangelos is being planned by Village Harvest-Davis for February, and smaller harvests are often held throughout the month. Sign up here.

Pantry-bound persimmons: Village Harvest

A daily part of life for many Californians is passing by trees heaving with fruit — oranges, apricots, cherries, plums — seeing pounds and pounds of that fruit rotting around the base of the tree, and thinking, “Wow, what a waste when there are so many hungry people.”

The co-founders of Village Harvest had that same reaction, but they actually did something about it. They started a volunteer-driven nonprofit that collects fruit from residential homes and distributes it to local shelters and food pantries. The original Village Harvest began in 2001 and is headquartered in San Jose. There are now volunteer teams in Yolo, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties.

Village Harvest-Davis began in the spring of 2009, after a group of friends who had worked on the 2008 Obama campaign took to heart that campaign’s encouragement to look around their community to see how they could help create positive change. Since then, the Davis group has collected more than 120,000 pounds of fruit. In 2012, the Davis team held 53 harvests at Yolo County homes and orchards and collected 43,000 pounds of fruit.

Spending an afternoon volunteering with Village Harvest seemed like a great way for my family to close out 2012 and start a new year. When we heard through the Village Harvest list serve that they were holding their last harvest of the year — persimmons — on Dec. 30 at Mike and Diane Madison’s  farm near Winters, we jumped at it.

Blown away

The directions to the persimmon harvest site were refreshingly rustic: ” Go down the gravel road, turn left at the row of olive trees, and go straight until you reach a row of persimmons.”  Ohh.. kay.

But sure enough, there they were, about 10 volunteers with their hands and heads deep into the persimmon branches — which were bare except for the globes of bright orange fruit. The visual effect was rather Seussical.

Fuyu persimmon tree

If we were going to pick pounds and pounds of fruit only to give it away, my husband was glad it was persimmons– a fruit he admires on the branch but doesn’t enjoy eating.

Persimmon picking

Daughter Lily and I, however, do like persimmons. So we were happy to hear we could eat our fill while we were there and take some of the too-ripe ones home.

Lily with persimmon

While Lily was face-deep into a persimmon, a middle-aged volunteer watched her with a smile and she said, “I never even ate a persimmon until today. They’re delicious!”

I also just figured that out this year after I cut one open to go with our Thanksgiving salad. Its flavor is a little like candied yams. To me, if a pumpkin were a plum it would taste like a persimmon. Got that?

There are two main popular varieties: the slightly crunchy, apple-like Fuyu, which we were harvesting that day,  and the Hachiya, which is best used for baking or even eating with a spoon when it’s nearly overripe and squishy soft. Some regular Village Harvest volunteers have a dehydrator at home, and they say dried Hachiyas taste like candy.

Fuyu persimmons

I met farmer Mike Madison (cookbook author Deborah Madison’s brother, for the foodies among you) in the driveway. He mentioned that this was the last of the persimmon harvest, as racoons were starting to ransack them, and he welcomed our help.

I also ran into his wife, Diane Madison, who was getting ready to start a batch of marmalade, which they sell, along with olives, cut flowers and other offerings at the Davis Farmers Market.

“We just like to see all the fruit used,” she said. “People should be able to eat good food. We sell as much as we can but are happy to donate, too.” Until recently, her mother-in-law, now 95, cooked every Tuesday for the community meals at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Davis, where Village Harvest fruits are often donated. So giving food to the less fortunate is a long-held value for the Madisons.

Persimmon Harvest

While volunteers of all ages poked long poles of fruit-picking baskets into the trees or climbed orchard ladders to snip the persimmons with clippers, Village Harvest co-founder Linda Schwartz and volunteer Pauline Wooliever were busy sorting through boxes of the harvest, throwing fruit that was cracked or too ripe into a “cull box,” for volunteers to divide among themselves.

Sorting persimmons

The fruit deemed worthy was packed into boxes and will be distributed first to STEAC (Short Term Emergency Aid Committee), to a women and children’s shelter, and a men’s shelter in Davis. Village Harvest also takes fruit to the Davis Korean Church, community meals at St. Martin’s, and to the Food Bank of Yolo County in Woodland. Sometimes, big harvests are also distributed to the Sacramento Food Bank.

“We’re very careful that we give our agencies good fruit,” said Schwartz, carefully examining a persimmon for cuts or blemishes. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re getting something second-hand.”

Biting into a persimmon herself — “Oh, this is good…” — she explained how the Village Harvest process works.

Homeowners can fill out the Home Sign-up Form on the Village Harvest website to arrange a harvest. (Note to homeowners: Please contact Village Harvest before the fruit is too ripe to pack and transport.) The owner can claim a tax deduction for the number of pounds of collected fruit, priced for market rates.

Village Harvest also keeps a database of trees and checks it each season to schedule harvests. There are currently about 250 homes and more than 500 Yolo County trees (not counting those in orchards) in the registry.

Harvests range in size and scope–from 1 tree to 100. A big one coming up is a navel orange harvest in Winters on Jan. 13. At that harvest last year, nearly 100 volunteers picked oranges to the sounds of live music in the orchard and sweeping valley views over a sack lunch. A similarly large tangelo harvest is in the works for February.

But those are the exceptions. Most Village Harvest collections are held in people’s backyards, with just a few trees and a handful of volunteers.

“Some of the most satisfying harvests for me are the ones where the homeowners planted the trees when their kids were young, and they feel like stewards of those trees,” said Schwartz. “It saddens them that they can’t pick that fruit anymore. They’re just beaming when we’re telling them how great their fruit is and how it will be appreciated at the shelters.”

Village Harvest-Davis co-founder Linda Schwartz

For  people interested in volunteering for a harvest, the calendar on the Village Harvest-Davis website is not up to date. Several harvests are underway that are not on that list. The best way to learn about them is to get on the group’s email list serve by filling out the Volunteer Registration Form on the website.

There is very little commitment to this sort of volunteering: If a harvest comes up that fits a volunteer’s schedule, great. If not, try to make the next one.

“I was afraid to commit,” said Wooliever. “But I can come when I can, and I really enjoy it — and they don’t get mad at me!”

Nope, no one gets mad, and a lot of good food finds its proper place: in people’s bellies, not the ground.

Persimmon harvest

THE NUT SHELL

For more information about Village Harvest-Davis, visit VillageHarvest.org/Davis/, contact Joe Schwartz at joe.schwartz@villageharvest.org, or call 888-FRUIT-411 (888-378-4841).

The next Village Harvest-Davis harvest will be Sunday, Jan. 13, to pick navel oranges in Winters. Sign up here.

Taste & tell: Top 10 farmophile finds of 2012

I struggle to describe what is so special about the food of Northern California, other than to say it’s fresh. And by fresh, I mean a few hours or minutes separation from its host plant. As chef Alice Waters in Berkeley so elegantly demonstrated in a sensible yet revolutionary idea: Good food is fresh food, and typically, fresh food is local food.

Beets

But it’s not like there isn’t good, fresh food everywhere, at least during some part of the year. We grew food astonishingly well in Northern Nevada. And in Missouri, my mother had a lush garden of green beans, tomatoes, and lettuce. I also have many childhood memories of picking apples, strawberries and peaches with her. In those places, as here, I looked forward to the seasons and the harvests that came with them.

But unlike California, the growing season in those places tends to be six months or less. Not year-round. “Seasons” there meant rain, sun, snow.  In California, at least to me, they mean asparagus, tomatoes, apples. The growing season never ends, so it’s always on my mind, and in my mouth.  I’ve never experienced fresh food so consistently, which is perhaps why I value and appreciate it more than ever.

Or maybe it’s because I now have a family to feed, so my food choices become theirs, and therefore are elevated in importance.

Or maybe it’s because I’m older and increasingly impressed by food at its most simple — fresh, just plucked if possible, and served in a way that lets it speak for itself: roasted chicken and root vegetables; strawberry shortcake; mandarin slices over a spinach salad; a crisp, unembellished, perfect Asian pear.

Whatever the reason, I feel lucky to be here to taste and tell.

So, in this retrospective time of year, which also happens to mark the 1 year anniversary of Farmophile, I offer my Top 10 Farmophile favorites and finds of 2012, in no particular order:

1) Mandarins grow here, and they are ridiculously sweet and easy to peel. I know this may sound silly to you native Californians, but I never thought I’d find citrus fruits in the northern part of the state, let alone during the winter. But there they were in Newcastle, at the Sierra foothills. Now I see them all over Davis. What a great, unexpected shot of vitamin C at a time I need it most.

Mandarin harvest

2) The best-tasting avocado is the one you can’ t get at the store. Fuerte avocados didn’t live up to their name when it came to long-distance packing and shipping. Despite delicate skins, they make a strong yet smooth — like butta’– impression. Grant’s grandparents have one growing in the backyard of their Southern California home, and we reap the benefits, fall through winter.

Fuerte avocado harvest

3) A field of asparagus. Having planted it myself in a small corner of my garden, I knew how asparagus grows—little fingers reaching out of the ground, pointing straight at the sky. But I’d never seen a whole field of them until we visited Capay Organic. What  a treat to walk through them with scissors and cut their spears, gathering them like big bouquets in our hands.

organic asparagus

4) Apricots can be sweet. Before moving to California, the only time I really ate apricots was when they were dried, which were fine but nothing I could ever get excited about. But at Impossible Acres in Davis this summer, I learned they can be sweet and even—gasp!—juicy. Good to know.

apricot

5) And this one hasn’t made a blog post—yet—but the Ikeda’s farm stand near our house in East Davis is one of the best things about Davis in general. Miss the farmer’s market? No problem, you can find fresh, local produce here year-round, plus amazing pies, tamales, take-and-bake chicken pot pies, and specialty salsas. I love it.

Ikedas

6) Another one for the commercial Darwinism file: Franquette walnuts. The Chandler and Hartley varieties beat out the Franquette at grocery stores because they can be harvested earlier in the season and more abundantly. But the Franquette packs more healthy oil into its nut and tastes just as good, if not better. We found them on a gorgeous fall day at Buzzard’s Roost Ranch.

Franquette walnuts in tree

7) Sacramento has a niche, ethnically diverse group of people who crave the shelling beans grown each summer by R. Kelly Farms. And for good reason: their cranberry, black-eyed peas, butterbeans and purple hull beans are amazing additions to Indian dishes, soul food, or for that matter, just about any savory meal. Canned beans have nothing on these guys.

Purple hull beans

8) Willow Pond Organic Farm. I’m not about to claim the best apple-picking orchard in Apple Hill, given that I’ve only visited the place twice. But Willow Pond was a welcome respite to what can be a busy scene in El Dorado county.

Willow Pond, Apple Hill

9) The Nigerian dwarf goats at Castle Rock Farm in Vacaville made me completely rethink my preconceived notions of goats as head butting, ornery little beasts. These animals were sweeter than my cat, easier to handle than my dog, and produce loads of healthy milk.

10) And for a pure find: Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland. We went for strawberries with a group of friends, and every bite was sweet, every one of us was happy, and we came home with buckets of berries that we’re still turning into smoothies. Awfully nice farmers, too. We will definitely be back here next May.

buckets o' berries

And because it’s Christmas and I love the place, I’ll throw in a bonus one: Jacob Mini Farm in Winters. We’ve gotten our Christmas tree from here for the past two years. They only grow what grows in the region (no perfectly coiffed noble firs here), like cedar and Scotch pine. But my family loved the forested feel of this place, not to mention the added benefit of a forest floor covered in pecans. A handy snack they’ll sell you by the pound that you can eat while searching for the perfect tree.

u-pick Christmas tree

There are so many other fruits and farms I want to explore in 2013. On my list are kiwi, pomegranate, pistachio, cherry, tomato, melon and peach farms. I also have my eye on some ranches raising grassfed beef and Berkshire pork. But if this year has taught me anything, it’s to see where the season takes us.

Our year of local farms: Good eats meet farm geeks

[This is the first of a two-part, end-of-the-year series because I just have too much to say.]

I’m standing over the kitchen counter, cracking open the shell of a pecan.

My family and I recently scavenged a couple of pounds of these pecans from the wet, leafy forest floor of Jacob Mini Farm, where we’d just chopped down our Christmas tree. And as with so many bites of food I’ve plucked from California branches, vines and stems during our first year here, I’m again struck by how good it is.

Jacob Mini Farm christmas tree

When it comes to California, its way to my heart has been through my stomach. The food grown here has not only pleased, surprised and nourished me this year, but it’s also managed to bring my family closer to each other and to our new surroundings.

Fields and pumpkin patch, Full Belly Farm

I started Farmophile in December 2011, shortly after moving from Reno to Davis. It’s been a creative outlet for me, but also a way to get better acquainted with our new home.

Since then, my family—husband Grant and 2-year-old Lily—has, on average, visited at least one farm each month. We’ve looked for what’s in season, what’s within about an hour’s reach of us, and what looks delicious. Sometimes we just go somewhere to learn a thing or two, like how (and why), Nigerian dwarf goats are among the sweetest animals I’ve met, or how the Haas avocado beat out the best-tasting avocado (the Fuerte) I’ve ever eaten in the commercial Darwinism that is the marketplace.

 Nigerian Dwarf GoatFuerte avocado harvest

It’s been a year of intense flavors, surprises and, frankly, of awe—of taste, of the growing process, of the people who commit their lives to growing food.

GO AHEAD, CALL ME A FARM GEEK

One good thing about a small house that you don’t own is there’s not much to clean, not much to fix, and no big “projects” to take up all our time. So while we work hard during the week, we’ve had some of the best weekends of our life together. And most of those really good times have been visiting farms.

I try to explain this to others, and I assume it just sounds silly: “So what do you guys like to do?” “We really like to visit little farms and pick stuff that’s in season. It’s actually really fun.” “Oh, sure, sounds like it. [Dork].”

So maybe “farm visit” doesn’t sound like the hippest activity in the world. I can live with that. All I know is that every time we’ve taken friends out with us, they have smiling faces, full bellies, photos, stories and something to eat to take back home.

Knocking the walnut tree Lily and Kimberly play Chicken LittleMom, happy with apricotsGroup shot

What do we get out of all of this? More than I expected:

1) Lots of amazing, height-of-the-season food. Freezers-full, baskets-full, bellies-full. And we get to share that with others. Sure, we can get that at the farmers market—Davis has an awesome one, and we love it. But it’s so much fun to pick it yourself, and you-pick prices are hard to beat. (Pecans at 75 cents/pound–what?)

2) An admittedly farm-geeky sense of adventure. What’s in season? Where will we go next? What will we see?

3) Lily gets to learn where food comes from, aside from the grocery store. She also will undoubtedly form some memories around these excursions, like I did with my parents. And by picking this healthy stuff herself, she’s more inclined to eat it. I’ve never seen her scarf down so many mandarins as she did when she picked them off the tree at Sunset Ridge Mandarins in Newcastle.

4) Therapy. These trips help alleviate my rather serious case of farm envy.  I grew up on a 40-acre farm in Missouri, and I’ve mourned its loss ever since my family sold it in the late 1990s. I’ve always felt a little squeezed in at the housing developments that make up my current middleclass life. But I also like my short commute, and I really like that it’s often by bike. Besides, I hardly have time to keep up with the little yard work we have, let alone a farm. So I figured, if you can’t own ‘em, visit ‘em.

5) Family time. Early on in my marriage, I watched a documentary about love, and it featured couples who had stayed together for a long time. They were frank about their struggles and how, even when love is easy, marriage is less so. But the ones who seemed happiest, who stayed together longest, were the ones who found something they liked to do together and kept creating new, positive experiences with each other. Those times were socked away in the good-feelings memory bank when times were not so rosy. I took it to heart.

mandarin family photo

It’s no secret that food, in general, has a way of binding people together. The act of sitting together at a table and passing the potatoes is almost mystically powerful.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the rewards—both tangible and not so—of this farm-touring project, which has become less of a project and more a part of life. I’m simply grateful that I’ve had such willing companions in a land that keeps offering more.

 

Pick a patch of pumpkins

The other day, I was in the grocery store, and I watched a woman wander over to a big bin piled high with bright orange pumpkins. She looked at them for a minute, reached in, unceremoniously put one in her cart, and wheeled along her merry way.

I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “That’s no way to pick a pumpkin.”

Judgmental? Perhaps. After all, I’ve had my share of grocery store pumpkins, too, and likely will again.

But I rate picking a pumpkin a bit lower than choosing a Christmas tree, but a good deal higher than buying a box of cereal. It’s just not supermarket fare, in my mind–especially when we live in a place besieged by pumpkin patches.

One of the area’s biggest patches is in Dixon: Cool Patch Pumpkins. The place boasts a giant corn maze that landed itself in that bible of superlatives, the Guinness World Record,  in 2007, when it was 40 acres. Now 53 acres, it’s only grown since.

But we weren’t there to run ramshackle through the corn, or to shoot the pumpkin launcher, or even to have Lily ride tricycles through the Kid Zone, though all of that sounds fun. We came for the pumpkins.

     Lily and Uncle Eric find a pumpkin.

Cool Patch provides wagons for visitors to carry their finds–and their children– on. We brought our own wagon, and while it wasn’t necessary, some of the Cool Patch wagons didn’t have side on them, so we were glad to keep Lily secure in ours.

 

See? “Secure.”

Row after tangled-vine row, Cool Patch offers dozens of pumpkin varieties–from “Cannonball” to “Flying saucer.”

The trusty old Jack O’Lantern variety has been a loyal staple of most of my Halloweens. With a face eager to be carved and insides that offer up seeds perfect for toasting, I’m not ready to leave Jack in the dust just yet. That said, these varieties that perhaps were served at the first Thanksgiving but are new to me, are pretty appealing. White pumpkins, blue pumpkins, green and orange striped ones–it’s a wide world out there, kids.

Rather than give lengthy descriptions, I’ll just tell you the names I’ve given ours and you can use your imagination. Tiger stripe, Cinderella, Ghost, Blue, Popcorn, Warty, Warty Jr. They were all fairly big, and, after wheeling them into a fast-moving line, we paid $30 for the lot of them.

The pumpkins now have a new home on our front porch, and there they will remain until it’s time for us to shovel their rotting remains away. Happy Halloween, everyone.

 

Some extra tidbits that may help your travel plans: Cool Patch has plenty to eat and drink: a coffee shop, tri-tip sandwiches, soft serve ice cream, sodas and water. An ATM and restrooms are on site.  And the farm’s owners are  well aware that pumpkin patches are a major photo op for families. They’ve set up several haystacks with pumpkin displays ideal for this purpose. 

Location: Milk Farm Road  Dixon, Calif. (~10 minutes drive west from Davis)

For more information, call (530) 304-0163 or visit www.coolpatchpumpkins.com.

At the Hoes Down

For many  of the past few years, my husband and I have gone to the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco during the first weekend in October. The lineup is always awesome; the crowds sometimes are not. This year, we opted for something more low-key, more family friendly, and closer to home: The Hoes Down Harvest Festival at Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley.

I’d been hearing about this annual “celebration of rural living” since we moved here about a year ago. We found it to be intensely family-friendly, dialed in with the crowd management, and a place where you can contra dance, listen to Americana music, swim in the creek,  learn how to raise chickens, make mozzarella, paint a gourd, and have a lot of fun all in a spectacular setting for a good cause. (Proceeds benefit future farmers, sustainable agriculture and community organizations.)

By the end of our visit, we’d helped Lily climb a giant hay stack,

petted some cows and sheep,

watched a sheep shearing, painted with Lily,

 

carved a pumpkin,

and lay in the grass down by the river and listened to some sweet harmonies from The Driftless, and Paige Anderson and the Fearless Kin.

We also took a horse-drawn trailer ride around the farm, where I heard a father say to his kids while they oohed and aahed over some ginormous pumpkins: “See guys, when we get our food baskets every week? This is where our food comes from. Remember that.”

But we felt like we didn’t fully take advantage of all that was offered. Looking at the schedule, how could anyone, really? There was so much to do, from workshops  on soil building to melon tastings, wine tastings, farm tours, apple bobbing, story time in a tipi, a circus, lots of music, and even a manure pitch-off. Good times.

 

They also offer camping in the orchard for people who already knew they couldn’t fit it all in within, say, 5 hours. And while the main festival ended Saturday, today offers another round of workshops, though visitors have pre-registered for them.

I could go on and on, but then I’d miss what’s remaining of this beautiful weekend. Suffice to say, we’ll be back next year — with our swimsuits and tents.

Forest for the tree: Jacob Mini Farm

When I first called Emily J. Amy of Jacob Mini Farm about coming out to cut a Christmas tree, she gave me a warning: These may not be my vision of Christmas trees. They’re not all perfectly conical. I wouldn’t find any noble firs or silver tips.

“They just don’t grow here; it’s too hot,” she said. “We grow what grows around here.”

That means Douglas fir, giant sequoia, incense cedar, and Scotch pine.

Sounded like just what I was looking for.

Jacob Mini Farm, open every day from Dec. 1-23, sits alongside Putah Creek between Davis and Winters, Calif. My husband, daughter, mom and I visited the farm recently to get Mom a Christmas tree.

We were warmly greeted at the entrance, told that every tree, big or small, is $35. Then we were handed a saw and told to set forth.

I’ve been to tree farms where single species are perfectly spaced in rows across a plot of land. I’ve also wandered through National Forest lands to hunt for my own “wild” Christmas tree—saw in one hand, permit and tag in the other. This was somewhat of a cross between the two—not quite forest, not quite typical tree farm.

The Christmas trees at Jacob Mini Farm stretch across roughly 5 acres, wrapped around the farmhouse, some sheds, and a small barn that houses a petting zoo of sorts—some docile donkeys named Barney and Elmer, a sheep, a goat and some chickens. And while my daughter, Lily, loved wandering through the “forest,” the animals were the highlight for her—she imitated them as only a 2-year-old can.

Sprinkled throughout the evergreens are pecan trees, which act as a shade canopy for the rather thirsty Christmas trees. Pecans tend to drop from the trees during the Christmas tree season, and u-pickers are welcome to collect them. Last year was a phenomenal year for pecans, said Emily. This year, not so much. But pecans tend to produce every other year, so the trees should be more generous next year.

Emily’s parents, Janet and Fred Jacob, first started selling trees from the farm in 1956, mostly to friends and co-workers. Over the years, more trees were added. Emily bought the farm from her mom about 15 years ago. In 1998, she added two areas that were previously fruit trees and pasture grass.

“It has just evolved,” she said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the relatively unique way the trees are cut. U-pickers are asked to leave a whorl of growth at the bottom of their selected tree, so that future trees can grow from it.

This does mean more pruning work for Emily, but she decided to follow what her parents started.

“They were of the mind that instead of killing the tree, just use a part of it,” said Emily. “My parents wouldn’t have considered themselves ‘progressive environmentalists.’ In the ’50s that wasn’t a term you’d hear. But they were pretty conscientious about things.”

As my mom perused the selection of trees, my husband picked up some walnuts that had fallen on the ground and cracked them open for me and Lily. They were some of the best-tasting walnuts I’d ever eaten. Lily ran through the trees, petted the animals, and we all enjoyed the fresh air at this laid-back country tree farm.

My mom left with a 7-foot tall incense cedar, cut, carried and strapped to the car by my husband. We left with the sense that we’ll be back next year.

THE NUTSHELL

Jacob Mini Farm is open every day, from Dec. 1-23, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. It’s located at 34905 Creeksedge Road, between Davis and Winters, Calif. The farm is only open during December; if you’d like to come during another time of year, or would like more information, call them at (530) 753-3037.

For sale: U-cut Christmas trees, u-pick pecans, evergreen boughs and mistletoe. A small farm stand also sells whatever the farm has produced at that time, which is typically apples, walnuts, persimmons, oranges and pecans.      

Special considerations for Christmas trees grown in the Davis area: Unlike in their native areas, evergreens here don’t experience a hard freeze—and neither does their sap.

“The sap in the tree is equivalent to the blood in your body,” says Emily. “It runs nutrients through the body.”

So for locally grown Christmas trees, expect a higher than usual sap-flow and a thirstier tree during the first week or so after it’s cut.  After that, their thirst slacks somewhat.

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