farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Farm tour”

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

Fruit to chef: K&J Orchards

Farmer Tim Deasy met me and my family at the gate of K&J Orchards in Winters, his face dripping with sweat. It was 105 degrees F, and he’d just returned from Napa, where he’d delivered 40 pounds of white peaches to The French Laundry, often regarded as the best restaurant in the United States. He travels about 750 miles a week delivering fresh peaches, plums, pluots, nectarines, cherries and more to restaurants and farmers markets in the Napa-Sonoma region and Bay Area.

There are perks to the job. Sometimes, the chefs he delivers to feed him. “I figured out if you stare at something long enough, they’ll eventually ask, ‘Are you hungry?” said Tim.

In the past 10 years, K&J Orchards has grown from delivering fruit and nuts to three farm-to-table restaurants in San Francisco to upwards of 110 restaurants today. Chefs like Annie Somerville of Greens and other foodies also track K&J down at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and other markets in the Bay Area and Northern Nevada.

“We provide access to heirloom varieties or unique things,” said farmer Aomboon (“Booney”) Deasy, Tim’s wife. “Like when chefs ask me for green almonds or green plums to use in salads, or peach leaves to infuse syrups and sauces.”

K&Jfruit

Booney’s parents, Kalayada Ammatya and James Beutel, are the “K” and “J” of the operation. The couple started the farm in the early 1980s on about 40 acres in Yuba City, which continues to be their main site for growing apples and pears. They bought the 20-acre property in Winters in 1995 and set about converting about half of the then-walnut farm to stone fruit production.

While James, a former pomology professor, has retired from the farm, Kalayada continues to graft rootstock, plant seeds, and do farmers markets. Meanwhile, Booney and Tim have now taken on the primary responsibilities for the orchard.

Aomboon and Tim Deasy of K&J Orchards

Defying the heat, or perhaps common sense, my husband, 3-year-old daughter and I walked out to the orchard for a tour.

Strolling among rows of apricot trees, Tim described when he first learned Booney was from a farming family.

“When I first met her in college, I asked her what she did — I thought maybe a coffee shop or something. She said, ‘I sell cherries …'”

“He thought I had a lemonade stand, like selling cherries by the side of the road,” added Booney.

“Yeah, but she left out about 180 other varieties of fruit we now grow,” finished Tim. “But it’s fun.”

As we walked, apricots blushed in the late afternoon sun. Booney plucked one from the tree — a Flaming Gold variety–and handed it to me. Sweet, sun-infused, juicy burst. Later, when we got home, my husband bit into one of those apricots, and the juice squirted all over the counter. “Haven’t seen an apricot do that before,” he said.

Apricots, K&J Orchard

In the orchard, cherry trees, now picked clean, were ready to retire for the year. Booney said that while Washington cherries are just beginning, the season for cherries in California will be over by the end of June because yields state-wide are low this year — and prices higher —  due to a mild winter. On the upside, the surviving cherries are huge and delicious, not having had to share resources with many other cherries on the tree.

Plenty of other fruit is on its way for the year. Along our tour we saw small green balls of what will become golden meyer lemons hanging from branches, nectarines and peaches preparing for their imminent debut, spiky balls of early chestnuts, and generously spaced plums, their skins a deep purple.

Plum tree, K&J Orchard

This generous spacing of fruit on the tree is one reason the region’s best chefs seek out K&J Orchard’s fruit. Call it a flavor trick that is mind-blowingly logical: Rather than allow the trees to heave with fruit and compete for water and nutrients, they thin the fruit so the best resources go to those that remain. This, said Booney, results in a bigger, sweeter, better stone fruit.

For every thinned nectarine that never sees a chef’s table or canvas shopping bag, K&J still has plenty to go around. From the scorching 105 degree heat, we stepped into the orchard’s 45 degree refrigerated walk-in. After welcoming the blast of cold air, our eyes set on thousands of pounds of peaches, plums, apriums (a cross between an apricot and a nectarine) and pluots (a cross between a plum and an apricot), all stacked in white trays, ready for distribution.

K&J stone fruit, packed

Booney said it was Tim’s idea to target directly selling to restaurants. With images of chefs with Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen-like personalities, it was a somewhat intimidating prospect at first, she said.

“But all the chefs we work with are so down-to-earth,” said Booney. “They really appreciate the fruit, respect it and where it’s from, and they’re really intrigued to learn how it’s grown.”

At the end of our tour, we passed a row of white pomegranates, which should be ready by late August.

White pomegranate on tree

The white pomegranate has pale pinkish seeds inside rather than the deep red of its more famous sibling, is reportedly sweeter and less tart, and won’t stain your fingers.

It’s a tasty twist on a beloved classic and is one example of why Tim shouldn’t expect to reduce his work mileage any time soon.

Back at home, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them "yum."

Back in Davis, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them “yum.”

You don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to have a taste of K&J Orchard’s fruit. Catch them at farmers markets in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Alemany, Los Gatos, Menlo Park; and at Nevada farmers markets in Reno, Gardnerville and Minden.

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

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.

 

Nut job

“I’m going to show you the real way to crack a walnut,” said Susan Hassett.

She should know, she’s been growing certified organic walnuts on her farm, Buzzard’s Roost Ranch, for about 20 years in Winters, Calif.

“You don’t use a nutcracker,” she said, as rule number one. Nutcrackers make fishing out the meat from the shell a pain in the neck.

She took out a small, lightweight ball pein hammer, held a walnut against a hard surface, and struck it. In one quick motion, she removed the shell as if she were opening a tiny book and popped the entire nut out, whole, like a brown little brain.

We were at Hassett’s farm to pick walnuts from two of her Franquette walnut trees—each one more than 140 years old.

The last English walnut to leaf out, the Franquette is a French variety that’s been grafted to a California black walnut tree, explained Hassett over the sound of her Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dawn, happily cracking walnuts between her teeth.

The Franquette is also less vulnerable to frost and one of the few varieties you can harvest at this time of year.

In fact, when I mentioned to my husband that I’d like to pick walnuts on my birthday, I had no idea the task I’d set before him.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys produce 99 percent of the nation’s commercial walnuts, and California is the world’s largest exporter (though China produces more.) So I assumed that finding a farm where we could pick them wouldn’t be difficult here.

But Grant soon discovered that most local walnut farms are larger commercial productions, which do mechanical harvesting and don’t offer u-pick to the public. Of those who do welcome the public to pick their own walnuts—mostly Hartley and Chandler varieties— they had just wrapped up their harvest by the time Grant called to set up a visit in early November.

So he was relieved to hear that Buzzard’s Roost Ranch was not only in the prime of their certified organic walnut harvest, but they’d appreciate our help—free labor for them, a great day on the farm for us.

Before the Hartley walnut—a cross between a Franquette and Mayette walnut—came on the scene in 1925, Franquettes were the darling of the commercial walnut world. But now, Hartleys, and the locally developed Chandler varieties, are most likely what you see at the grocery store.

The Franquette is a darker, more savory walnut than the slightly sweeter Chandler and Hartley varieties. Hassett says it’s also an ideal walnut to grow organically because the hard, tightly sealed shell makes it impervious to most pests. But, like white flour, white bread, and white meat, Americans tend to like lighter walnuts in the marketplace. The Franquette’s yields can also be smaller than those desired by high production farms.

Walnuts in general have been touted for an array of nutritional benefits, from limiting the ability of “bad” fats to harm the arteries  to increased sperm production.

“Walnuts are a completely underrated nut,” said Hassett.

According to the California Walnut Commission, walnuts have the highest total level of antioxidants, more so than almonds, peanuts or hazelnuts, and are one of the few plant-based foods rich in healthy, omega-3 fatty acids .

Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking much about my health the day we went. I just wanted to spend a beautiful fall day in the country, reliving some good walnut-picking memories and hopefully creating some more for me and the family—Grant, Lily, my mom, brother-in-law Eric and his friend, Anya.

Before Hassett showed us how to crack walnuts, she demonstrated how to get them off the tree: With a hefty “walnut rake”—any large, hardy stick will do – you “knock” a branch, take cover, and wait for the wholly satisfying sound of walnuts raining onto the ground.

Then rake them into a pile, pick them up and toss them in a bucket. Simple enough.

I tend to think nearly any u-pick experience is good for kids, but there are some that have not always been ideal—fruit too high for Lily to reach, berries too deep in prickly brambles to pluck. But picking freshly fallen walnuts is one task perfectly suited to a 2-year-old. She even got in on the knocking action.

On the kid-friendly front, I should mention that Hassett fertilizes around the walnut trees with horse manure. So don’t be surprised if you reach for a walnut on the ground and find it sitting right next to some horse poop. The way I figure it, that’s why we wash our hands (and our walnuts), and it sure beats chemical fertilizers. But some may find it off-putting.

A couple of hours later, we hauled about 40 pounds of certified organic walnuts to Hassett’s back porch to be weighed and split among us. Hassett only charges $2/pound—several dollars cheaper than what I find at the store—but still… 40 pounds!

What on Earth will we do with 40 pounds of walnuts? Well, we have a big Thanksgiving family reunion coming up, and many of them will be transported there—along with a small hammer—for candied walnuts, pumpkin bread, oatmeal, baked sweet potatoes, salads and general mindless nut-cracking while talking turkey. Then, of course, there are freezer bags, and Hassett said walnuts freeze very well, which I’m counting on. At least we’ll know how to crack them.

IN A NUTSHELL

Farm: Buzzards Roost Ranch, 8290A Pleasants Valley Road, Winters, Calif.

U-Pick: walnuts and olives, by appointment only

Other offerings: horse and carriage rides; venue for weddings, special occasions; equine programs, horse boarding

Side trip: You’ll pass Lake Solano Park on your way in; consider stopping for a picnic.

Contact: (530) 795-4084, bzzroost@dishmail.net,  website

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.

Core strength: Apple Hill

My father was born 68 years ago on what’s often one of the most beautiful days of the year: October 1.  It’s typically a day of browns and golds, chili in the crockpot, cornbread in the oven, soft shadows and autumnal glows. It marks a season that seems to encompass my Dad – warm, thoughtful, comforting.
Dad died of lung cancer five years ago on a colder, darker fall day. But October is when I most like to celebrate him. My family and I do that each year for his birthday, and it usually involves an apple pie—his favorite. It’s a day when his girls—me, Mom and my sister—and now his granddaughter and son-in-law commit to being together.

With the mecca of all apple picking just over an hour away, this year we decided to celebrate Dad’s birthday weekend with a trip to Apple Hill.

Apple Hill, it should be clear, is a region, not one particular orchard, as some mistakenly think. It’s a loop of you-pick farms, pumpkin patches, bakeries, and wineries along a two-lane highway in the Sierra foothills of Placerville and Camino, Calif.

Think Napa – but substitute apples for wine; corn dogs for bacon-wrapped rabbit roulade. OK, so maybe it’s less Napa and more country fair.

But it is a place where something grows extremely well and visitors are encouraged to see it, pick it, and enjoy it in all forms—be it fried and frittered, coated in caramel and stuck on a stick, or tossed in sugar and enveloped in a pie crust.

Fried  apples
Despite my idealistic notions of autumn — crisp fall days and whatnot — it was really friggin’ hot last weekend. About 95 degrees — weather for picking peaches, maybe, not apples. By 1 pm, we were sweltering.

This put a damper on the day — especially because the Kerlin girls do not do well in the heat. “It’s like a bunch of Rain Men in here,’ my husband said at the end of the day, driving us home when we were all on the brink of dehydration and at a high level of inane chatter and bickering and repeating ourselves.

“I think Apple Hill is a  really lovely place – if it was about 20 degrees cooler,” said my sister from the back of the car. (I envy visitors for this weekend, when it is supposed to be about 20 degrees cooler.)

Despite the weather, it really was a beautiful place. As we arrived, pulling off Highway 50 and onto the Apple Hill loop,  we drove past Christmas tree farms, patches of orange pumpkins peeking beneath their leaves, donkeys in a forest clearing, signs pointing to various wineries, and, of course, apple trees.

It’s easy to get sucked into the commercialized aspects of Apple Hill. The Apple Hill Growers Association and several visitors before us have sung its praises on websites, news articles, Yelp, Chowhound and the like as a place where apple cider donuts and apple milkshakes are worth the battle of traffic, crowds and serpentine lines.

The traffic and crowds weren’t actually too bad. Arriving around noon, we started our visit at Rainbow Orchards. We walked past families beginning their picnics on benches under some apple trees. Others sat on hay bales beneath a shaded area. But we headed straight past the wagon full of pumpkins and gourds, around bins of apples, and lined up for the fabled cider donuts ($1 each). They came out hot and sweet, with a slight crunch on the outside. I’d like to say I noticed a cidery tang in them, but I didn’t. They were a good little donut, all the same.

We grabbed a map of the Apple Hill area (available in brochure form at nearly every stop in town  and also here) and sat down on a hay bale to figure out where to go next. We were all hungry. While apples are in no short supply, it’s slightly harder for new visitors to discern the best places to eat “real” food. (One cannot live on apple crisp alone.) I had heard Boa Vista orchards served lunch, so we headed there next.

Boa Vista is a popular tourist stop. Too large to be called a farm stand, it offered bins of apples, but also plums, winter squash and other seasonal produce. There were tastings for apple butter, jams and wine at the back of the building. Preserves, salsas, apple juice and cider lined the shelves. An adjoining grill served some basic American food: Among our group, we had a chili dog, veggie burger, grilled cheese, fries and an apple fritter, which we ate at a picnic table in the shade. Boa Vista also has a bakery full of pies and other pastries. Craft vendors sold their soaps and jewelry outside. After lunch, I bought a caramel apple covered in nuts, some apple cider and we were on our way.

Down to the core
We’d saved the best for last: apple picking.

There are several you-picks at Apple Hill, though I’ve heard that there are fewer than in years’ past. I was looking for a laid-back, organic farm, and Willow Pond Organic Farm appeared to fit the bill. (UPDATE: On a return visit in 2014, I was sad to see this farm is no longer active.)

After pulling in to this farm, where children ate apples in the shade next to a pond, I wished we’d come here first. Just brought a picnic lunch and headed straight here.

A small farm stand welcomed us at the Willow Pond entrance, featuring raw honey, peppers, yellow watermelon, and other produce grown on the property. Dried sunflowers in the fields stood behind late-summer crops, and zinnias lined vegetable plots. After grabbing some green baskets, a sign pointed our way to the you-pick apples.

These farm trips always come with a lesson in preconceived notions: My sister had her heart set on picking red apples. But most of the reds were covered with black spots and blemishes — a visual assurance of the organic methods used on this farm; no pesticides here. Despite their appearance, the reds still tasted pretty good, but the yellow apples fared far better.  And at $1 per pound for organic apples, we couldn’t complain about either variety.

Lily, who’s 2,  was a bit disappointed she couldn’t reach the apples herself. I put her on my shoulders and she stretched her arms up to grab them. This was fun and cute for about 10 minutes until the heat got to me, and her dad took a turn.

I walked between the rows of trees. A tension I hadn’t realized was there all day was released as I single-mindedly searched for some good apples. The sun glinted gold across the leaves. I tossed an apple high up into a tree, a failed attempt to knock loose the bigger apples clustered at the top. I tossed my hair back, opened my chest and let in the day. This was what I’d come for.

All of the little markets and bakeries with their value-added products, pony rides and fresh-pressed cider help support a rather charming local industry here. But I hope Apple Hill will always be a place where we can walk into an orchard, reach up into an apple tree and fill our baskets.

I looked up and saw my mom and sister walking toward me with Lily, refreshed after a diaper change.

I took a small apple, held it above my head, and let it drop. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Let’s run and tell the king!”

My daughter thought this was absolutely hilarious and insisted I do it about 6 more times. Then she found an apple and continued to play “Chicken Little” with her daddy and then her auntie, plopping apples on their good-natured heads.

   

We all sat down in the shade of the trees, Lily laughing and tumbling over us. My mom started fantasizing wildly about buying a farm. We let the late afternoon breeze cool us as the leaves shook and we looked through the green and gold of the branches.

When I was growing up, Dad was always a good sport on family outings — patiently waiting while his girls insisted on going into this or that shop, this or that restaurant. But in the end, the simple stuff always won out with him – just sitting in an orchard, feeling the breeze, eating an apple, being together.

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