farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Organic”

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.”

Advertisements

On aphids, or Why I’d Make a Lousy Farmer

It was a tough choice: Visit a farm or use the weekend to put in my own home’s garden. The latter seemed a little more urgent.

I started the process two weekends ago but was thwarted by aphids. Awful little beasts. In March, I’d held hope that powerful sprays of water from my hose and some choice hand squashing would take care of those beginning to creep in on my fava beans. By month’s end they were devouring them. I took out the whole crop in a flash of anger and panic, hoping to salvage the neighboring chard.

But the other weekend, when I was getting ready to plant some starts, I looked more closely at my chard and saw that they, too, were fully overrun with black aphids. Past the point – at least in my estimation—of hose sprays, soap or pepper insecticide remedies. It became a total chard clearcut, a heartwrenching, demoralizing, humbling mass destruction.

Being the modern gardener I am, I immediately posted a photo of the carnage to Facebook …

chard ravaged by aphids

… after which my friends’ gave me advice like “bring on the ladybugs!” and a link to a magical concoction of mouthwash and tobacco to try.

All good ideas for the future, but too late for me: My beautiful, lush, green garden had become a lonely dirt patch, my only consolation the artichokes and two remaining chard plants that survived.

“It’s a clean slate,” my husband offered annoyingly helpfully. “A chance to start something new.”

My neighbor Chuck said, “The chard was probably about to bolt anyway.”

But all I could think of was, “Man, I would make a lousy farmer.”

While crop destruction for me can be a chance at starting over, it’s life and livelihood for a farmer.

There are a lot of romanticized notions about what farmers do—I’m guilty of holding a fair amount of them. But their job is more than glorified gardening and delicious dinners out by the barn. They keep us fat and happy while sparing us the details of pests, weather, weeds, and fickle markets. And they do it while keeping a vigilant eye on their crops—before it gets to the destructive stage.

Next time I’m visiting a local farm – and it will be soon! — or biting into fresh-grown Delta asparagus or (I can’t wait!) a juicy strawberry, I expect I’ll remember my epic aphid battle and be a little more appreciative of what farmers do.

For now, I’ve replanted my garden. New soil. New seeds. New starts.

Squash seedlings

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

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.

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.

THE NUTSHELL

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, pacificstargardens@yahoo.com. www.freewebs.com/pacificstargardens. Look them up on Facebook.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: