farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “agritourism”

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

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.

 

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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