Field notes from California's North Central Valley

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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.


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.


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.


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.

You can never have too much asparagus

Thanks for the reprint Sacramento News & Review!

Farmophile in SN&R

Spear factor: Asparagus at Capay Organic

Asparagus is not for commitment-phobes. If you are looking for instant gratification, perhaps lettuce or radishes are more your style. Those come up in just a few days.

Knowing about this commitment thing, I waited until we bought our first home before I planted my first bulbs of asparagus. I mounded up their beds of soil and tucked them in. Then I waited, patiently, as their slender stalks poked skyward. Since they looked mildly edible, I withheld every gardener instinct in my body to cut them that first year, allowing them to turn into a feathery mass of green instead. Then I did the same thing again—sigh—the next year. Waiting, waiting. But on that third year, they were ready. (We moved that very summer, but let’s not talk about that.)

Ever since, my attitude toward this vegetable is nearly reverential. It takes three years to grow, and then it’s here for just a brief time—which, by the way, is now—to grace our plates and make our pee smell funny.

That’s why I felt almost like a thief this weekend while standing in a field of asparagus at Capay Organic, slicing off spear after tender spear. Grant, Lily and I had come to this farm in the Capay Valley, about an hour west of Davis, for its monthly farm tour. We paid our entrance fee to the tour ($4 for CSA members, $8 nonmembers, kids free), but still, as we each came out of the muddy field holding as much organic, seconds-from-the-ground asparagus our hands could hold—about 4 spears for Lily, significantly more for me and Grant—I couldn’t help thinking, “Are they really going to let us take all this home?”

Capay Organic was letting us —and dozens of others—trample through their fields, play on their grass, and take the know-your-farmer, know-your-food mantra to heart.

Many here, particularly the kids, had likely never seen how asparagus grows. It’s one of the more curious vegetables around. Asparagus spears shoot straight up through the soil—like hands buried alive, or, less morbidly, like green fingers pointing at the sun with a shape that would make some women blush. The first time I saw this, I was amazed. It was like when I learned pineapples grow on plants, not trees.

Farm manager Thaddeus Barsotti held a Q&A session in a grassy area surrounded by Satsuma mandarin and fig trees, and overlooking patches of sweet peas, strawberries, and the newly planted crop of tomatoes.

He told the group lounging on picnic tables and blankets about how his parents, Kathy Barsotti and Martin Barnes, founded the farm in 1976 and turned it into the Capay Valley’s first organic farm. Martin helped found the Davis Farmers Market and was instrumental in the Davis Food Co-op. After 15 years on the farm, he and Kathy divorced, and Kathy took over Capay Organic. She died in 2000 from breast cancer, leaving the farm to her sons: farm manager Thaddeus, sales and marketing manager Noah Barnes, and Freeman Barsotti, who runs the accounting department. A fourth son, Che Barnes, died in 2009.

The farm delivers to grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants like the Bay Area’s French Laundry and Greens restaurant. But a key component of their business is their CSA –community supported agriculture—program, Farm Fresh To You. Farm Fresh To You comprises 450 acres in Northern California and 150 acres in Southern California, with about 500 year-round employees.

Kathy began the home delivery service in 1992, a time when most CSAs had a you-get-what-we-grow program. At other CSAs, customers signed up for a season or year-round commitment. If they were sick of bunch after bunch of kale in the winter, too bad—they chose to support the farm, with the idea the farm would make it up to them with more variety come spring and summer. That typical CSA model, though farmer-friendly, didn’t always work for customers. But Kathy recognized that to support her small organic farm in the long-term, she had to get and keep customers—and not give them a reason to leave.  So she created a no-commitment, customizable service—if you don’t like a particular food, you can ask for a substitute—with a range of prices and produce options, delivered directly to customers’ homes or offices.

Now, Farm Fresh To You makes about 25,000 deliveries per week and grows roughly 100 different varieties of fruits and vegetables.  Several of its members made up the farm tour’s participants.

“Our vision is not that this is a small, quaint system for an elite group of people,” Thaddeus said. “This concept is something everyone can have access to.”

Thaddeus broke it down like this: Roughly 60 percent of what customers get in their CSA box comes from a farm where Farm Fresh to You has full control over farm operations, such as at Capay Organic or their farms in California’s Imperial Valley. Another 30 percent is from farmers who live just a few miles from Capay Organic, like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm, and Good Humus . The remaining 10 percent comes from organic farms trusted in the industry but not in direct contact with Capay Organic.

“It’s important you all know we’re a real working farm,” Thaddeus told the group. “At the end of this partnership is a thing called trust. We’re totally transparent about what we’re doing and why we support other farms doing what we’re doing.”

But the best way to learn to trust a CSA is to come see where they grow your food, which is why Farm Fresh to You invites their customers and the general public out to these farm tours, which they hold monthly March through October. With arts and crafts, a big bubble station, hula hoops, and a petting zoo for the kids, wine tasting for the adults, and live music for everyone (roots-a-billy band Miss Lonely Hearts entertained us), they know how to do these farm tours right.


But the absolute highlight—appropriately at a farm—was the food. Getting out into the fields, moving delicately over spears of asparagus so as not to step on them, slicing their ends off with a knife, and wiping off Lily after her inevitable slip in the mud.  I, illogically, felt a little guilty taking these delicious little stalks that took years to get here. But, now that they’re established, they’ll be back next year. And with thoughts of asparagus frittatas, pizza and creamy soups in my head, I know we will put every spear to good use.


The next Farm Tour at Capay Organic will be Saturday, May 12. $4 members, $8 nonmembers, free for kids 12 and under. Learn more about Capay Organic, Farm Fresh To You and events at

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