Field notes from California's North Central Valley

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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mandarin family photo

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

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


Pick 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.


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, Look them up on Facebook.

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