farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “Davis”

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.

Mission Impossible Acres

Past fields of bursting sunflowers …

… and down a county road, Impossible Acres sits in West Davis, just 4 scant miles from Davis’ downtown core.

My family and our friend Max had come there because I’d heard (see “Summer’s sweet spot”) that we could pick peaches at Impossible Acres. And a good peach is what I’ve been craving ever since the calendar flipped to July.

I have one of those golden childhood memories of picking peaches with my mom at a pick-your-own farm in Missouri, where the yellow fruits were the size of my fist, and their fuzzy skins were almost bursting. I don’t remember what Mom made with them, but I do remember eating them at that farm, standing in the shade of peach tree branches, juice dripping down my chin and neck, so good I licked the palms of my hands to get every bit of stickiness into my mouth.

But California isn’t Missouri. I’m still learning what grows here, and when. I heard the peach season in Yolo County is late June through early August, so I thought the first week of July might satisfy my craving.

Impossible Acres is a popular little farm. When we arrived this past weekend, about 15 couples and families were also there, slathering kids up with sunscreen in the parking lot and affixing sun hats.

The young woman at the entrance gave us the lay of the land, most helpfully with a hand-drawn photocopied map of the place that we could take with us. She pointed out where the berries were (marrionberry, raspberries, boysenberries and ollalieberries)—also mentioning the berries had a rough year due to fickle weather. She indicated our path to the peaches—past the cherry trees, past the rows of apricots and plums, and on to the peaches and nectarines. We got a couple of flat boxes to fill and were off.

We shot past the berries—as the young lady had noted, there were very few worth picking. The apricot trees were loaded with fruit begging to be picked, and we did grab a few.

But we moved quickly onward. (Note to parents and those who care for their feet: Don’t wear sandals, like I did, because some weeds along the path are prickly.)

Then we got to the peaches. They were nice.

Medium-sized, sweet, with several ripe and ready. The nearby nectarines were just as good, though there were fewer of them. We filled our boxes, satisfied that we had enough to make the tasty peach shortcake and peach-glazed pork chops I’d been fantasizing about, as well as plenty left to pop into our mouths.

But I admit, I was a little disappointed. I began to think that the peaches inflating my dreams may not be suited to the North Central Valley. But after talking with Fred Manas, owner of peach orchard Manas Ranch in Yolo County, it turns out I am just being impatient.  (I was unable to get ahold of the Impossible Acres owners in the days that followed our visit to ask them.)

“We have friends from Georgia that moved here and they say they are nothing like my peaches here,” said Manas.

The peach season, he said, runs from about mid-June through mid-October. Each variety has its own season. And there is a tendency for  bigger varieties to peak later in the summer, around August.

But, Manas wondered, what’s all the fuss about “big?”

“Big does not make it better,” he said with the kindly insistence of a man who has spent more years than I’ve been alive growing and eating peaches.

Manas Ranch grows seven different varieties, ranging from the smallish Cassie peach to the more robust O’Henry in August.  So if I want to stubbornly hold on to my vision of a giant peach, I need to wait a little longer.

And by the way, that childhood memory of mine on the peach farm with Mom? She told me later that we picked those peaches right before school started, which would have made it … late August.

Back at Impossible Acres, Mom wandered off into other fruit trees. I found her in the shade of an apricot tree, happily munching away.

“These are amazing!” she said.

I looked at her hand, and her apricot was something I didn’t think apricots could be: juicy. Apricots are a nice enough fruit. I like them in a good Middle Eastern couscous, in scones, I know I’d like them wrapped up in bacon, and  I love them dried. But most of the time I’ve eaten them, well, I can understand why they’re usually sold dried. But here was this one, dripping all over Mom’s hand and plastering a smile on her face.

It made me take a second look at those apricot trees—and at the whole farm, really. I realized that when looking for what’s in season, it’s best to look down. The fruit newly dropped and beginning to rot on the ground is a telltale sign of fruit ripe and ready up above.

With that in mind, I went a couple of rows over to visit the plums—dark, black beauties that were also covering the ground around the tree trunks.

This was what I was looking for, though I hadn’t known it. This was that “jackpot” moment I love to feel when hitting a harvest at just the right time. I plucked one after the other and took them back to my husband and Max, who were, ahem, fruitlessly still looking for magic peaches.

“Come get these plums, guys. They’re awesome.”

Somewhere between picking a plum and sucking the juice off my fingers,  I was reminded of something: Sometimes what you get isn’t quite what you set out for, but it can still be pretty sweet.

THE NUTSHELL

Impossible Acres
Location:26565 Road 97 D, Davis, CA
Hours: Wed.-Sun, 9a.m. -6 p.m.
U-pick:  During the summer, they offer apricots and peaches ($1.99/pound), and berries ($2.99/pound). Cherries in late May-early June. August brings apples. Pumpkin patch in October.

Growing method: Not organic, but they spray when the trees are dormant.
Farm stand and animals: To be located at nearby Grandpa’s Barn, 37945 County Road 31, Davis, CA

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.

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