farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “local foods”

Navel-gazing among the orange trees

Someone recently told me that the winter is hard for them because they miss fruit. I looked at them somewhat incredulously. “You don’t like mandarins? Oranges? Pomegranates? Kiwi? Persimmons?”

I know it’s not quite the same as the summer months, but to me, winter offers just another sort of abundance. Case in point: this weekend.

My family had so much fun picking persimmons with Village Harvest-Davis a couple of weeks ago (read “Pantry-bound persimmons, Jan.1, 2013), that when we heard the group was having one of its biggest harvests of the year — picking navel oranges at a Winters orchard — we bundled up in our coats and hats today and joined them.

Navel orange crop view

Despite temps in the low 40s, about 75-100 volunteers came out to pick fruit for the Food Bank of Yolo County. The property was a private one, belonging to a couple who had about 100 more orange trees than they could harvest for their own needs, so they donated all but two rows of oranges to Village Harvest.

Village Harvest volunteers go forth

I think, perhaps aside from California, most of the world thinks of oranges as a warm-weather fruit. Indeed, Valencia’s, which are often used to make orange juice, peak in places like Florida and Southern California in May, June and July. But Navel oranges, which are weighing down tree branches all over Northern California right now and are a great orange to snack on, peak in these parts in January, February and March. That means now.

Navel oranges

Lily was pretty miserable in the cold weather, so she wanted to be held the whole time. But I’ve learned to do a lot of things with one hand since having her– now I can add picking oranges to the list.

Kat & Lily in the orange tree

Grant & Lily in the orange orchard

With so many volunteers, we made fast work of the 100 trees and soon were putting the last of the oranges into crates — roughly 6,000 pounds in the end.

Carrying oranges

Volunteers sort oranges

I’ve always marveled at nature’s way of giving us what we need when we need it — like vitamin C in the coldest part of winter through orange crops like this one. By the looks of our chapped cheeks and hands at the end of this day, we just may need it!

Navel orange harvest

THE NUT SHELL

For more information about Village Harvest-Davis, visit VillageHarvest.org/Davis/, contact Joe Schwartz at joe.schwartz@villageharvest.org, or call 888-FRUIT-411 (888-378-4841).

A day of picking tangelos is being planned by Village Harvest-Davis for February, and smaller harvests are often held throughout the month. Sign up here.

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.

Beets

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.

apricot

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.

Ikedas

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.

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.

 

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

Summer’s sweet spot

In July, the answer to the question “What’s in season?” seems like a given: Everything. Right?

But I’ve gotten so spoiled here in this place with a year-long growing season. Yes, summer squash, green beans, sweet corn, berries and even tomatoes seem fresh and easy to find these days. But the closer I look, the more I eat, and the more I learn about the 100-mile-radius of land in which I’m now living, “in season” to me is more about what is, at this moment, dripping off vines or trees or plants, particularly in Yolo County. Not rotting, not budding, but ready. Food that has never been and will never be as good as it is right now. That perfect sweet spot can change within a week or two—I’m bummed to I think I’ve missed the cherry-picking boat–making summertime eating nothing to take for granted.

With that in mind, and an eye toward finding what food is having its perfect moment, my family and I visited the Saturday Davis Farmers Market. Here are some snapshots of what we found.

 

Long, fat green beans.

Heirloom and other tomatoes beginning to come on.

You can’t have 4th of July without berries, right?

But what really seems to be in season—and I have to say, I knew this from just riding my bike around the neighborhood and watching my neighbors picking them like it was their job—is stone fruit in general, and apricots in particular.

Apricots are everywhere right now. Some great local ones can be found at Good Humus Farm, which sells at the farmers’ market and provides apricots in their and partner CSAs.

I asked farm owner Annie Main if her farm does u-pick, which they don’t. Another farmers’ market customer overheard me and mentioned that Impossible Acres in West Davis has u-pick apricots, peaches, berries and other stuff.

 Wa, wa, wait. Did she say peaches? That is what I would REALLY love to pick. So with visions of peach shortcake, peach salsa, peach-glazed pork chops, and peach cobbler in our heads we decided right then to make Impossible Acres our next farm trip.  Stay tuned, as the search for the hyper-seasonal continues.

And this, I just have to add in: Ever since the temperatures have crept above 90 degrees, I can’t go to the Davis Farmers Market without ending the trip with a popsicle at the Fat Face booth.

These guys are very creative, turning a summer standby into a gourmet treat. Last time I tried their hibiscus mint. This time I went with the thai tea+sweet potato. It was like thai iced tea on a stick. Awesome. Next time, kaffir lime+avocado.

(What, you thought I’d go a whole post without throwing in a photo of my kid?)

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