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, firstname.lastname@example.org. www.freewebs.com/pacificstargardens. Look them up on Facebook.