farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “winters”

Fruit to chef: K&J Orchards

Farmer Tim Deasy met me and my family at the gate of K&J Orchards in Winters, his face dripping with sweat. It was 105 degrees F, and he’d just returned from Napa, where he’d delivered 40 pounds of white peaches to The French Laundry, often regarded as the best restaurant in the United States. He travels about 750 miles a week delivering fresh peaches, plums, pluots, nectarines, cherries and more to restaurants and farmers markets in the Napa-Sonoma region and Bay Area.

There are perks to the job. Sometimes, the chefs he delivers to feed him. “I figured out if you stare at something long enough, they’ll eventually ask, ‘Are you hungry?” said Tim.

In the past 10 years, K&J Orchards has grown from delivering fruit and nuts to three farm-to-table restaurants in San Francisco to upwards of 110 restaurants today. Chefs like Annie Somerville of Greens and other foodies also track K&J down at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and other markets in the Bay Area and Northern Nevada.

“We provide access to heirloom varieties or unique things,” said farmer Aomboon (“Booney”) Deasy, Tim’s wife. “Like when chefs ask me for green almonds or green plums to use in salads, or peach leaves to infuse syrups and sauces.”

K&Jfruit

Booney’s parents, Kalayada Ammatya and James Beutel, are the “K” and “J” of the operation. The couple started the farm in the early 1980s on about 40 acres in Yuba City, which continues to be their main site for growing apples and pears. They bought the 20-acre property in Winters in 1995 and set about converting about half of the then-walnut farm to stone fruit production.

While James, a former pomology professor, has retired from the farm, Kalayada continues to graft rootstock, plant seeds, and do farmers markets. Meanwhile, Booney and Tim have now taken on the primary responsibilities for the orchard.

Aomboon and Tim Deasy of K&J Orchards

Defying the heat, or perhaps common sense, my husband, 3-year-old daughter and I walked out to the orchard for a tour.

Strolling among rows of apricot trees, Tim described when he first learned Booney was from a farming family.

“When I first met her in college, I asked her what she did — I thought maybe a coffee shop or something. She said, ‘I sell cherries …'”

“He thought I had a lemonade stand, like selling cherries by the side of the road,” added Booney.

“Yeah, but she left out about 180 other varieties of fruit we now grow,” finished Tim. “But it’s fun.”

As we walked, apricots blushed in the late afternoon sun. Booney plucked one from the tree — a Flaming Gold variety–and handed it to me. Sweet, sun-infused, juicy burst. Later, when we got home, my husband bit into one of those apricots, and the juice squirted all over the counter. “Haven’t seen an apricot do that before,” he said.

Apricots, K&J Orchard

In the orchard, cherry trees, now picked clean, were ready to retire for the year. Booney said that while Washington cherries are just beginning, the season for cherries in California will be over by the end of June because yields state-wide are low this year — and prices higher —  due to a mild winter. On the upside, the surviving cherries are huge and delicious, not having had to share resources with many other cherries on the tree.

Plenty of other fruit is on its way for the year. Along our tour we saw small green balls of what will become golden meyer lemons hanging from branches, nectarines and peaches preparing for their imminent debut, spiky balls of early chestnuts, and generously spaced plums, their skins a deep purple.

Plum tree, K&J Orchard

This generous spacing of fruit on the tree is one reason the region’s best chefs seek out K&J Orchard’s fruit. Call it a flavor trick that is mind-blowingly logical: Rather than allow the trees to heave with fruit and compete for water and nutrients, they thin the fruit so the best resources go to those that remain. This, said Booney, results in a bigger, sweeter, better stone fruit.

For every thinned nectarine that never sees a chef’s table or canvas shopping bag, K&J still has plenty to go around. From the scorching 105 degree heat, we stepped into the orchard’s 45 degree refrigerated walk-in. After welcoming the blast of cold air, our eyes set on thousands of pounds of peaches, plums, apriums (a cross between an apricot and a nectarine) and pluots (a cross between a plum and an apricot), all stacked in white trays, ready for distribution.

K&J stone fruit, packed

Booney said it was Tim’s idea to target directly selling to restaurants. With images of chefs with Food Network and Hell’s Kitchen-like personalities, it was a somewhat intimidating prospect at first, she said.

“But all the chefs we work with are so down-to-earth,” said Booney. “They really appreciate the fruit, respect it and where it’s from, and they’re really intrigued to learn how it’s grown.”

At the end of our tour, we passed a row of white pomegranates, which should be ready by late August.

White pomegranate on tree

The white pomegranate has pale pinkish seeds inside rather than the deep red of its more famous sibling, is reportedly sweeter and less tart, and won’t stain your fingers.

It’s a tasty twist on a beloved classic and is one example of why Tim shouldn’t expect to reduce his work mileage any time soon.

Back at home, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them "yum."

Back in Davis, Lily bites into a K&J plum. Pickier than a Napa chef, she proclaims them “yum.”

You don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to have a taste of K&J Orchard’s fruit. Catch them at farmers markets in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Alemany, Los Gatos, Menlo Park; and at Nevada farmers markets in Reno, Gardnerville and Minden.

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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.

Nut job

“I’m going to show you the real way to crack a walnut,” said Susan Hassett.

She should know, she’s been growing certified organic walnuts on her farm, Buzzard’s Roost Ranch, for about 20 years in Winters, Calif.

“You don’t use a nutcracker,” she said, as rule number one. Nutcrackers make fishing out the meat from the shell a pain in the neck.

She took out a small, lightweight ball pein hammer, held a walnut against a hard surface, and struck it. In one quick motion, she removed the shell as if she were opening a tiny book and popped the entire nut out, whole, like a brown little brain.

We were at Hassett’s farm to pick walnuts from two of her Franquette walnut trees—each one more than 140 years old.

The last English walnut to leaf out, the Franquette is a French variety that’s been grafted to a California black walnut tree, explained Hassett over the sound of her Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dawn, happily cracking walnuts between her teeth.

The Franquette is also less vulnerable to frost and one of the few varieties you can harvest at this time of year.

In fact, when I mentioned to my husband that I’d like to pick walnuts on my birthday, I had no idea the task I’d set before him.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys produce 99 percent of the nation’s commercial walnuts, and California is the world’s largest exporter (though China produces more.) So I assumed that finding a farm where we could pick them wouldn’t be difficult here.

But Grant soon discovered that most local walnut farms are larger commercial productions, which do mechanical harvesting and don’t offer u-pick to the public. Of those who do welcome the public to pick their own walnuts—mostly Hartley and Chandler varieties— they had just wrapped up their harvest by the time Grant called to set up a visit in early November.

So he was relieved to hear that Buzzard’s Roost Ranch was not only in the prime of their certified organic walnut harvest, but they’d appreciate our help—free labor for them, a great day on the farm for us.

Before the Hartley walnut—a cross between a Franquette and Mayette walnut—came on the scene in 1925, Franquettes were the darling of the commercial walnut world. But now, Hartleys, and the locally developed Chandler varieties, are most likely what you see at the grocery store.

The Franquette is a darker, more savory walnut than the slightly sweeter Chandler and Hartley varieties. Hassett says it’s also an ideal walnut to grow organically because the hard, tightly sealed shell makes it impervious to most pests. But, like white flour, white bread, and white meat, Americans tend to like lighter walnuts in the marketplace. The Franquette’s yields can also be smaller than those desired by high production farms.

Walnuts in general have been touted for an array of nutritional benefits, from limiting the ability of “bad” fats to harm the arteries  to increased sperm production.

“Walnuts are a completely underrated nut,” said Hassett.

According to the California Walnut Commission, walnuts have the highest total level of antioxidants, more so than almonds, peanuts or hazelnuts, and are one of the few plant-based foods rich in healthy, omega-3 fatty acids .

Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking much about my health the day we went. I just wanted to spend a beautiful fall day in the country, reliving some good walnut-picking memories and hopefully creating some more for me and the family—Grant, Lily, my mom, brother-in-law Eric and his friend, Anya.

Before Hassett showed us how to crack walnuts, she demonstrated how to get them off the tree: With a hefty “walnut rake”—any large, hardy stick will do – you “knock” a branch, take cover, and wait for the wholly satisfying sound of walnuts raining onto the ground.

Then rake them into a pile, pick them up and toss them in a bucket. Simple enough.

I tend to think nearly any u-pick experience is good for kids, but there are some that have not always been ideal—fruit too high for Lily to reach, berries too deep in prickly brambles to pluck. But picking freshly fallen walnuts is one task perfectly suited to a 2-year-old. She even got in on the knocking action.

On the kid-friendly front, I should mention that Hassett fertilizes around the walnut trees with horse manure. So don’t be surprised if you reach for a walnut on the ground and find it sitting right next to some horse poop. The way I figure it, that’s why we wash our hands (and our walnuts), and it sure beats chemical fertilizers. But some may find it off-putting.

A couple of hours later, we hauled about 40 pounds of certified organic walnuts to Hassett’s back porch to be weighed and split among us. Hassett only charges $2/pound—several dollars cheaper than what I find at the store—but still… 40 pounds!

What on Earth will we do with 40 pounds of walnuts? Well, we have a big Thanksgiving family reunion coming up, and many of them will be transported there—along with a small hammer—for candied walnuts, pumpkin bread, oatmeal, baked sweet potatoes, salads and general mindless nut-cracking while talking turkey. Then, of course, there are freezer bags, and Hassett said walnuts freeze very well, which I’m counting on. At least we’ll know how to crack them.

IN A NUTSHELL

Farm: Buzzards Roost Ranch, 8290A Pleasants Valley Road, Winters, Calif.

U-Pick: walnuts and olives, by appointment only

Other offerings: horse and carriage rides; venue for weddings, special occasions; equine programs, horse boarding

Side trip: You’ll pass Lake Solano Park on your way in; consider stopping for a picnic.

Contact: (530) 795-4084, bzzroost@dishmail.net,  website

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