farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the tag “Yolo County”

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.

Pantry-bound persimmons: Village Harvest

A daily part of life for many Californians is passing by trees heaving with fruit — oranges, apricots, cherries, plums — seeing pounds and pounds of that fruit rotting around the base of the tree, and thinking, “Wow, what a waste when there are so many hungry people.”

The co-founders of Village Harvest had that same reaction, but they actually did something about it. They started a volunteer-driven nonprofit that collects fruit from residential homes and distributes it to local shelters and food pantries. The original Village Harvest began in 2001 and is headquartered in San Jose. There are now volunteer teams in Yolo, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz counties.

Village Harvest-Davis began in the spring of 2009, after a group of friends who had worked on the 2008 Obama campaign took to heart that campaign’s encouragement to look around their community to see how they could help create positive change. Since then, the Davis group has collected more than 120,000 pounds of fruit. In 2012, the Davis team held 53 harvests at Yolo County homes and orchards and collected 43,000 pounds of fruit.

Spending an afternoon volunteering with Village Harvest seemed like a great way for my family to close out 2012 and start a new year. When we heard through the Village Harvest list serve that they were holding their last harvest of the year — persimmons — on Dec. 30 at Mike and Diane Madison’s  farm near Winters, we jumped at it.

Blown away

The directions to the persimmon harvest site were refreshingly rustic: ” Go down the gravel road, turn left at the row of olive trees, and go straight until you reach a row of persimmons.”  Ohh.. kay.

But sure enough, there they were, about 10 volunteers with their hands and heads deep into the persimmon branches — which were bare except for the globes of bright orange fruit. The visual effect was rather Seussical.

Fuyu persimmon tree

If we were going to pick pounds and pounds of fruit only to give it away, my husband was glad it was persimmons– a fruit he admires on the branch but doesn’t enjoy eating.

Persimmon picking

Daughter Lily and I, however, do like persimmons. So we were happy to hear we could eat our fill while we were there and take some of the too-ripe ones home.

Lily with persimmon

While Lily was face-deep into a persimmon, a middle-aged volunteer watched her with a smile and she said, “I never even ate a persimmon until today. They’re delicious!”

I also just figured that out this year after I cut one open to go with our Thanksgiving salad. Its flavor is a little like candied yams. To me, if a pumpkin were a plum it would taste like a persimmon. Got that?

There are two main popular varieties: the slightly crunchy, apple-like Fuyu, which we were harvesting that day,  and the Hachiya, which is best used for baking or even eating with a spoon when it’s nearly overripe and squishy soft. Some regular Village Harvest volunteers have a dehydrator at home, and they say dried Hachiyas taste like candy.

Fuyu persimmons

I met farmer Mike Madison (cookbook author Deborah Madison’s brother, for the foodies among you) in the driveway. He mentioned that this was the last of the persimmon harvest, as racoons were starting to ransack them, and he welcomed our help.

I also ran into his wife, Diane Madison, who was getting ready to start a batch of marmalade, which they sell, along with olives, cut flowers and other offerings at the Davis Farmers Market.

“We just like to see all the fruit used,” she said. “People should be able to eat good food. We sell as much as we can but are happy to donate, too.” Until recently, her mother-in-law, now 95, cooked every Tuesday for the community meals at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Davis, where Village Harvest fruits are often donated. So giving food to the less fortunate is a long-held value for the Madisons.

Persimmon Harvest

While volunteers of all ages poked long poles of fruit-picking baskets into the trees or climbed orchard ladders to snip the persimmons with clippers, Village Harvest co-founder Linda Schwartz and volunteer Pauline Wooliever were busy sorting through boxes of the harvest, throwing fruit that was cracked or too ripe into a “cull box,” for volunteers to divide among themselves.

Sorting persimmons

The fruit deemed worthy was packed into boxes and will be distributed first to STEAC (Short Term Emergency Aid Committee), to a women and children’s shelter, and a men’s shelter in Davis. Village Harvest also takes fruit to the Davis Korean Church, community meals at St. Martin’s, and to the Food Bank of Yolo County in Woodland. Sometimes, big harvests are also distributed to the Sacramento Food Bank.

“We’re very careful that we give our agencies good fruit,” said Schwartz, carefully examining a persimmon for cuts or blemishes. “We don’t want people to feel like they’re getting something second-hand.”

Biting into a persimmon herself — “Oh, this is good…” — she explained how the Village Harvest process works.

Homeowners can fill out the Home Sign-up Form on the Village Harvest website to arrange a harvest. (Note to homeowners: Please contact Village Harvest before the fruit is too ripe to pack and transport.) The owner can claim a tax deduction for the number of pounds of collected fruit, priced for market rates.

Village Harvest also keeps a database of trees and checks it each season to schedule harvests. There are currently about 250 homes and more than 500 Yolo County trees (not counting those in orchards) in the registry.

Harvests range in size and scope–from 1 tree to 100. A big one coming up is a navel orange harvest in Winters on Jan. 13. At that harvest last year, nearly 100 volunteers picked oranges to the sounds of live music in the orchard and sweeping valley views over a sack lunch. A similarly large tangelo harvest is in the works for February.

But those are the exceptions. Most Village Harvest collections are held in people’s backyards, with just a few trees and a handful of volunteers.

“Some of the most satisfying harvests for me are the ones where the homeowners planted the trees when their kids were young, and they feel like stewards of those trees,” said Schwartz. “It saddens them that they can’t pick that fruit anymore. They’re just beaming when we’re telling them how great their fruit is and how it will be appreciated at the shelters.”

Village Harvest-Davis co-founder Linda Schwartz

For  people interested in volunteering for a harvest, the calendar on the Village Harvest-Davis website is not up to date. Several harvests are underway that are not on that list. The best way to learn about them is to get on the group’s email list serve by filling out the Volunteer Registration Form on the website.

There is very little commitment to this sort of volunteering: If a harvest comes up that fits a volunteer’s schedule, great. If not, try to make the next one.

“I was afraid to commit,” said Wooliever. “But I can come when I can, and I really enjoy it — and they don’t get mad at me!”

Nope, no one gets mad, and a lot of good food finds its proper place: in people’s bellies, not the ground.

Persimmon 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).

The next Village Harvest-Davis harvest will be Sunday, Jan. 13, to pick navel oranges in Winters. 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

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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