Exploring the Farms of Your Favorite Farmers’ Market Vendors

Each year, Ecology Center staff and members of the Berkeley Farmers’ Market Community Advisory Committee visit the farms of three Berkeley Farmers’ Market growers. This year we headed east, winding around Mt. Diablo to Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, skirting the labyrinthine canals of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to Lucero Organic Farm near Lodi, and winding up deep in the fertile Sacramento Valley at Smit Orchards near Linden, CA. Our trip was perfectly timed at the height of strawberry and cherry season, two crops that these farms specialize in.

1st Stop: Frog Hollow Farm

Every time I drive out to Brentwood, I’m shocked by suburban development. Even after exiting Highway 4, you just keep driving and driving on 4-lane thoroughfares bordered by strip malls and residential developments until you hit farm country. Historically, Brentwood has been an agricultural Mecca, blessed with rich delta soils, a mild climate, and plenty of water. While much of Brentwood’s valuable soil has been lost to development, the City has preserved a 12,000-acre area called the “Ag Core” that is zoned for agricultural use.

Frog Hollow Farm grows “legendary stone fruit” on a leased 153-acre parcel located inside the “Ag Core.” We met up with Farmer Al (a.k.a. Al Courchesne) near the heart of his operations – a certified kitchen, cold storage facility, and packing and processing area, all of which were bustling with activity. In the shaded packing area, workers sorted cherries and stacked totes on pallets destined for Bay Area markets, while in the kitchen one member of the 8 full-time kitchen staff stirred apricot jam with a long, metal paddle in an industrial braiser. Frog Hollow has invested significantly in infrastructure. Having an on-site processing facility means that unsalable culls of fruit can be processed into jams and pastry fillings. It also means that pickers can harvest fruit when it’s super-ripe, because whatever doesn’t get sold immediately can be jammed. Al conceded, “it takes years to develop these types of operations.”

While wandering the orchards, we learned about Frog Hollow’s work with a county Pest Control Advisor to manage the Oriental Fruit Moth using pheromone disruptors. Small, white boxes hanging in the trees release female pheromones, which confuse the male moths and make it difficult for them to find a mate. Frog Hollow has installed about 150 of these dispensers per acre to control the Moth. If not managed, the small grayish moths lay their eggs on top of leaves in orchards. The larvae damage developing shoots and fruits, or enter the fruit to feed around the pit. The disruptors seemed to be working; Frog Hollow’s cherry trees were loaded with undamaged fruit.

Frog Hollow had a good cherry set this year despite the cool spring weather. Brentwood has a special microclimate in the rain shadow of Mt. Diablo that is ideal for stone fruit. Brentwood didn’t experience many of this spring’s late rains, which can be especially damaging to early season fruit like cherries and apricots. Although most of the Bay Area got drenched in a fairly significant storm on Tuesday, the roads at Frog Hollow were dry and dusty during our Wednesday tour. According to Al, Frog Hollow will also have a bumper crop of olives this year. Over the past two years, Frog Hollow’s 400 olive trees have yielded about 20,000 pounds of olives per year. This year, Al expects to harvest 25,000 pounds, a 25% jump. In addition to being ideal for pressing oil, the Leccino olives grown at Frog Hollow are tasty cured. Ecology Center staffer Kirk Lumpkin eagerly encouraged Al to send some of Frog Hollow’s beautiful, salt-cured olives to the markets this year.

Another thing that makes Brentwood an ideal growing region is access to affordable delta water. Like most growers in Brentwood, Frog Hollow irrigates their orchards with water pumped out of a canal that runs along the edge of their property, funneling water from the San Joaquin River to a multitude of farms. Formed in 1917, the Brentwood water district is one of the oldest in California, and growers can irrigate for a minimal $25 per acre-foot. Passing rows of blushing Kettleman apricots on our way out, Al said, “This is the best place to grow apricots anywhere – right here in Brentwood!” His assertion made the miles of suburban sprawl surrounding Frog Hollow particularly unsettling. As one of the Bay Area’s closest agricultural regions, Brentwood is undoubtedly a place worth protecting.

2nd Stop: Lucero Organic Farms

The first thing that struck me when we arrived at Lucero Organic Farms was the impressive collection of rusty farm implements, which speak to Ben Lucero’s long career in agriculture. The collection includes Ben’s favorite tractor, which is 70 years old, and a 100-year old tomato planter that he and his son Curtis had just used the day before to plant out starts in the field. Ben has been farming for his whole life. Raised in a farm worker family of Native American and Spanish descent, one of his earliest farming experiences was picking cotton alongside his parents when he was five years old. Ben said to us while demonstrating how to thin clusters of table grapes with his huge, able hands, “I used to do this for other people, now I do it for myself.”

Ben started his first organic farm in the 1960s and he has been selling at farmers’ markets since the movement took off in the 1980s. After farming in San Martin in Santa Clara County for 66 years, Ben lost his lease ten years ago, and he and his wife Karen moved to their current site near Lodi. In 2006, Ben’s son Curtis and daughter-in-law Priscilla returned to the farm and have been a huge help.

The Luceros currently farm on a total of 25 acres, spread across three leased parcels, which are separated by a significant distance (a 10-15 minute drive from their main site). They have had trouble finding good parcels to lease in the area that they don’t have to wait to have certified organic. According to National Organic Program standards, land that has been farmed conventionally must have had no prohibited materials applied to it for three years in order to be eligible for organic certification. One of the Luceros’ parcels, currently planted in strawberries and tomatoes, is an exposed site plagued by strong winds and dust, as well as pressure from poachers who come and pick the fruit before the Luceros come to harvest. The Luceros’ lease on this parcel ends this year, and they will be back to look for land.

In 2007, the Luceros launched a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program serving their local community. They started with 12 members and have grown to 31, and the day before our tour they were featured in the Lodi News-Sentinel, which they hope will boost membership. Their intention was to bring a dependable source of income and more stability to their operation. Lucero’s CSA is one of the few that serve the Lodi area, bringing a wide variety of fresh, local produce to the community.

Known for their long-stemmed strawberries and sumptuous heirloom tomatoes, Lucero Organic Farms grows a little bit of everything, including cucumbers, summer squash, okra, stone fruit, table grapes, and raspberries. The small orchard next to their house includes just a few trees of many different types of fruit, such as Lorna and Blenheim apricots, Arkansas Black apples, French prunes, loquats, figs, and pomegranates. Like Brentwood, Lodi has historically been a farming community, known for asparagus, orchard fruit, and wine grapes. Unfortunately, also like Brentwood, the majority of farms are medium to large-scale monocultures producing crops for canneries, wineries, and national markets. The Luceros’ diverse organic selection is unique in their area, making it especially exciting that they can bring some of that locally grown food to the Lodi community through their CSA.

During our tour, we enjoyed picking strawberries. The Luceros keep their strawberry plants in production for two years before tilling them in. This is common practice among strawberry growers as plant production falls off significantly after two years. Because the plants are in the ground for an extended period of time, competition with weeds can be a challenge. The plants are mulched with black plastic, but even so, the Luceros have to hire crews to weed the strawberries as many as three times throughout the season. Their strawberries are watered about once per week using efficient drip-irrigation. The Luceros’ signature is that they keep long-stems on their berries, which are popular with restaurants because the berries are easier to dip in chocolate.

3rd Stop: Smit Ranch

Driving through Lodi towards Linden, we were surprised by the number of new vineyards in the region. A sea of wine grapes stretched across the rolling hills bordering the road. Each intersection had signs pointing north, south, east and west to advertise local vineyards. At the northern border of Smit Ranch, Smit’s mixed orchards and table grapes grew on one side of a dirt road, and an endless rows of wine grapes grew on the other side. While the Lodi area has been known for wine grapes for quite some time, Clazien Smit explained that the majority of vineyards in the area where she farms have sprung up only within the last 10 years. The Smits have been farming on the same 160-acre property just north of Linden since 1969. Originally dairy farmers, John and Clazien Smit now farm apples, cherries, table grapes, and a new crop: blueberries. Everything at Smit Ranch seemed to be done with great precision.

Long-time staffer Kirk Lumpkin remembered Philips Farm, a vendor at the Tuesday market 20 years ago and a founding member of the Saturday market. At that time, Philips farm was incredibly diversified – growing a huge array of fruits, vegetables, flowers, nuts, and herbs – and they were the anchor of the young Saturday market. Philips Farm used to be in Lodi, and it has now become part of that sea of wine grapes. One tour member surmised, “wine grapes have become the corn and soy of California” – our vast monoculture cash crop.

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