Farm Visit: Pomo Tierra Ranch

Katie H. Michel, BFM Operations Manager, recently traveled to Pomo Tierra Ranch in the Anderson Valley. Here’s what she learned about this Berkeley Farmers’ Market vendor.

I drove through the gate at Pomo Tierra in the late afternoon. The property is located near Yorkville on Highway 128, which winds through the Anderson Valley in southern Mendocino County. I say “property” as opposed to “farm,” because, as I learned during my visit, the name “Pomo Tierra” signifies more than the farm enterprise we know at our markets — it names a collective that has existed there since the early 1970s.

The name “Pomo Tierra” itself has multiple readings. The Pomo people are one linguistic branch of the Native American people of northern California, and so, “Pomo Tierra,” may signify “land of the Pomo.” Alternately, in French, “Pomme de Terre” means “apple of the earth,” a phrase that usually refers to the potato. Of course, Bernie grows both apples and potatoes, making this play on words particularly apt.

The hills and fields in the Anderson valley were dry and golden when I visited — the characteristic California autumn landscape. After turning off 128, I wound up a steep gravel road past a few ramshackle structures before reaching the orchard. Like the structures, the trees appeared to be historic relics, gnarled and thick. I found Bernie near his hand built, off-the-grid home, set inside of the orchard. He invited me inside, and we sat and talked in his living room with the Giants game on in the background.

The story of Pomo Tierra begins in 1971 when a group of about ten friends living in and around San Jose, CA, decided that they were tired of city life, and began looking for a place to buy in the country. The 80-acre hillside parcel in the Anderson Valley now known as Pomo Tierra was the first property they looked at. The property came complete with a late 1800s farmhouse, historic farm structures, rights to a year-round spring on a neighboring property, and, of course, a turn-of-the-century Gravenstein apple orchard.

The real estate agent handling the sale vastly exaggerated the amount of income to be gained from the orchard, and though the group had never envisioned themselves as agriculturalists, they decided to buy the land and have a go at farming under the false impression that the apple revenue would cover the cost of their mortgage.

Bob Bernstein, known as “Bernie” to friends and market goers, wasn’t among this original group, but he came to visit Pomo Tierra soon after his friends purchased it. He immediately fell in love with the place and decided to move there in late 1971. At that time, a lot of people were living on the property in any type of structure imaginable: tent, tipi, shack – as Bernie says, “Basically out in the open.” Wild times ensued, characteristic of the era.

Since the beginning, the folks living at Pomo Tierra have operated as a collective. In the early days, this meant sharing everything, from money, food, and mortgage payments, to cooking, cleaning, and farm responsibilities. Bernie described how each week two collective members would be assigned laundry duty, which involved taking a truckload of everybody’s dirty clothes to the laundromat in town.

When kids came along, the structure of the collective changed. Members began wanting to spend more time with their families, built individual houses, and ate together less frequently. Today the remaining collective members eat together at the old farmhouse once a week, with rotating “kitchen duty” assignments. The legal terms of the collective have been restructured so that the land is in a trust and collective members are beneficiaries of the trust, as opposed to being co-owners of the property.

The story of the farm enterprise parallels the changes in the collective.  After sharing farm responsibilities as a group for the first few years on the land, it quickly became clear that the real estate agent’s claims of apple riches were not going to pan out, and that members would have to find additional income sources to make their mortgage payments. At the same time, almost all members discovered that they actually weren’t that interested in full-time farming as a livelihood. All, that is, except for Bernie.

As collective members gave up farming and sought various outside employment, Bernie assumed full-time responsibility for managing the 20-acre apple orchard. Today, Bernie is the sole owner of the business known as “Pomo Tierra,” and he works mostly alone year-round, farming and marketing his products.

When Bernie moved to Pomo Tierra, he had limited gardening experience, and zero experience managing an orchard or running a farm. As he says, “It’s not rocket science.” He was able to learn by doing, and over time he has built up a healthy, organic farm and a successful business.

The previous owner of the orchard had farmed conventionally, and he assured the group of friends that if they didn’t use synthetic sprays and chemical fertilizers, they would fail. The novice farmers followed his advice for the first two years running the orchard, but soon came to question these methods. They stopped using synthetic sprays in 1973 and the orchard has been managed organically ever since, earning CCOF certification in 1978.

In the early days, the collective sold their fresh apples at the San Francisco Produce Market, and whatever they couldn’t sell fresh they sold to a cannery. The fact that Gravensteins don’t store well left them with a limited amount of time to unload their entire harvest on the fresh market, where the apples fetched the best price. Because they ended up having to sell a significant number of apples at rock bottom prices to the cannery, they struggled to make a profit. In 1973 they decided to sell their entire crop to a large juice company called Heinke. The decision inspired Bernie to pursue making processed farm products and marketing them on his own. This way, the farm could add value to their crop and improve their margins, instead of passing the added value on to processors like Heinke. Today, Bernie processes almost all of his Gravensteins, and a large portion of his additional harvest, for his signature “Gravenstein” and “Autumn Blend” juices, applesauce, and apple cider vinegar. Marketing value-added products is not only more profitable than selling fresh apples, it also enables Bernie to attend farmers’ markets year-round.

In 1987, the Marin Civic Center Farmers’ Market opened, and Bernie joined as one of the first vendors. At the time, the farmers’ market movement was just starting up, and the Marin market was one of only a handful in the Bay Area, including the Tuesday Berkeley Farmers’ Market across the Bay. The opportunity to directly market farm products made sense to Bernie, being more profitable than selling to wholesale and retail markets. In 1991, Bernie joined the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, and he has been selling here exclusively ever since, in addition to maintaining retail and restaurant accounts.

I asked Bernie what a typical year is like on his the farm. Beginning in January, once all of the leaves have fallen from the trees, Bernie begins pruning. There are 800 trees in his orchard, and the pruning task takes about three months, ending sometime in April when the trees start to leaf out and bloom.

By this time, the winter rains have produced a lot of weeds, and Bernie begins mowing the orchards and hand weeding around the younger trees. In the early years he used to disc the orchards for weed control, leaving erosion-prone bare earth and creating big clouds of dust. He now leaves permanent ground cover in the orchard and has seeded vetch and rye as permanent cover crops. In order to maintain soil fertility, Bernie also hosts a compost spreading party in the spring where friends, family, collective members and guests pitch in to spread many tons of OMRI-approved compost in the orchard.

The apple trees are generally in bloom for 1-4 weeks in April, during which time Bernie leases beehives to place in the orchard for help with pollination. Most apple varieties produce more fruit if they are cross-pollinated, a process whereby a pollinator transports pollen from one apple variety to another. Bernie has found that Golden Delicious is a good “pollinizer” variety for the Gravensteins, which is why there were Golden Delicious trees scattered throughout the historic orchard when the group purchased it. Each year, Bernie replaces some of the older Gravensteins with young trees, including Gravensteins, Golden Delicious, and newer varieties like Fuji’s and Pink Ladies.

In mid-spring the trees set fruit. Then, in late spring through early summer, Bernie begins thinning the apples and propping up heavy, fruit-laden branches with 2 x 2’s and 2 x 4’s. Finally, in late July or early August, the Gravenstein apple harvest begins. In mid-August Bernie hosts a work party for the “juice harvest,” where community members pitch in for a few days. Bernie continues harvesting other varieties of apples, including Sierra Beauties, Granny Smiths, and Pink Ladies, through November, in addition to pears, figs, and Yukon Gold potatoes.

Unlike many apple growers, Bernie refuses to tear out the ancient Gravensteins in his orchard until they are truly on their last legs — basically falling over. Whereas the areas around Sebastopol and the Anderson Valley used to be home to many Gravenstein orchards, now there are only a handful of growers. Slow Food USA reports that, “During the past six decades, Sonoma County’s Gravenstein orchards have declined by almost 7,000 acres and are currently down to 960 acres.” There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that Gravensteins do not store or ship well, making them unattractive to larger growers, and that many historic orchards have been torn out and replaced with wine grapes, a higher-value crop.

Bernie also differs from many apple growers because of his dry-farming practices. He waters his new trees for their first five years to get them well established. Beyond that, he doesn’t irrigate in his orchards at all, relying on the ability of the trees to send down long taproots to find water at the water table. In addition to conserving water, Bernie’s dry-farming practices produce fruit with a very intense flavor. Bernie attests, “The hot summer days and cool nights of Mendocino County, along with our dry farming practices, help us produce some of the finest apples in the country.”

In comparison to the “sleep when you’re dead” mentality of growers on many farms I’ve visited, Bernie has a more relaxed way about him. While maintaining a 20-acre orchard and running a small business is no small task for one person, I can’t help but think that the collective approach to land ownership has, in this case, taken a bit of the pressure off – not just in terms of sharing mortgage expenses, but also in terms of having larger community support for farm projects as well as everyday life tasks like cooking and cleaning. The community support here makes for an inspiring model.

Find Pomo Tierra every Thursday and Saturday at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.

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3 thoughts on “Farm Visit: Pomo Tierra Ranch

  1. We stayed one month in Pomo tierra ranch with Bruce, and some others friends in september 1973. It’s was a delicious time.Michèle et Gérard from France

  2. I am a long lost friend to Tom O’Connell, one of the siblings of the O’Connells of Dana St. of Berkeley. I was in Berkeley in 1972 and was lucky enough to get to hang out at the house and also make a couple of short trips to a place they referred to as Pomo Tierra. I am wondering if you have any knowledge of the O’Connells, especially Tom. I will leave my name & email in hopes that you might pass them on to him if possible.
    Thank you kindly & all the best. Skip

  3. I visited Pomo Tierra, worked the harvest of 1974. What a great memory!! Hard work and a wonderful experience!Now, I worry if you’ve been affected by the California Fires? Please fill me in!! Thank you! I hope to visit this winter!!

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