From Tree to Hand

As we wait for the bus in front of Berkeley’s Longfellow Middle School on a foggy morning, I find myself dancing with 20 sixth-graders. We are acting out farm activities, and I’m the rotating sprinkler.
Less than an hour later, we arrive at Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood. Our guide, the Ecology Center’s Amy Tang, conducts tours like this one as part of an experiential educational program. Sponsored by the California Nutrition Network, the program includes in-class lessons and field trips.
As we step off the bus, the air is hot, with a woozy, dense quality you can feel in your lungs. Before his foot touches the ground, Kevin feels the heat and exclaims, “All right! I’m gettin’ back on the bus!”
That’s when Farmer Al Courchesne shows up. Tall and burly, he impresses the kids with both his size and unkempt hair. At 60, he looks 45 and unfazed by the long hours of a farmer. “With farming, it takes 30 years to get started,” Al tells us. “I’m at 28 years now so I’m just beginning.” Al grows fruit trees on his 120-acre organic farm. He explains that peaches can flourish only in certain climates, and that’s how he ended up in Brentwood, with the ideal combination of cold winters and summers hot enough to create delicious fruit.
During the winter, he says, a cold haze lies across the land. I can picture it as we head into the orchard. Thick clouds creep over the hills far off to the west. A breeze blows from the Delta, rustling the leaves of a huge old tree behind the barn. Walking down a dusty road, we pass rusty farm equipment, mountainous piles of black irrigation tubing, chicken coops, a Chevy enveloped by pink and white oleander. This is a place where everything is alive. Even those old vehicles, caught in a process of rust and deterioration, seem animated. The students are wide awake in the heavy heat.
Al shows us the leaves of various types of fruit trees, demonstrating how they’re distantly related. Several students crouch at the base of a tree, letting the mist of a micro-sprinkler cool their faces. The sprinklers cool the air, reducing the amount of water the trees need — every few weeks, 300 gallons go to each of Frog Hollow’s 20,000 trees. A few students linger in the refreshing spray while the rest follow Al to a stack of beehives. The white wooden boxes reverberate with the drone of thousands of bees.
It feels as if we’re being pulled deeper into the orchard by a new curiosity just beyond the next row of trees — and by the long strides of Farmer Al. Five boys do their best to stay abreast of him, while the rest of us follow not far behind. A chorus of “Farmer Al! Farmer Al!” accompanies us, as kids who were shy this morning vie with the more outgoing for a chance to have Al answer one of their many questions.
Then we reach the cherries, the treasure Al has been leading us to all along. He holds up a massive cluster and says, “Here, kids — these trees are ready. You can eat all the cherries on any of these trees!”
“This is the best part of the day,” Al tells me as we watch students stashing handfuls of cherries in their folded-over shirts. “There’s something about that connection of eye to hand to taste buds. These kids will remember this for the rest of their lives.”
While trying to grab as many cherries as she can hold, De Mario points out a piece of cardboard hanging from a branch. “What’s that?” she asks, and everyone gathers around to hear a real-world science lesson. The card contains pheromones that confuse male moths so they can’t find mates, a form of life-cycle disruption used by organic farmers.
Standing there in his cracked old boots with a cell phone clipped to his denim overalls, Farmer Al seems equal parts rural and high-tech.
After we break for lunch, we visit the cold storage room and the kitchen, where pastries are baked and fruits are canned. On a catwalk we can look down on the bright red cherries as they move along a tan conveyer belt. A powerful fan blows debris off the pristine fruit. Then we pass the fruit-drying operation, with its white roof so hot that it deters hungry animals and bugs.
We end up sitting on the cool cement of the barn, listening to Al explain why he chooses to farm organically. “Farming connects you to the flow of life,” he says. “The land is the base of life, and the farmers are stewards of the land. I don’t want to pollute the earth.”

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