Thursday, July 23, 2009

one hot perspective (BFM summer farm tour 2009)

I live in such a mild climate, my home is completely devoid of insulation or air conditioning. When it hits the eighties we're feeling rather toasty. Nineties, oh my, where is that damned fog? One hundred plus? Are you kidding? That must be somewhere else. (Can you even breathe at those temps?) Well, a few weeks ago I had the fortune of surviving just such heat, while touring three of my favorite farms as part of the BFM Community Advisory Committee. The forecast high for the day was 109....

First stop: Full Belly (well into the nineties already)

Paul (one of four farm owners) greeted us and discussed many facets of keeping such a large organic farm operating. With over 200 acres in cultivation, this is an immense task that requires over fifty full-time, year-round employees. Diversity is the key here. It keeps pests in check, encourages native wildlife to thrive, enables a healthy population of natural pollinators (no hives are imported onto the farm) and means that there is never so much of a single crop that it has to be sold at a deep discount just to get rid of it before it rots. We began walking to see his words in action.

Passing the flower garden, we saw a youth group here for summer camp picking bouquets to take to market. Community involvement plays a large role on this farm and their CSA boxes reach a huge audience. Paul mentioned that a senior group comes and gets seconds from their storage. Then moving onto speaking about planning a fruit orchard, his words began drifting up and away from my ears with the heat. Sampling apricots, Paul pointed out that the day before was even hotter (about 115) and that some apricot pits get so hot that they scald the fruit. (Resulting in an internal bruise that is only witnessed by opening one up.) Stopping by a compost pile, discussing soil fertility and fauna, I was sure that my own pit was beginning to scald my cranial fruit. We made our way back to the shade, tanked up on water and headed down the road for a lunch date.

Second stop: Guru Ram Das Orchards (100+ at this point)

After turning down the wrong road, twice, we finally arrived at Didar's place. Collecting ourselves in his living room, enjoying the delicious air blowing from his swamp cooler, Didar told us about the early days of caring for his land. 20+ years ago he commuted from Reno every week to tend things, but nurturing was not how to describe it. He said it was more like just keeping things barely alive. But, despite the rough start and poor soils, his farm thrives. You see, orchards that have to struggle some, reward you with immense flavor and hardiness not ever seen otherwise. (As the finest grape growers in the world will tell you time and time again.) Should you then add copious quantities of love to the hardy, leafy creatures around you, you get fruit that is unparalleled.

After a delicious soup prepared for us, we took a brief tour before the promise of a dip in the pool. Didar pointed out that his orchard is designed on what has worked over the years and as older trees die or are damaged by wildlife (marauding deer wreak havoc on the nectarines as witnessed by this branch breakage) he often replaces them with a pomegranate that can withstand a few years of under watering. When it hits a few years old though, it shows off the hard earned deep roots and begins exuding health, fitting in nicely with the others. We ambled up and down a few more rows until it was obvious no one was concentrating on anything but getting in the pool. Walking the gentle hill back to the house, my brain felt as though it were beginning to melt it was so damn hot. Worried it might run out of my ear should I get in the pool, I opted to get supine in the shade beneath streamers of wingnuts. As what little breeze there was tickled my face, I heard laughs and hoots from the pool as folks took respite from the 105+ heat. The splashing water reminded me that I was getting dehydrated despite having consumed nearly a gallon of water already.

Third Stop: Riverdog (nearing 110?)

Using our puckered brains for guidance, we managed to find our final destination without getting lost. Trini greeted us with a smile and said she had to go get her dog. A fire had started up the valley a ways and as though Tim doesn't have enough to do already, he volunteers to contain and fight such things. He had the dog. A few minutes later, collected in the "cool" (mid 90's) packing area, we listened to future plans for a freezer on site and ventures into animal products. Getting to help scrub a few eggs with the new machine for such things, we learned about the chickens that rotate around the farm, adding pest control, fertilizer and about the yummiest eggs to be found. Seeing the mobile hen coups in a field of alfalfa, I was happy for these chickens, but convinced that the plume of smoke on the horizon was getting larger. Walking back to the shed, spontaneous combustion came to mind.

We piled into cars and drove down the road to go see one of Riverdog's newer ventures: pork. With shady pasture down by the creek amongst the oaks, these pigs have it good. (Well, until you kill them and eat them I suppose.) Seeing the veggie culls and seconds strewn around made me realize that these pigs eat the very same veggies I do. Literally. Add a diet rich in acorns and walnuts and these pigs are about as delectable as it gets. These "Riverhog" are showing up at local butcher shops with rave reviews. (Ask around or check out their Hog Blog.) This is some damn fine swine.

Somewhere before the pigs but after the melon field, my brain became so shriveled it fell out of my head. I managed to pick it up and put it in a zippered pocket though, and as we drove home (I should clarify, I was not driving) it began plumping up with fresh water and the cool air conditioning it would experience for the rest of the day. When we got back to Berkeley, it was at least 45 degrees cooler than our last stop. I could think better now.

With a new perspective on summer farming I wonder: How do they do it? Capay Valley farmers deal with extreme heat (bitter frosts as well) and having to get past the drunk gamblers attempting to pull into or stumblingly leaving the monstrosity on their way to market. These folks deserve our help.
Shop your local farmers' market.

For other years, check out:
BFM summer farm tour 2008
BFM summer farm tour 2007


Marc said...

Interesting to learn about internal bruising of apricots. A fair number of the ones I have been buying from Guru Ram Das Orchards and Riverdog have had that infernal internal browning.

Monkey Wrangler said...

Marc: Yeah. I've picked apricots at my in-laws in Reedley that have had the same thing. Makes me wonder what the critical temp for scalding to occur is. Gotta be a hundred plus, maybe 110 or something. I'm going to ask Judith and Didar (and my father in law) more about it and I'll let you know if I learn anything else.

And nice use of infernal and internal in the same line.

Mimi said...

105 degree temperatures kind of take the shine off of that bucolic farming fantasy doesn't it?

Hey D. I made sourdough coffee cake that is to die for. Come visit my blog so when it cools down you can make it for the kiddies.

Monkey Wrangler said...

Mims: Thanks for the tip! It's already cool enough around here and after backpacking last week, I'm ready for some coffee overload!

Angus said...


Love your blog!! Stopped by the market to see you, introduce you to my main squeeze, and buy some delectable veggies the week before last only to find out you were off camping. Hope all is well!!


Monkey Wrangler said...

Angus: What's up Gus? Thanks for checking out the blog. Sorry I missed you at the market, but King's Canyon was calling and it had been too long since I last tortured my legs, dragging my body up to elevation. Drop by the market again, and bring your sweetie; bound to be some delectable veggies next time.