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Meet Grabishfarm: For the Love of Heritage

July 17, 2014

"Piglets!" called Amy Grabish.

Within seconds five mulefoot piglets the size of my hiking boots ran for the shallow bucket of goat milk that Amy had poured for them. All of the black piglets jumped into the bucket where they snorted, pushed, and wagged their curly tails as they drank. Eventually, each piglet climbed out of the bucket and fell asleep on the grass. Dasha, the on-duty livestock guard dog, licked the piglets clean of milk.

Amy has to feed them milk twice a day until they can eat kibble. The sow stopped producing milk a few days after she gave birth, and will therefore have to go. "She can't stay if she can't produce," said Amy. "We're not a sanctuary."

Those were the harshest words I heard from Amy during my two-hour tour of Grabishfarm, a 3.65-acre farm in Dixon. Larry Fox, Amy's husband, bought the property nearly five years ago, and when he did the 1928 house needed major renovation and the property had no fences. When Larry, a pipe fitter, met Amy, a wine seller, three years ago, Amy was living in Napa on what she called a "starter farm." They fell in love and started building fences to enclose their "peaceable kingdom."

Grabishfarm specializes in raising heritage breed animals for meat. They are members of the Livestock Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to protect rare and endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. "Heritage breeds are no longer commercially marketable," says Amy. "If you don't raise them for consumption they don't exist at all."

Grabishfarm raises American mulefoot hogs, fainting goats, and guinea fowl. Mulefoot hogs have one toe that is not cloven, and are on the critical list of American livestock breeds. "They grow slower and the pig taste is awesome," says Amy, who sells whole and half pigs. The farmers do not slaughter onsite, but do have a favorite butcher that they recommend.

Fainting goats are on the recovering list. They're known as fainters because they can sometimes fall over like an opossum when they are stressed. During my tour of the farm, Amy scooped up a baby fainting goat in her arms. It didn't faint, but did like to be patted. The goats, which yield a lot of meat for their size, won't be big enough to harvest until December.

Larry and Amy are raising a small flock of Spanish Black turkeys, a breed that is on the watch list. Larry chose them for their temperament and because they breed naturally. The farm will likely have ten turkeys ready for harvest by Thanksgiving.

Guinea hens are not on the heritage list, but are experts in insect control and have delicious meat. My husband and I bought two hens for a Fourth of July feast. I filled the cavity with two small lemons and rubbed olive oil, salt & pepper on the skin. I preheated the oven to a high temperature and then turned the oven down. The roasted birds were tender and delicious, and so much better than hot dogs! We found that the birds provide more dark meat than chicken. Guinea hens are available frozen now. Contact Amy for the date of the next harvest if you want to buy them fresh.

Not all the animals on the farm are destined for slaughter. Goldie the pheasant doesn't do anything but look pretty. The button quail produce eggs, but live on the farm because they're "cute." The Welsh harlequin, Cayuga and buff ducks produce eggs that are for sale. The "peaceable kingdom" also includes several dogs, one of which likes to put his head in your idle hand as you tour the farm. The retired guard donkey lives in a pen with a Peruvian Paso horse, and in another pen are pygmy goats, an Alpine goat named Junebug, and an Oberhasli dairy goat named Sweetheart.

Is the farm economically viable, you might ask? Well, let's just say that the farmers are not quitting their days jobs. The biggest challenge they have, like most farmers, is time. Amy gets up early to feed the animals, and in the long summertime hours works for several hours after work. Weekends are spent doing chores, which includes tending and harvesting a vegetable garden. During the summer she puts out a farm table at 7131 Batavia Road to sell eggs and whatever is growing.

To buy meat or eggs visit www.grabishfarm.com.

To see what's going on at the farm visit http://facebook.com/Grabishfarm.

—Aleta George

Photo credits: Dasha and newborn goats, Grabishfarm. All other photos by Aleta George.

Vacaville Family Farm Offers "Nature's Bounty"

May 15, 2014

Ahmad Karaouni is fit, tan, and weathered. He works long hours seven days a week. "If I don't work, I die," he says. "I love to work." In other words, he's a typical farmer.

Ahmad is the owner of Nature's Bounty, a family-run business in Vacaville that sells all-natural goat, lamb, beef, and whole young roasters. The facility is CDFA licensed and USDA inspected.

Ahmad raises some animals on the property, but there are only so many animals that a ten-acre farm can support. The rest of the animals he slaughters and sells as meat come from ranchers that agree to raise their animals to Nature's Bounty standards. Among other things, the animals must be naturally raised (free of antibiotics and hormones) and treated in a humane manner. These criteria are part of what defines the meat as halal, meat prepared as prescribed by Muslim law. "Halal is another way of saying that the meat is natural, safe, and clean," says Ahmad.

Ahmad grew up in Lebanon. He came to the United States to earn a master's degree in business administration in 1977. He and his wife, Lourdes, who is Honduran born, have three children, Ali, Jasmine, and Hassan. All three children were born and raised in Solano County and have always helped on the farm. Ahmad's first business on his Vacaville farm was to cut, dry, and preserve flowers for the wholesale market. After the recession hit, he turned to a trade he has known all his life, raising and processing animals.

As I arrived early one morning to interview Ahmad, Lourdes, and their oldest son, Ali, several Nepalese customers had already chosen two goats for slaughter. During the time I was in the small, spotless slaughterhouse on Weber Road, the animals were killed; bled; skinned, halved, and quartered; cut on the saw; and packed into boxes. The buyers were in and out within 45 minutes. Many people are turning to goat for its health benefits, says Ali, because it has lower cholesterol and saturated fat than other meats.

About eighty percent of Nature's Bounty customers come from the Bay Area. The farm serves a broad range of people, including Arabs, Latinos, Chinese, Vietnamese, Caucasians, Africans, Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Fijians. Only about twenty percent of Nature's Bounty customers are from Solano County. "People who live right next door to us go to Safeway and Costco, because they do not know about us," says Ali. "We want to say, we're here. Give us a try. Once you try us we're pretty sure you're coming back."

Brokers show up all the time and ask Ahmad to expand his business and sell to restaurants. By choice he stays small and sells only to individuals. The bottom line, he says, is to provide food for your children that he feels good about giving to his.

Nature's Bounty is located at 5634 Weber Road in Vacaville, and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. They sell lamb, goat, beef, and young roasters that are slaughtered onsite. Eggs and local honey are also available.

—Aleta George

Photo credits: Interior and sign, Nature's Bounty. Family photo and goat, Aleta George.

 
 
 

 


The Bishop Cattle Company runs cattle and memories at Rockville Trails Preserve

December 11, 2013

Bill Bishop Jr. has been working cattle at Rockville Trails for 42 years. He started at 19 when his father, Bill Bishop Sr., leased the land from Jack Ashby, the president of Kaiser Steel Corporation. Kaiser Steel had recently purchased the land from Leslie Anderson who ran a feedlot off Morrison Lane. Anderson "grained" his 6,000 head on the lot and fed them at Rockville Trails.

"He was a character that old guy," said the younger Bishop. "He'd come out here to look at the cattle in his new 1969 Chrysler Imperial and drive around and hit the rocks. He'd go down to this little bar. He shot the lights out with a gun one night, drinking."

Bishop remembers the first year his dad put cattle at Rockville. "It got to be about April and old man Anderson called Jack Ashby and said, 'That Bishop better take those cattle out of there. It's time to go with them now or they'll lose weight.'"

"Well, we know cattle, and my dad said, 'Oh no, Jack, we ain't going to take 'em out of there. We're going to wait until that grass dries out."

They did just that and the cows gained more weight than old Anderson had ever recorded.

The younger Bishop, who is quite a cowboy himself, loves history and collects old-time cowboy gear, especially from Solano and Napa Counties. He has five shipping containers full of saddles, silver, and spurs, including the spurs taken from the dead body of Tiburcio Vásquez, an infamous bandit hung in San José in 1875. Bishop is building a permanent structure to house his collection on their forty-acre property off Monticello Road in Napa. He plans to have it ready for kids to visit within six months.

I met the younger Bishop at the east service gate at Rockville Trails one December morning. He let his cattle dogs stretch their legs. Bishop explained that his dogs, Marvin and Blue, are trained to run over a hill, round up cattle, and "put them in a pile."

"Anybody can drive cattle," he said. "The hard part is to stop them. These dogs can do that."

The younger Bishop runs the Bishop Cattle Company now. He manages mostly cows and calves in pairs on fourteen different ranches. In a normal year he puts 600-pound weaned calves at Rockville Trails Preserve and keeps them on the grass until they weigh about 900 pounds. Then he sells them to a feedlot who feeds them grains for another three to four months before sending them to slaughter.

"All I do is cattle, nothing else. This time of year young heifers are calving and you have to be around to assist if something goes wrong," he said. If the young ones have trouble he uses a chain and lasso rope to help. "You just can't drive off and leave the animals alone," he says. "One could die and you'd feel terrible."

The only time he leaves his cattle is to compete in a reined cow horse competition. "Cowboy dressage," he calls it.

"Bill does most of his work on horseback," says Solano Land Trust's project manager Sue Wickham. "It is definitely lighter on the land."

Bishop inherited his love of horses from his father. The elder Bishop received the 2006 Vaquero Award from the National Reined Cow Horse Association, a coveted award given to only eight people. Now 93, the self-avowed "suntanned, swivel-hipped cowboy" recently rode out a rough stint at the hospital. He bucked the ordeal and came home. The younger Bishop knew his dad was going to be OK when he said, "Bill, I have to get a steak and a shot of whiskey." Then he added, "Has it rained yet?"

The Bishops don't have cattle at Rockville Trails Preserve right now because of the late rains and the drought. Until it rains, Bishop is graining his cattle with a mixture of hay and dried cornstalks. "It's just a tremendous cost on ya. Those little cows have to have milk."

"Down Marvin, tck, tck. Down Blue!" He called to his dogs that dropped to the ground to wait for Bishop's, "Come 'round."

The Bishops have a new puppy at home. The younger Bishop had an old Pembroke Welsh corgi that he took everywhere. When his beloved dog died, Bishop admits that he cried like a baby. The new corgi puppy, named Checker, cost more than a steer, he said.

As we talked at Rockville Trails, the trail leading deep into the property looked inviting but we stuck close to the gate. Bishop said that Rockville Trails Preserve is his favorite piece of property. "I love it," he said.

"The land trust is teaching me lots of things. They are stewards of their ground, and any cowboy will want to listen. You tell them that old Bill wants to listen. And I do."

The younger Bishop has broken every bone in his body. As a young man, someone doing target practice shot him in the leg with a Magnum 357. The bullet went through his femur and he spent a year in the hospital.

"The femur is the biggest bone in your body," he said. "But then, maybe the thickest part is my head. I'm still in the cattle business."

"Come round dogs, tck," he called.

His horse Baldie neighed from the horse trailer.

"You brought your horse?" I asked when we first met at the gate.

"I always bring my horse."

—Aleta George

Rockville Trails Preserve vista courtesy of Lorenzo Burchielli.
All other photos courtesy of Aleta George.

 

 


Dixon Ridge Farms Makes History

September 18, 2013

Russ Lester is a farmer. He is also the son, grandson, and great-grandson of California farmers. Lester's great grandfather, Nathan Lester, came to California from Connecticut in 1861 and tilled soils in Napa, Pinole, and north of Vacaville before buying his own land in the Santa Clara Valley in 1883, a place once called the Valley of Heart's Delight.

Lester worked the prune orchards in Santa Clara Valley while growing up. He also watched as the Valley of Hearts Delight was paved over to make way for Silicon Valley. "It happened in a very, very short time period, basically from the mid-1960s to 1980," he said at his farmhouse office at Dixon Ridge Farms where we talked over coffee. "Those 500,000 acres of farmland that are now Silicon Valley had some of the best climates and soils in the world, and it's all paved over now. That is why I am so adamant about the preservation of farmland."

He chose to follow in the footsteps of his farming ancestors, and after graduating from UC Davis he and his wife Kathy bought a 68-acre almond ranch in Winters on the Dixon Ridge, a thick alluvial plain east of the Vaca Mountains where the soil can reach 90 feet deep before it hits impervious clay. He replaced the old almond trees with walnuts, which do well on the ridge. It's a summertime pleasure to drive along Putah Creek Road and enjoy the deep shade of ranch after ranch of mature walnut trees.

Lester's farming roots go deep, and Dixon Ridge Farms continues to make history. Today he has 400 acres of certified-organic walnut trees, and will add 125 more acres of trees this year. He also grows row crops, edible beans, and wheat on another 800 acres, or leases it out. The farm has received multiple awards for its sustainability practices—such as no-till soil management—including an EPA Sustainable Agriculture Champion Award in 2012.

Dixon Ridge Farms is the largest handler of organic walnuts in the United States. Twenty-two years ago, Lester discovered a freezing protocol that destroys insects, a technique that others have not been able to master. As a result they can ship their walnuts anywhere in the world and meet international phytosanitary requirements.

When California set the goal to procure 33% of its energy from renewable energy sources by 2020, people said it couldn't be done. Lester said, "Why can't we meet that goal?" The process of handling organic walnuts requires a tremendous amount of energy. All walnuts (whether his own or those he buys from 75 organic walnut growers in California) have to be dried and frozen. But the by-product of processing is walnut shells, which he knew was a potential fuel. Instead of pointing his finger at everyone else, and asking why they weren't using renewable energy, Lester asked, "Why isn't my business doing this?" In 2007, he set a goal to be energy-self-sufficient in five years.

He already had a 17kw-solar array that he had installed in 2004. Next he cut his energy in half by making simple changes to increase the efficiency of the warehouse-sized freezer. Lester then brought in a BioMax 50 from the Community Power Corporation, a machine that converts biomass into fuel, heat, and energy. He assumed he would be able to plug the energy into the grid on the net metering panel like had with solar, but regulations stood in his way. When he discovered that he couldn't connect to the grid, he pulled his freezer off the grid and powered it directly from the generator. He used the by-product of heat to dry the walnuts. Still, the system was working at half of its efficiency because it needed energy to boot up each time it was needed, like a car going uphill. He tried working with the utility and the state to get the law changed, but to no avail. Finally, with Senator Lois Wolk's help (she was an assembly member at the time), SB489 was passed and as a result California’s Net Energy Metering Program is open to all eligible forms of renewable energy, not just solar and wind.

His persistence paid off. Since last spring he has had a negative energy bill, and is storing up energy credits for the October harvest when he needs energy the most. When it's time for an annual true-up in April, Lester is confident that he will have met his goal. That is no small accomplishment. If he were to rely on propane, a fossil fuel, he would need $110,000 worth in the month of harvest to process millions of pounds of walnuts.

That wasn't the first time that Lester made history. He went organic in 1992, and while that doesn't sound unusual today, he explained that it was unusual for a commercial grower at the time. After his father died of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he and Kathy decided to stop using any conventional chemicals. People told him it couldn't be done.

They started with three acres, and soon they reached their goal of being totally organic. "We showed that it's not only possible but actually very doable," he said. "We knew it was the right thing to do. We're the ones that are being exposed to the chemicals. We're the ones that will suffer the cancers from these chemicals, or our children, because we live right where they are sprayed."

Lester carries his personal responsibility and tenacity to the community level. He has been on the Solano Land Trust board of directors for 18 years, and has been a source of leadership, insight, and knowledge. He and Kathy have hosted two Farm Fresh Feasts on their beautiful property to benefit the land trust.

He believes that all agricultural land should be saved at this point, and conservation agreements are the only effective mechanism for that right now. "Zoning can be changed with the next board of supervisors," he says.

This is where personal responsibility comes in again. "Food production needs to be a national priority boiled down to a local solution," he said. "It shouldn't be that they do the job, it means that we should be doing it. Solano County should be preserving its agricultural base to feed its population, and a little bit more, because some places can't grow crops. We have other people to feed, and we need to take care of each other."

—Aleta George

Photos courtesy of Dixon Ridge Farms.

 


Erickson Ranch is a peach of a farm

June 2013

One of the most wonderful things about Erickson Ranch is that you can buy peaches from early July to October. The 20 types of peaches and nectarines they offer are grown for flavor, not shipping and storing, and picked at optimum ripeness to go from their farm to your table. That means that the juice from the fruit runs down your chin just as it should.

"Everybody loves peaches," says farmer Ray Erickson, Jr., who began growing peaches when he took over the family farm on Cordelia Road in Suisun Valley. His father grew Bartlett pears, but after the local cannery closed the pear orchards no longer made economic sense. "A farm is an economic entity driven by cost," he says. "I like a variety of peaches because my customers like a variety of peaches, and it has worked out well."

Ray Erickson, Jr., is a third generation farmer. His mother's parents, Augusto Toselli and Annie Boitano, bought the first 20 acres in the 1920s. Their daughter Rose married Ray Erickson, and they bought an additional 13 acres and built a house on the land. Their son, Ray, Jr., married Victoria, and they raised two children, Ross and Kristen. They farm land that has been in production for over 100 years.

When Erickson Ranch opens to the public on June 22, Ray is nearly certain that the Blenheim apricots will be ripe, and he knows you'll be able to pick your own dahlias. Within a few weeks the parade of peaches will begin with Flavorcrest and Regina. Suncrest, Sugar Ladies, and Diamond Princess will follow in mid-July. The list goes on through summer with Sweet Dream, Elberta, CalRed, and Lacy. Make peach pies and cobbler (and consequently friends) all summer long, and in early October say good-bye to the peach season as Autumn Sun gives a farewell wink to Indian summer when the farm is decorated to the hilt with pumpkins, gourds, and corn.

You can also get nectarines and apples throughout the summer and into fall. Ray likes the Akane apple, ready in late July. "It's a beautiful apple," he says. "It's good to eat and makes a beautiful white apple sauce." If you see Ray, be sure to ask him about the breeding history of the fruit you are buying. "It puts a personality on the fruit," says Ray.

In addition to peaches, nectarines, and apples, Erickson grows watermelon, cantaloupe, and persimmons. In beds opposite the fruit-stand barn, you can pick your own carrots, beets, lettuce, herbs, peppers, and flowers. "Erickson Ranch is always generous in providing produce, flowers, and gift baskets for our events," says Deanna Mott, associate director at Solano Land Trust. "They are a real Solano County treasure."

Erickson Ranch begins to plant tomatoes in mid-April and continues through mid-July, which means they have tomatoes until Halloween. Look for heirloom tomatoes this year, too. Ross Erickson, 26, is leasing an adjacent eight-acre field from PG&E to grow them. Kristen Erickson is not farming by profession, but lives in Vacaville and helps on farm projects. She is a registered nurse like Victoria, who has always contributed a full-time income to the household. "You can't do farming without a second income, that's for sure," says Victoria.

Victoria makes the Erickson Ranch jams and jellies, and remembers the satisfaction of canning on her own for the first time. She was 26, dating Ray, and living in Old Town Suisun while going to school. Victoria grew up in a military family and had never done anything like canning before. Rosie Erickson, the matriarch of the family, had shown Victoria how to can whole fruit, and Victoria decided to try it. "The best part of canning is that little popping noise," she says. "Then you know it's good."

Now she's a seasoned pro, and you can buy her homemade jams and jellies at their farm and at other agriculture businesses throughout Suisun Valley.

Next time you visit the farm bring your binoculars. "Erickson Ranch is a bird-friendly farm," says local birding expert Robin Leong. "They have allowed us to bird on their property for the Christmas Bird Count for years." Ray Erickson has installed many birdhouses, and enjoys watching the birds during nesting season. Does he carry binoculars in his jeep? "No, but I should," he says. Then again, maybe he's too busy growing fruit for us.

Erickson Ranch is located at 2482 Cordelia Road in Suisun Valley. Learn more at www.ericksonranch.com. For up-to-date information on farm events and what's growing, follow them on Facebook.

—Aleta George

Photo credits:
Fall at Erickson Ranch, Tracy Ellison
Ray in the fava bean field, Katie Zaboy, www.katiezaboy.com
Ray, Jr. and Victoria Erickson, Finch and Fox Photography
All other photos by Victoria Erickson

Quick Peach Cobbler

  • 5 cups sliced fresh Erickson Ranch peaches
  • 1 cup flour (white or wheat)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

Place peaches in a deep baking dish. Mix dry ingredients, and then add beaten egg. Mix with fork until crumbly. Sprinkle over fruit. Pour melted butter over crumb mixture. Bake at 375 deg F for 35 to 45 minutes or until crusty and brown.

 

 


Mark and Ann Sievers: Il Fiorello is not your run of the mill olive oil business

December 2012

Most people sleep in on federal holidays, but not Mark and Ann Sievers, owners of Il Fiorello Olive Oil Company in Suisun Valley. They milled 8,000 pounds of olives by 11 a.m. this past Veterans Day.

Ripe olives don't wait. They need to be picked when they are ready, and once picked their oils should be extracted as soon as possible. "My olives are in the mill within four hours," says Ann of the olives they grow themselves and go into their single-varietal, award-winning extra virgin olive oils. The Sievers grow a variety of cultivars including mission olives, which Ann describes as "big, fat, and stunningly beautiful." According to Slow Food USA, mission olives came to California's Jesuit and Franciscan missions in the late 1700s.

Ann says there are only 50 olive mills in California, and most of these are small home mills. The Sievers, who have been milling for seven years, recently upgraded to a larger mill. Their old one milled about 1,500-pounds an hour, but their new mill is capable of milling three tons an hour! "Nobody makes better designs than the Italians," says Ann, proud of her custom-made Pieralisi mill, "and nobody in the US is making olive oil like this." She declined to tell me the cost of the mill.

Here's how the mill works: First you pour a load of freshly picked olives into the hopper, a four-by-four foot pit. Then the olives are transported up a conveyor belt to a blower that knocks away any large debris. The olives are washed in an industrial washing machine and poured into a second hopper that dries them. From there, the fruit goes to a grinder where "olive pasta" is made. That pasta is folded into a sleek green malaxer, where it is kneaded for 45 minutes until oil droplets pull away from the paste and agglomerate. The glistening malaxed paste is pushed into a horizontal centrifuge that spins at 3,100 revolutions per minute to separate the paste from the oil. The oil goes into a second centrifuge, this one vertical, and spins at 6,400 rpms. The waste that is separated in the first centrifuge is slopped into bins outside and whisked away for animal feed or compost. The ratio of waste to oil is 85 to 15.

Il Fiorello's mission is more than milling olives; it's also educational. "Olive oil is a fundamental part of our civilization," says Mark. "It's an ancient food that needs to be part of our contemporary culture."

The whole family is fully engaged in today's world, and all the Sievers are achievers (yes, it rhymes!). Ann is a clinical nurse specialist, advanced practice in head and neck surgical oncology at U.C. Davis. Mark is owner and a founding principal at Epsilon Financial Group, where he has worked for thirty years. As a young man he flew for the United States Air Force in Viet Nam, and was a flight instructor for supersonic planes. He earned an MBA from UC Berkeley in finance. Their daughters, Elizabeth, 27, and Katherine, 25, are already in graduate programs. Elizabeth, who speaks four languages, is in Bra, Italy at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, and Katherine is in the marine ecology program at San Diego State University. They are both headed for PhDs.

When asked why she and Mark started this business on top of their full time jobs, Anne says, "I didn't want to make bad wine." Her family has always grown food, she elaborates, and she wanted to grow something, too. Olives seemed ripe for the picking. The olive industry is young in California, and in thinking about how to play a role in Suisun Valley, she wanted to be collaborative and not competitive. Their mill, tasting room, and gift shop compliment the local wineries and farm stands, and each year they do a "Community Crush" when you can bring your own small lot of olives and leave with the equivalent in oil.

After the oil spins in the last centrifuge, the viscous greenish-gold liquid pours out of the spigot and into large labeled containers.

"It's pure heaven," says Anne, encouraging me to taste it. "This is why we do what we do."

To taste or buy premium olive oil at their visitor's center, learn more about next year's community milling day, or take a cooking class, visit www.ilfiorello.com.

—Aleta George

Photos: by Aleta George.

 

Ann's Milling Day Lemon Pasta

  1. Heat a few tablespoons of Il Fiorello olive oil* in a frying pan.
  2. Add the zest of one lemon and let the zest infuse the oil by cooking it on low heat for a few minutes.
  3. Boil bucatini pasta** in salted boiling water until al dente.
  4. Drain and save a cup of pasta water to add as needed to loosen up the pasta after adding the lemon infused oil. "You can add some Parmesan if you want," she says.

* She uses oil milled that day, but you can use any premium olive oil.

** Thick, hollow spaghetti that can be special ordered from the Internet.




Meet the Cooleys: The farmers behind Cool Patch Pumpkins
and one of the largest corn mazes in the world

September 2012

A few years ago, a friend in New York phoned Matt and Mark Cooley at Cool Patch Pumpkins to tell them to turn on Jeopardy when it aired in California. Three hours later, all the workers at the Dixon pumpkin patch gathered around the TV.

"Dixon, California, has the biggest one of these to get lost in," said Alex Trebek as he read the clue.

"What is a corn maze Alex," answered the correct contestant. Matt, Mark, and the workers (who are mostly family and friends) erupted with hoots and screams.

Matt Cooley—a George Clooney look-alike with a ready laugh—told me this story at his office on Sievers Road in Dixon, where trucks filled with 26 tons of tomatoes thundered by about every five minutes. "We were a question on Jeopardy!" he bellowed.

The Cooley brothers are celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their corn maze this year. In 2007, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized their 40-acre maze as the largest in the world. This year the maze stretches to 50 acres.

The anniversary is an emotional time for the brothers, who are also marking the ten-year anniversary of their father's death. When Jim Cooley was still alive and the active head of the farm at 70, the brothers came up with the idea for a maze to attract people to their new pumpkin patch. Jim helped with the 10-acre maze, the design of which they took from a child's coloring book.

That same October, Jim and his wife Dolores left the farm for a rare camping trip at Lone Pine, California. Their RV was two years old. At four a.m. on October 25, Dolores called Matt to tell him his dad had had a heart attack.

"I went to bed a 42-year-old boy, and by the end of the next day I was a 42-year-old man," says Matt. Jim Cooley's death hit all three brothers hard, including Paul who chose not to stay on the farm. For Matt and Mark, their father's death meant that the success or failure of the family business was up to them. Matt and Mark had worked on the farm since they were 12, and had always loved it.

Each year, by the time they open the pumpkin patch in mid-September, they have already harvested their primary crops of tomatoes, wheat, and sunflowers. Solano Land Trust holds a conservation agreement on a 254-acre parcel owned by the Cooley brothers and June Nishikawa, a long-time local farmer.

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the corn maze and to honor their father, the brothers have expanded the pumpkin patch and corn maze to 50 acres each. On average it takes about 90 minutes to complete the corn maze, and people do get lost. "That's the point," says Matt.

The pumpkin patch and corn maze give them a chance to exercise their humor and playfulness. Each year they grow a giant pumpkin and devise ways to destroy it. They have dropped 1,000-pound pumpkins from a crane to smash an old Volkswagen or an outhouse with a plastic person inside. They have blown up giant pumpkins at Travis AFB while filming it. One year a TV reporter carved it up on live television. When the pregnant reporter arrived she asked how she was supposed to carve it. "Chainsaw," they said. Her producers said, "You are not going to touch a chainsaw!" Her reply? She fired it up with cameras rolling. "REEEEEEEEE," says Matt, in imitation of the sound. "It was hilarious."

The pumpkin patch is a family affair. Matt's wife, Michelle Cooley, a schoolteacher in Vacaville, is out everyday picking up trash and yelling at kids, says Matt, and their mom, Dolores, also comes out. Matt's kids, Seth and Natalie, help, as do Mark's daughters, Corinne, Kendra, and Tara. Even the repeat customers have come to feel like family. When Matt sees the Benicia Boy Scout troop leader or the parents who bring their developmentally disabled adult child every year, Matt roars, "Hey! You're back!" and helps them pick out a pumpkin.

At the First Baptist Church of Davis on a recent Sunday, pastor Glen Snyder used a cornfield as an analogy to talk about faith. Matt approached him after the sermon and said, "Dude, no one has more faith than a farmer."

"When I was younger I got upset when things happened," says Matt, "but as you get older you start to realize you're not in control of very much. As a farmer, you're in control of nothing. The weather. You can't stop it."

One year the entire corn maze was flattened by a storm that brought four inches of rain and 40 mile-per-hour winds. The next morning a news helicopter flew over the maze. The brothers hadn't realized the extent of the damage until they watched the footage in the news van.

"How do you feel?" said the reporter while sticking a microphone in Matt's face.

"Uh, well, that's life. We're farmers. It happens all the time."

Later that same morning, they got a call from Georgia. "This is the Weather Channel. We heard your maze fell over!"

"When we started this patch he never would have guessed that one day we'd be on the Weather Channel and a question on Jeopardy!" says Matt. "My dad would be so proud of us, the town, and the county. He lived to be a farmer."

"As a kid, I often wondered why my dad made me do stuff. But now it's like…I wish I could call him on the phone and say, "Hey!"

It's a special year for the Cooley brothers, a year to remember how much they loved their dad and how much they appreciate the gift he gave them: Farming (and apparently a good sense of humor).

www.coolpatchpumpkins.com

—Aleta George

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Linda and Steve Tenbrink: Slow food does not equal a leisurely family farmer!

April 2012

On Chadbourne Road, a white picket fence surrounds a yard and a two-story house with a wide porch. In front of the fence, an old California pepper tree has a fence of its own. Linda Tenbrink is protecting that tree. When she and her husband, Steve, moved to Suisun Valley in 1982—with one baby in the cradle and another on the way—they sold fruit from a table beneath that tree at a time when all small Suisun Valley farmers sold produce in front of their farms. "That was really fun," she said.

Most of us like to think that family farmers still function at that pace. They are attuned to the rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the soil, and a ripening peach, so they must be immune from modern day stressors, right? A recent visit to Steve and Linda Tenbrink's Suisun Valley farm cured me of that notion. In addition to growing produce for top chefs in San Francisco and a Napa farmers market, they are gearing up to deliver tons of tomatoes to the Fairfield Tomato Festival!

Linda and Steve grew up in El Cerrito, went to the same grammar school, and attended the same church. While still in high school, Steve saw his future on the Suisun Valley farms he drove by while on his way to swim at Lake Berryessa. While he was courting Linda, he told her he wanted to retire in Suisun Valley on a gentleman's farm. He didn't wait to retire.

In 1982 they bought five acres on Chadbourne Road, tore down the existing house, and built a new one on weekends while Steve commuted to his job as a grocery store manager in Berkeley. They raised four kids in that house. In 1984 they took over the Pioneer Fruit Stand, and grew most of the produce on land leased from Magnus "Ben" Bennedsen on Gordon Valley Road. When Ben's wife died, he donated a 52-acre conservation easement to Solano Land Trust (their first), and asked the Tenbrinks if they wanted to purchase the land made more affordable by the easement.

For 30 years, the Tenbrinks have grown row crops, walnuts, and fruit on those 52 acres. They do it all with help from their kids and two full-time workers, Enrique Guzman and Leandro Chavez, who have been with them since the beginning.

On a sunny summer day, Linda drove me around their Gordon Valley farm. The tranquility I felt while looking across the rows of heirloom tomatoes, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, borage, chrysanthemum leaf, and quinoa belied the work it took to get it looking so tidy and vigorous. As we inched along, I reached out of the car window and plucked a mission fig. Her old dog lay in the shade of a large oak near the creek tangled with grape ivy, buckeye, blackberries, elderberry, and coyote bush. Quail, red fox, bobcats, mountain lions, and birds frequent the wild creek and propagated fields.

Some of the tomato plants were taller than me and some were just getting started. In order to provide the tomatoes needed for the 21st Annual Tomato Festival on August 18 and 19 (when a full ton is needed just for tasting!), they plant more than they need, and plant them successively. They planted 180 types this year, though not all will make it to the festival. "It's a good year for tomatoes," she says, "much better than the last two years."

Linda sells produce at the Napa Farmers Market two days a week, and hauls it to chefs in San Francisco, Napa, Fairfield and Suisun. "I love to cook, which is very helpful in working with the chefs," she says. "I'm able to speak their language."

The Tenbrinks also grow wine grapes on 60 acres of leased land, and make fine wines with winemaker Abe Schoener. Linda does her own canning and cooks large dinners every night. Steve drinks wine with dinner but Linda doesn't. "After dinner I do bookwork," she says. "There's no letting down the guard."

When I asked if her kids were poised to take over the family business when she and Steve retired, she said, "Retire is not a word. You don't understand. This is a vocation, not a job. My husband has to do this. Does an artist retire? They don't retire."

And she's supporting his artistic bent. "We're married," she said. "It's part of the deal."

Look for Tenbrink Farms fruits and vegetables on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Napa Farmers Market on First Street near the Oxbow Public Market.

—Aleta George

Linda Tenbrink's oven-dried tomatoes

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Spread olive oil on a cookie sheet.
  3. Place like-sized tomatoes (sliced, quartered, halved, or cherry) on the cookie sheet.
  4. Sprinkle with garlic salt.
  5. Put tomatoes in oven and turn oven down as low as it will go.
  6. When they feel like a wet tennis shoe (sorry, she couldn't think of another description!), arrange a row of dried tomatoes on parchment paper, fold paper over tomatoes, and repeat.
  7. Put layered tomatoes separated by parchment in zip lock bags and freeze.

 














 




 

Jeanne McCormack and Al Medvitz: Sheep shearing day at McCormack Ranch

April 2012

Each spring a centuries-old tradition takes place on sheep farms in the Montezuma Hills and across the West. This year, Jeanne McCormack and Al Medvitz, operators of the historic McCormack Ranch in the Montezuma Hills, invited Solano Land Trust staff to observe the annual ritual of sheep shearing. Solano Land Trust holds a conservation agreement on the McCormack Ranch.

Under blue skies, I joined Anne DeLozier, office manager and stewardship coordinator; Tracy Ellison, conservation project coordinator; and Clay, Tracy's 11-year-old son for the drive on CA Highway 12 along low, rolling hills green with winter wheat. Darrin Berardi, board president, would meet us at the ranch later.

Jeanne McCormack greeted us as we arrived. Sheep husbandry runs in her Scottish family. Her grandfather, Dan McCormack, founded the ranch in 1896, and she and Medvitz use the same sustainable practices established by her grandfather and continued by Wallace, her father. McCormack Ranch has the distinction of being the first providers of lamb to Neiman Ranch distributors.

While the shearers were on a mid-morning break, Jeanne introduced us to Vernon Fairchild, Jr., owner and operator of Idaho-based Fairchild Shearers. His family business has sheared sheep at McCormack Ranch for over a decade. His crews also shear for Ian Anderson, sheep farmer and Solano Land Trust's past board president, and Burrows Hamilton, who runs sheep at Jepson Prairie. Fairchild Shearers runs three crews across five Western states between January and June. In all, they shear around 300,000 heads of sheep annually. Each ten-member crew is self-sufficient with a seven-station shearing trailer with its own generator, and a RV where the crew cooks, eats, and sleeps.

Vernon brings his shearing crews from Uruguay, which is about the same size of Florida but with about twice the sheep as the entire United States. "There are lots of sheep shearers in Uruguay," he said. "They are humble and do a good job." The fastest worker can shear a sheep in two and a half minutes, which equals about 200 sheep in eight hours. On average, a crew can shear about 1,200 sheep a day. Vernon can't find domestic labor to do the work. He brought in shearers from New Zealand and Australia for thirty years, but that help dried up, too.

Once the shearing begins again, the sheep in the corral are coaxed into a single-file chute with a click of the tongue and a tap on their backside with an empty plastic water bottle. The chute leads to a ramp that takes them into the shearing trailer. Inside, the shearers grab a sheep off the line and lay it on the floor in one expert move. It looks brutal to the uninitiated, but McCormack says the sheep are "tough old girls." While holding the sheep firmly by its legs, the shearer shaves the fleece in long swaths. When finished, he pushes the bare-skinned animal out a swinging door that leads to a yard of other shorn sheep that bleat in sympathy. The naked sheep have bloody nicks like a man's shaved face. On the other side of the trailer, the fleece is placed on a spinning metal table where a classer runs his fingers through the wool to determine its quality based on length and fineness. It is sorted in bins and baled according to grade.

McCormack says that sheep shearing is an important event in sheep management. "You can make larger decisions when they're in the chute," she said. A sheep in the chute allows McCormack and Medvitz to look at sheep individually, a luxury they don't normally have with 1,500 ewes on 3,700 acres. It's a time to adjust breeding, get a count, and look at nutrition. It's also a time to be closer to the sheep.

"I can't imagine liking sheep more than I do," she says. "They are really, really, good mothers. They have no way of defending themselves, and yet they protect their babies. Think of all the paintings with sheep. Clearly people have loved sheep for a long time."

She was attracted to ranching as a child, but didn't consider it as a career because women weren't farmers back then. "That role model wasn't there for me, but it is now," she says. Both McCormack and Medvitz have advanced degrees from Harvard. They met in the Peace Corps, married, and came back to work McCormack Ranch. As a team, they have operated the ranch for 25 years.

Jeanne suggested that we visit the birthing barn before leaving for the day. In the barn we found hundreds of baby goats in straw-filled stalls, some with embryonic cords still attached to their mothers. The Boer goats will eventually go to high-end restaurants in San Francisco and Berkeley.

"That's the only thing I don't like in this business," said McCormack. "At some point they all have to go away in a truck."

Aleta George

Photos: all by Anne DeLozier.





Tim and Roxanne Wellman: A life made in the movies

Spring 2012

In January, a representative from Paramount Pictures invited Tim and Roxanne Wellman, the cattle grazers at Rush Ranch, to Hollywood. The studio was screening a restored version of Wings to celebrate its 100th anniversary. The film’s director, William A. Wellman, was the first director to win an Academy Award; he was also Tim’s father.

Tim grew up near Hollywood in a ranch house at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, a place much different than today. Alfalfa from Our Gang was a close friend of the family’s. When “Alfie” was in his twenties, he took Tim bear hunting and from then on Tim was interested in hound dogs.

Around the same time, the studio heads asked William to direct Across the Wide Missouri. William, who had already fulfilled his contract quota for the year, said he’d go only if he could bring his wife (a former Busby Berkeley girl) and seven children. Off the family went to Durango, Colorado, with Clark Gable! Tim, who loved the outdoors, was in heaven because he got to ride horses every day. When it came time to film the last shot of Gable riding off into the sunset with his half-Indian son riding after him, Wellman discovered that the kid who played the boy couldn’t ride. But Tim, who was around the same age, could. William put a wig on Tim who rode as the stunt double. If you see the movie today, it’s Tim in the closing scene chasing after Gable.

Roxanne also knew from an early age that she wanted a ranch life, even though she grew up in San Francisco. To be around horses, she walked the polo ponies in Golden Gate Park and managed the stables when people still rented horses and rode them on Ocean Beach. She moved to Gordon Valley in 1987 and met Tim through 4-H. She did a little “cowboying” for him before they were married.

Today they are a team. They run about 500 grass-fed cattle on pasture until the Brahma-Angus cows reach about 800 pounds. They drive the cattle between pastures on their horses Peach, Spike, Gabilan, and Franny and Ollie. (No four-wheelers in their operation.) A typical day might include a cattle drive, branding, sorting out heavy cattle, culling the weak, and, of course, fixing fences. Ranch life in the 21st century isn’t like it is in the movies. People drive like maniacs on Grizzly Island Road, and they often miss turns, knock down fences, and occasionally hit a wayward calf.

Tim and Roxanne were unable to go to the special screening of Wings because of the extended drought. They wanted to be close to home in case they had to move cattle. “It was almost a disaster, but the rain that we got in late January saved us,” said Tim.

In the real world, cattle grazing doesn’t have much in common with the movies, except that Tim and Roxanne really do get to ride into the sunset most days.

 

—Aleta George

Photos. Top: Tim Wellman, photo by Tom Muehleisen. Middle: Tim and his siblings on horseback (Tim is the middle child), with their dad. William A. Wellman standing. Bottom: Roxanne Wellman.