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Ian and Margaret Anderson, Anderson Ranch

Kitchen table has served generations of farmers at Anderson Ranch


The kitchen is the heart of a farmhouse, the hub where meals are served, plans are discussed, and tea and cookies are served to a visitor on a wet, rainy day.

Ian and Margaret Anderson’s kitchen table in Bird’s Landing has been in Ian’s family for years. It was a fiftieth wedding anniversary gift to Ian’s great grandfather and grandmother from their children in 1926.

The table is anchored in the cheery remodeled kitchen of Ian and Margaret’s 19th century farmhouse, and is emblematic of their passion for honoring the past, while planning for a future that values and retains open space and agriculture in Solano County.

The Andersons have been farming in the Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista for five generations. Niels C. Anderson immigrated to America in the 1860s. Today, Ian and his son Neil farm 10,000 acres, 15 percent of which they own.

Ian runs his farm operation much like his great grandfather did with a mix of sheep, hay, and grain. He typically has about 2,500 head of sheep for meat and wool, and has a three-year, dryland crop rotation of winter wheat and barley, with a little canola and safflower thrown in.

“Farming has become more complex in the last 15 years,” said Ian, who until recently did his own bookkeeping. Now Margaret takes care of the administrative duties full-time. She retired in 2006 as a communications specialist for the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. 

A Christmas gift

Margaret and Ian went to the same high school in Rio Vista, with Ian three grades higher. Margaret also comes from a family that operated a multigenerational farm. The Brann Brothers ran sheep, and farmed row crops on the Delta islands. Margaret’s father was Richard Brann, a highly-respected man in Solano County who became a county supervisor (1972-88) and a protector of agricultural land and heritage. He died last October a few weeks before his 100th birthday.    

Ian and Margaret started dating when Ian was a senior at Cal Poly and Margaret was studying communications at UC Davis.  They dated for five years before getting married, and it wasn’t Ian who delayed.

“She’s the complicated one, not me,” said Ian with a smile.

After graduating from Davis, Margaret took a job at KVIE Channel 6 and moved to Sacramento. They got engaged in 1982, and in ’83 she broke it off.

“It wasn’t Ian I was doubting. I could see so much in him that I wanted in a life partner, but growing up in a small town you have dreams of the larger world,” she said. “Ian was patient and kind as I let myself live through the question mark.”

A few months later, she gave Ian his Christmas gift: An Amish cornhusk bride and groom that said “yes.”

They got married and raised two kids. Neil, 30, lives next door, farms with his father, and runs his own operation. Maryn, 28, teaches at Riverview Middle School in Rio Vista.

“I love living here,” said Margaret. “Ian values the history of the area and has done so much in repurposing old things. He has created a little slice of heaven.”

Grounds for the future

Birthing time on the farm is something to see. Usually the sheep are grazing on the hills at a distance, but during birthing season the pregnant sheep are brought to farm central for extra care and feeding. The barn and pens near the house are populated with hundreds of sheep and lambs. The sheep are either pregnant, giving birth, or milking. The lambs are visible in many stages: as hooves emerging from the sheep; or just born and covered with yellowish embryonic fluid; or fuzzy and hopping around when a few days old.

Ian has spent his life with lambs. He has a soft spot for history, and a vision for the future. He has been a board member with Solano Land Trust since 1999.

“Farmland and open space is important to me and I believe it’s important to the average citizen of our county to have diversified land use,” he said. “That will only happen if citizens want it to happen. There’s always potentially more profit in developing all the property.”

At a recent retreat, Solano Land Trust’s board decided to prioritize community separators. “If you look at the whole Bay Area what do you have? Homes and businesses, city to city to city. Solano County is not that way yet,” said Ian.

He acknowledges that there are many important issues facing Solano County, some of which aren’t going away, such as homelessness and the need for human services. “But the community separator idea will go away because there won’t be any community separators in another generation if we don’t plan now,” he said.

“I’ve always considered myself a caretaker of the land, not the owner,” he said in a reflective mood on that rare occasion when the farmer has time for tea at his kitchen table because it’s a stormy afternoon.


-Aleta George

 Photos courtesy of Dave and Aleta George.



Kirby and Kaitlin Swickard of Five Dot Ranch don’t mind if you call them cowboys, even though they are cowgirls.

The two young women have joined the Five Dot Ranch family business, and represent the latest generation of the Swickard family that has produced grain and livestock in California since the 1850s.

Todd and Loretta Swickard, Kirby and Kaitlin’s parents, took over the Five Dot Land and Cattle Company in Susanville from Todd's parents in 1994, and launched a natural beef business in 2006. Kirby says she and her three siblings spent their childhood “on the rangeland, gathering cattle, and cowboying.”

Today, Kirby, the eldest at 27, does outreach, catering, and human resources for the family business. Kaitlin does marketing and sales. Both earned degrees in agricultural business, Kirby at Chico State, and Kaitlin at Cal Poly. Another daughter, Lindsey, 25, teaches FFA at Elsie High School in Santa Rosa, and the youngest, Logan, 20, is a student at Butte Community College.

Five Dot Ranch runs cattle at the King-Swett Ranches, and has done so since the early 1980s when the property was still owned by PG&E. They have been part of the Solano Land Trust family for years, and at a recent Solano Land Trust business breakfast, Kirby and Kaitlin gave a short PowerPoint presentation about the business while Todd watched proudly from the audience. Five Dot donated all the beef served at our recent Sunday Supper at Joyful Ranch, and Todd was a spotter during the live auction.

In addition to the cattle operation that produces beef that is 100 percent hormone and antibiotic free, the family runs the Five Dot Ranch butcher shop and Five Dot Ranch Cookhouse in Napa. Theirs was one of the original businesses in Oxbow Market.

“In 10 years, we went from full-time ranchers to full-time ranchers and restaurant owners. It’s been a steep learning curve,” Kirby told the audience at Rush Ranch.

We are proud to play a role in this family business, and happy to share their inspiring story with you.

Photos courtesy of Five Dot Ranch 


Giving Back to the Land:

Conservation Helps to Bring New Life to the soil, passion to the family

At a time when farm families around the country are wondering who in the next generation will carry on the farm, Sierra Orchards in Winters now knows the answer.

Craig McNamara has worked Sierra Orchards near Putah Creek for 35 years. He converted to a certified organic walnut orchard 22 years ago and has always held a long-term commitment to the land. But in terms of his kids, he and his wife Julie encouraged them to find their own paths and never pressured them to come back.

There wasn't a clear path for the farm's future until Sean stepped forward last year. Craig and Julie's youngest son Sean was a contractor building houses until he decided to commit to the family farm and "give back to the land that gives to us."

Conserving their family's land with new ideas

Unlike many farm families who wonder if their land will stay in agriculture once they stop farming, Craig and Julie ensured their land would stay in agriculture by selling the development rights on a large portion of their farm and entering into a conservation agreement. That way they knew that the farm could never be subdivided or developed. Instead, the farm could evolve as an agricultural business with new ideas and new farming practices, an evolution that suited Sean when he came home and committed to the land.

The conservation agreement placed on the land is important, says Sean. Knowing that the farm is protected forever—even in family successions and financial downturns—helps him to "invest so much more freely and deeply."

On the practical side, the conservation agreement paid off the mortgage. "That put us in a financial situation where I could come back to the farm, get paid a salary, and take on new projects with the backing—both emotional and financial—from my dad," he says. "If we had not gotten out of debt, maybe the opportunity wouldn't have been there."

Freedom from a mortgage has also allowed them to invest in innovative practices and a few pieces of new equipment.

Land protection takes a longer view

When Sean first came onboard, he learned that there were several soil-borne diseases that were affecting productivity, and that the whole orchard was compromised.

"Well, that's not good," he said. "I need a long relationship with this orchard." He did his research and explored the limited alternatives for organic control. "Basically, the more I uncovered, the more I realized that the best tool an organic farmer has is soil health, which leads to plant health, vigor, and resilience to diseases."

One example of how Sean's approach has evolved differently than his dad's is how Sean plans to remove and replace the trees in the older orchards. Craig was trained to bring in big equipment, rip out the trees, take them away, apply fumigation, and plant a few grasses before setting new walnut trees. Instead of doing that, Sean has contracted the trucks to shred the trees onsite after they have been removed. The brown waste will be mixed with walnut hulls (green waste) and turned into compost that will be applied to the orchard along with a high diversity of legumes, grasses, and clovers.

"Instead of going the fumigation, nuclear bomb approach, we'll let the soil biology sort itself out and the soil will be allowed to rest for several years," says Sean.

Loving the land

A strong work ethic and a love of the outdoors run in the family. Sean's grandfather, Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, and his wife introduced a love of the natural world to Craig. Craig and Julie shared that love with their kids Graham, Sean, and Emily.

Sean is applying his passion for the land to the farm. In less than a year he has handpicked and planted a special cover crop; ensured that all pruning waste was chipped in the field and added to the organic matter of the soil; and started a large scale onsite compost system that uses their walnut hulls on the farm instead of sending them to a landfill.

Come spring, they will start a grazing regime in the orchards rather than mowing. Although Craig hasn't tilled the soil for years, these steps implemented by Sean support the soil further by absorbing more water when it rains and slowly releasing it during a drought.

The best gift

While some may think that having his son work on the farm would release Craig to focus on other things—Craig is president and owner of Sierra Orchards, founder of Center for Land-based Learning and president of the CA State Board of Food and Agriculture—just the opposite has happened. Craig is spending more time on the farm.

"Sean's being here is the best gift I've had in my career. Hands down, there's nothing like it," says Craig.

He says that Sean is teaching him how to introduce beauty, health, and wildness to their family farm—and yet, Craig's operation has been organic and sustainable for years. So what's the difference?

"Our approaches have a lot to do with our generational gap," Sean tells his dad directly in the small office surrounded by orchards. "What you have been doing was cutting edge when you came. Even going organic 22 years ago was totally against alternative norms. What I am bringing in now is the same…"

"Cutting edge," interrupts the father to finish the son's sentence.

"Progression," says the son, correcting his father.

"Progression, yeah, I agree," says Craig. Father and son, embracing the long view together.

—Aleta George

Photo of Craig and Sean McNamara by Aleta George. Ranch photos courtesy of Sierra Orchards.


Heritage of Red Top Dairy

Honoring the past, present, and future of Ferrari Ranch

Have you ever wondered how Red Top Road off of Interstate 80 and California State Highway 12 got its name? Today, travelers use the exit to buy fast food and gas, and parents to deliver and pick-up teenagers at Rodriquez High School.

But back in the day both locals and travelers exited for the Red Top Coffee Shop, one of the most popular stops on I-80. Eileen Ferrari ought to know. As a teenager she waited tables at the Red Top Coffee Shop, which her father Al Ferrari opened in the 1960s.

But that’s not how it began.

A storefront dairy in Vallejo

The history of Red Top Dairy and Coffee Shop really started in 1940 when Al Ferrari founded the Vallejo Community Dairy in a little hole-in-the-wall spot at the corner of Marin and Maine streets in Vallejo. He later moved to a location on Broadway and Nebraska.

Throughout Solano County stores carried the locally-bottled milk with the distinct, red-foil top. The original name was long and cumbersome, so people began asking for the milk with the red top. The name stuck.

Years later, Al’s landlord raised the rent on his Vallejo location. Al thought the rent was too high and decided to develop the property he owned near CA-12 and I-80. He would build a state-of-the-art milk and ice cream processing plant.

Red Top Road

The construction of the new plant coincided with the widening of I-80 between Vallejo and Cordelia. Anticipating an increase in traffic with his fleet of milk trucks making daily deliveries (this was when milk was delivered to your door) and the semi-trucks hauling fresh milk from local dairy farms, Al requested an interchange be added to the expanding I-80 corridor at Red Top. His request was denied because studies showed that even with the additional traffic it was not enough to warrant an exit.

Undeterred, Al met with his architect and builder and turned a room that had been designated a storeroom into the Red Top Coffee Shop. It was the only place between Vallejo and Vacaville where travelers could stop for food, and the only place that was open 24 hours a day. The traffic increased and the interchange was approved.

Best milkshakes around

If you were in this area during the 1960s you may remember the Dutch belted cows that grazed the pasture out in front of the plant and coffee shop. People called them C.H.P. cows because of their white belt and black bodies. Red Top was known for its breakfast, which featured double-yolk eggs, fresh-made sausage, thick ham steaks, and all-you-can-drink milk for 25 cents. But the real treats were the big milkshakes, hot fudge sundaes, and banana splits from the old-fashioned ice cream fountain. The ice cream was made on the premises in the processing plant, and took the Gold Medal award at the California State Fair for many years.

Eventually the Red Top dairy routes were sold to Carnation, and in 1986 Sunnyside Farms Dairy bought the entire facility except for the coffee shop, which they continued to operate. During a retrofit construction project, workers damaged an oil line and the resulting fire destroyed the building. The Red Top Coffee Shop never reopened.

A new day

The closing of the coffee shop and dairy marked the end of an era in Solano County. But Al’s legacy lives on in his family and the Ferrari Ranch, 283 acres of which is now protected forever by Solano Land Trust's newest conservation agreement.

Eileen and her sister Margaret (Maggie) have partnered with Solano Land Trust and Westervelt Ecological Services to protect the land so that it will continue to look and function as it did when Al purchased it half a century ago. The land will continue to be part of the agricultural economy of Solano County with grazing cattle, while also providing excellent wildlife habitat.

“I’m happy that the ranch has been protected forever and I know my parents would feel the same way,” says Eileen Ferrari.

—Tracy Ellison and Nicole Byrd

Images courtesy of Eileen Ferrari


Growing beer is a community affair

And the taproom is open

You can't help but notice Ruhstaller Farm & Yard while driving on Interstate 80 near Dixon at Kidwell Road. Flags blow in the wind and a handmade sign proclaims, "We Grow Beer."

Jimmy, the iconic image on the highway sign, is the proverbial grandson of Captain Frank Ruhstaller, a leading brewer in the Sacramento Region during the turn of the last century.

During his reign, Ruhstaller and other Sacramento brewers procured hops from fields that once spread across our region like grapevines do today. When Sacramento-based brewer J-E Paino started his business five years ago, he named it after Ruhstaller, the king of Sacramento beer.

Local is best

Part of the whole plan was to use local ingredients, to support the local economy and tell the story and history of Sacramento beer. He did find hops in California, but nothing hyper-local so Paino decided to grow his own and the search for land was on.

That journey ended when he found Collins Farm, a 195-acre farm whose land is protected in partnership with Solano Land Trust. The soil, location, and easy access fit Paino's dream of growing the love of local beer and recognizing the heritage of farming in our area.

Paino wanted people to smell, taste, and experience hops, and have them learn about the storied history of hops in our region. "Telling the story on a web page doesn't replace being in a hop yard where you can smell hops being harvested or drying in a kiln," he says.

The main attraction of Ruhstaller Farm and Yard is the beautiful hop crop, a large expanse of lush vines trellising up rope that hangs from a tall central pole like a May Day parade of graceful greenery. You won't see the crop in fall or winter after harvest, but you can look for the renewal of these perennial vines every spring.

Outdoor taproom and hop school

It's not just the hop crop that makes this farm business so notable. The Ruhstaller Farm & Yard is a farm, event space, taproom, and classroom rolled into one. As a result of Paino's multi-faceted vision, you can attend a one-day "hop school" on Saturday mornings from May to September.

Without the land, none of this would be possible. When Rich and Shelly Collins bought their farm with a conservation easement already in place, this was the kind of enterprise that they were hoping to see grow in the future. Their own farm (part of the larger conserved property) specializes in blackberries, jams, and baked goods. They also lease out a stone fruit orchard and a few acres of organic row-crop to other young farmers.

Rich Collins says that farm diversification is important to utilize various soils, spread risk, and showcase the diversity of agriculture in our area. Collins is a fan of forming alliances, and adds, "While it certainly has its place to think that rugged individualism is the only way forward, it is a bit foolhardy. We can accomplish so much more when cooperatively working together."

Land conservation offers a place for people to work together, to grow hops, blackberries, and beer; to celebrate the history of California; and to make their own bit of local farming history. Every year. Right here in Solano County. Thanks to you.


Shooting Star CSA: A finely tuned farm that is music to your ears

April 8, 2015

The first thing to come out of the Shooting Star CSA veggie box is a one-page newsletter from farmers Matthew McCue and Lily Schneider. It contains a list of the week's share, a few recipes, and notes from the field by farmer Matt. This newsletter does not go into the recycle bin; it is something to savor, just like the produce that comes from this farm.

Shooting Star CSA is a 15-acre, CCOF-certified organic farm in Suisun Valley, now in its seventh year of operation. CSA is an acronym for Community Sponsored Agriculture, a service in which you pay in advance for what the farmer grows. Today there are all kinds of CSA's, including those that deliver fruits and vegetables of your choosing to your door, those that focus on fresh meat, and those that pull together produce from various farms into the delivery. Lily and Matt follow the original intent of a CSA, which is to provide a "share" of fresh, local produce to members, or subscribers, from their farm. Matt and Lily say they appreciate the support of their community and take their trust seriously. For quality control they grow everything that goes into their boxes, and look at every box that leaves their farm. While you may not get peaches (there are no orchards on their farm), you will get some of the finest and freshest vegetables and melons around.


"Top quality produce is our pride, and growing it is our joy.
Local food security is our civic duty."
—Matthew McCue & Lily Schneider


I'm a Shooting Star member and pick-up my box of veggies from the farm every Friday afternoon. I could opt to get my box from a drop-off site closer to my house, but I like the ritual of going to Suisun Valley in the late afternoon and seeing what's changed on the farm. I also look forward to Matt's musings. In one newsletter he'll tell you about their Farmall 140 tractor, and in another the giant pecan tree shading the barn. He riffs on sunsets, seasons, and soil, and once said that tilling the soil at the right moisture level is like "driving a tractor over a giant piece of chocolate cake."

His meanderings can sound like a poet or philosopher. Farmers tend to explore the connection to land and its cycles more than most of us, who don't even know if the moon is out during the day. They are in tune with the moon and the sun, and season after season observe growth, renewal, and change as they work the fields.

In a July box that contained Albion strawberries, Nelson carrots, Imperial broccoli, Spanish roja garlic, sun gold cherry tomatoes, Nicola potatoes, red Burgermaster onions, and summer squash, Matt wrote: "The great orchestra of vegetables is only beginning to reach its climax; the living engine pushes us forward in time. We go along reluctantly, all the while knowing that the long days of summer won't last forever."

He returned to music as metaphor in a September box that included sweet peppers, heirloom tomatoes, and basil, in which Matt compared the vegetables growing on their farm to rock songs. Here's a sample of that play list (I invite you to listen while you read, just as I did):

  • Onions: Daft Punk, "Lose Yourself to Dance" Onions are planted when small when the tiny green fleshy fingers are no match for the weeds. This requires a rhythmic slow motion shuffle back and forth through the field removing the weeds. Clearly one could lose ones self to this dance.
  • Sweet potatoes: AC/DC, "Thunderstruck"  They are here, they have big flavor, and they are large and in charge.
  • Carrots: Fine Young Cannibals, "She Drives Me Crazy"  The carrot is a vegetable that reminds one of easy days and blue skies. The carrot, sweet but crunchy; a perfect way to describe the Fine Young Cannibals.

Here's the link to that newsletter if you want to hear more.

Matt, 33, and Lily, 30, met at UC Santa Cruz after Matt returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with the US Army. They are grateful for two small loans provided by the USDA Farm Service Agency that gave them their start. Matt says he retains his identification as a vet, but is not bound by it on the farm. "Plants don't care if you have a degree or been to war. Farming is not about your past, but a relentless press into the future."

Eight years ago, Matt and Lily traveled throughout Northern California in search of acreage to lease. They feel fortunate to have landed in Suisun Valley. They love the soil, the community, and the lifestyle. Matt trains for triathlons by running at Lynch Canyon, biking on Suisun Valley's back roads, and swimming with Lily at Lake Berryessa. He looks forward to the day that Rockville Hills Preserve is open so that he can organize a meet-up run.

Although Shooting Star CSA is just starting the season, I'll close with a thought from Matt last October:

"Sometimes the farm feels like a boat sailing though an ocean of time, wind and heat pushing in one direction, while rain and cold push it another… The ship continues to fulfill its mission to sail into the best vegetables of the season. Ahoy and enjoy your boxes."

That sentiment would go well with a little Bob Marley and a steaming sweet potato with lots of butter.

The Shooting Star CSA season runs 28 weeks from May through November. You can choose four weeks, a half-season, or a full. They have drop sites in Fairfield, Benicia, Vacaville, and Vallejo in Solano County, and many other cities throughout the Bay Area. Click here for more details. 

—Aleta George

Photos courtesy of Shooting Star CSA's Facebook page. Photo of Matt and Lily in 2015 (before the main fields were planted) by Aleta George.

The future bodes well for Wooden Valley Winery,
the oldest winery in Suisun Valley

February 5, 2015

When Mario and Lena Carlevaro Lanza moved to Suisun Valley to partner with the Brea brothers at Wooden Valley Winery in 1944, there was not a single grapevine in the valley. "Grapevines are resilient and can grow in poor soil," says Ron Lanza, Mario's grandson and one of the four brothers who run Wooden Valley Winery today. For years, the winery made wine from grapes grown in Cordelia and Green Valley, areas that were "solid vineyards" until the second half of the 20th century. Lower Green Valley was planted in wine grapes, upper Green Valley was for cherries, and Suisun Valley was reserved for fruit trees. "The growing in the valley was way too good to waste on grapes," Ron says.

Mario and Lena Lanza purchased the ranch adjacent to Wooden Valley Winery, and in 1955 bought out the Brea brothers to become sole proprietors of the winery. As the economics of fruit changed, the orchards came out and grapes went in. Their son Richard (Chick) became the winemaker in 1960 and delivered wine by the jug and barrel directly to families from Suisun to San Francisco, much like a milkman once delivered dairy. Chick and his wife Adrienne had four boys—Rick, Ron, Larry, and Ken—who run the business today. The family business includes the winery and 300 acres of family-owned vineyards.

On a warm January afternoon, Ron, the spokesperson for the family, gave me a tour of the winery and several vineyards north of the winery where the family grows 40 varietals for amateur winemakers on the East Coast. "Seventy-five percent of our business is selling wine grapes to wineries and home winemakers," says Ron. Only ten percent of their grapes go toward their own wines. Last year 27 truckloads of Lanza grapes left for the East Coast. Among the varietals they grow for home winemakers are Barbera and Sangiovese. The Lanzas wouldn't normally grow these wine grapes in Suisun Valley, but the home winemakers want to make Italian wines, he says.

We drive north of the winery on Suisun Valley Road (formerly Wooden Valley Road where the winery got its name) and turn west on a dirt road with pruned vines on the right and un-pruned vines to the left. Ron points out the pruners at work on the far side of the field. His best workers can prune two acres of vines a day, he says of the chore that is more like art. He demonstrates how to snip each spur down to two buds and explains why he chooses to cut one vine down to the nub and leave another. The winter prune is not the only time of year that each plant gets attention. In spring the workers judiciously rub off new shoots, and in July they walk the vineyards again to remove grape bunches and leave two clusters of grapes per shoot to optimize fruit position during maturation. "We're massaging the growth of the vine throughout the season," he says. "You can't do that with a tractor. Vineyards are manicured landscapes and you need labor. California is a powerful state, but take away labor and you have nothing," he says. Water and labor—two things that always occupy a farmer's mind.

We cross Wooden Valley Road in the truck. Another truck drives by and Ron waves. It's Larry Balestra of Larry's Produce. On the other side of the road Ron shows me a vineyard of Petite Sirah grapes. "Petite Sirah is one of the top varietals of Suisun Valley," he says. They are grown on this end of the valley because they like warm days and cold nights, the same climate shared by great wine regions around the world. Other varieties prefer the cooler, windier south end of the valley.

Back at the winery he shows me the grape de-stemmer that processes 45 tons of harvested grapes an hour; the grape crusher where Rick Lanza crushed 400 tons of grapes last year; the six stainless steel fermenting tanks where grape juice starts its transformation; and the barrel room that holds 500 gallons of wine.

That sounds like a lot of wine, but Ron says it's not. "A winery's size is measured in cases. Wooden Valley Winery sells 5,000 cases a year. (Wine Enthusiast says that E. & J. Gallo sells 75 million cases a year in the U.S. alone.) "We're a small winery and try to keep prices low." They sell to local restaurants and grocery stores, which Ron delivers to in his truck much like his father did. The winery also has steady sales through their 1,400 wine club members. Check their website for information on their wine club that Ron says is the most affordable club around:

The oldest winery in Suisun Valley is small compared to E. & J. Gallo and the Wagner Family of Wine (which includes Caymus), two wine enterprises that recently put down stakes in Suisun Valley. Gallo bought Winterhawk and Ledgewood, and Caymus bought 260 acres on Cordelia Road for a winemaking facility. "It's bad that we lost Ledgewood, but the presence of Gallo and Caymus will help keep everything in vines and agriculture," Ron says. "It's good for growers and it's good for ag in Suisun Valley."

If you want a taste of Wooden Valley wines, don't let summer go by without checking out their food truck Fridays. Every fourth Friday from May to October they host a free event with live music, food trucks, sunsets, and of course, delicious and affordable wine from the oldest winery in Suisun Valley.

—Aleta George

Photos courtesy of Wooden Valley Winery. Photo of Ron Lanza by Aleta George.

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

To see what's going on at the farm visit

—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 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,
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

—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).

—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.