Articles in Family Farms
We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village.” But communities are drawn together for many reasons. Some cling tight to tradition with activities like barbecues and Fourth of July parades. Others share neighborhoods with backyards that spill onto golf courses, lakes and swimming pools. And then there’s Agritopia.
“If you live here, it just feels different,” business manager William Johnston said.
Cultivating an agrihood
It is different. Located outside of Phoenix, in the little-known city of Gilbert, Agritopia is what’s called an agrihood, or suburban neighborhood planned around a working farm. Jim and Virginia Johnston purchased the farm in 1960. They built a home; grew crops, including cotton, wheat, barley, corn, alfalfa and sugar beets; and raised three boys. Time went on. The Johnston children grew up, and two continued the family farming tradition. The once-rural area surrounding the farm grew, and the third son, Joe, an engineer, got an idea to reinvent the place he called home.
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“The kernel of the idea was in 1998, when I started thinking that I’d like to do a restaurant in our house that served produce from the farm: that was the ‘agri’ part. That was the extent of the idea,” Joe said. “However, that idea was shortly followed by the notion that I’d like to live close to where I worked. That opened up a bunch of ideas, because we had a clean sheet of paper to design the kind of community we’d like to live in.”
Agritopia stretches 160 acres and has more than 450 houses. Four generations of the Johnston family, along with 1,500 or so other folks, call it home. At its center is the certified organic farm (where Jim and Virginia still live) and more than 11 acres of permanent urban farmland.
A cornucopia of crops
“During the year we grow over 200 varieties of field and orchard crops,” William Johnston said. “It’s important for families to grow up together and understand food and farming.”
The farm bounty is diverse — and delicious. Along with Medjool dates and olive groves, there are citrus, apple, peach and plum groves. Other crops include cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, herbs, a variety of lettuces and tomatoes of assorted varieties.
Enjoying the fruits of their labor
The same-day harvest is readily available to residents and Agritopia visitors. But how folks get their farm-fresh fix varies. What was once an old tractor building is now an airy cafe called The Coffee Shop. The Johnston family homestead has a new lease on life as a modern diner called Joe’s Farm Grill. Whenever possible, fruit, vegetables and herbs come from The Farm at Agritopia.
Then there’s The Farm Stand. Open 24 hours a day, the stand is not staffed. All purchases are made using the honor system. Grab what you want, put your cash or check in an envelope and drop it in the pay slot. And residents can grow their own bounty by renting one of the more than 40 plots in the community garden.
Rural life, redefined
When most city slickers envision life on a farm, they think of solitude. At Agritopia, rows of vegetables sprout within view of homes and the neighborhood school. With the antics of school recess and chickens clucking in the background, a cozy neighborhood feeling prevails in this unique slice of Arizona farm country, where houses have front porches and streets are lined with trees and sidewalks.
“We like the fact that people can kind of just wander and feel that sense of exploration,” William Johnston said. “A lot of people compare it to Mayberry.”
Main photo: A citrus display at Agritopia’s farm stand. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
Beaches and show biz bring coastal Southern California its fame, fortune and visitors. For many they represent the epitome of California living. But head inland and you’ll find that agriculture is the star of the show. Even though farm country isn’t Hollywood, it has a way of making its own magic. Get your hands on an Ojai Pixie and you’ll understand what I mean.
No, I’m not talking about a cartoon fairy with sparkly dust. I’m talking about Pixie tangerines. Approximately 25,000 Pixie trees are rooted in Ojai Valley, about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles; their fruits make up less than 1% of the state’s tangerine crop, yet slowly but surely they’re making a name for themselves in faraway places.
The roots of Pixie pride
Sweet, seedless and easy to peel, Pixies typically begin ripening in March and hang around through May or June. Folks here love these tasty fruits so much they host a four-week festival dedicated to celebrating their natural sugar rush: April is Ojai Tangerine Pixie Month, when Pixie pride is at its strongest and tastiest.
A tour around Friend’s Ranch will teach you everything you ever needed to know and then some about Pixies. Five generations of Friends have lived and farmed in Ojai (and the sixth is currently growing up in the orchards, where they spend time playing and tasting).
A grower’s glory
Family members Emily T. Ayala and her brother George Thacher take visitors of all ages into the orchard to taste the very sweet fruit of their labor. Guests are invited to pick off the trees and taste as they learn about the Pixie and what makes it different from other tangerines. Seedless and a snap to peel, Pixies can vary in size and appearance, but in general they are small, 1-3 inches, with easily separated segments. “We won’t pick it if it doesn’t taste good,” says Ayala.
Getting messy is encouraged. Thacher carries a handy backpack with everything you could possibly need for your time among the trees, even baby wipes to tackle the inevitable sticky fingers.
“It’s just a fun place to be,” he says.
Pixie tangerine dreams
For such a little fruit, it seems to have brought the community of Ojai together in a big way. Take a walk through its small downtown and you’ll see signs everywhere: in clothing stores and boutiques, book stores and restaurants, tabletop displays that include tangerines mixed in with the flowers.
Every chef at every restaurant has a favorite way of showing off the fruit. Family-run Knead Baking Co. is famous among locals and tourists alike for its citrus syrup cake with fresh Pixie juice. Throughout April, Ojai Valley Brewery’s White Pixie Ale will be poured at Azu California Tapas.
If you want to try your hand at creating a Pixie-inspired dish, you can juice up a weekend getaway with a cooking class at the Lavender Inn, where you’ll prepare such dishes as citrus-marinated whitefish crudo and tangerine chicken. Save room for the Pixie-fennel shortbread served with tangerine-orange curd. Ojai’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for picnics, so after your lesson, you can enjoy your creations at a table in the inn’s sunny garden.
As good for cocktails as cuisine
Craft cocktails at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa take on a citrus theme all season; from whiskey and gin to tequila and vanilla-flavored vodka, it’s amazing what happens when you add a little squeeze of tangerine juice. The Pixology Cocktail Class includes a demonstration and sampling of two cocktails, including margaritas that pack a tasty punch. Pixies have also squeezed their way into the resort’s spa, where Pixie Tangerine Body Scrub and a pampering Body Polish Spa Treatment are available from March through June when the tangerines are harvested.
Drinking in the view
Work off all those Pixie calories with a power hike; Shelf Road is a quick 15-minute walk from downtown. The 1.5-mile trail is mostly level and easy to walk, run or bike and delivers great views. Expect a friendly dog or two. Citrus trees hang over the trail fences and all fruit in reach is fair game: Peels scattered along the way prove outdoor enthusiasts eat well along the trail — as everywhere else in Ojai.
Note: Dana’s trip was hosted by the Ojai Visitors Bureau, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own.
Main photo: A crate of Ojai Pixies ready for purchase. Credit: Copyright 2016 Dana Rebmann
New York’s Hudson Valley is fertile terrain for organic farmers. Organic is a gentler, more gracious way of farming, seemingly old-fashioned when compared to the prevailing industrial example, where chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides are used. When asked by those in corporate farming, “How are you going to feed the world?” Ken Kleinpeter of Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, New York, speaks for many organic farmers when he answers: “I don’t have to feed the world, I have to feed my community, and someone could feed their community, and someone else could feed their community. That’s how we’re going to feed the world.”
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The free banquet for 400, held at the Garrison Landing on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City, was the brainchild of Garrison locals Stacey Farley and Carinda Swann. “And it all started with the plates,” Farley says. “I looked around my kitchen and noted that none of my plates were made in the U.S.A. Seems like if we are going to all the trouble to grow organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats locally for farm to table, why not serve this precious and delicious food on homemade ceramic plates!”
So local artist and potter Lisa Knaus set about over the summer teaching people in the community to make plates. The ensuing meal, served on the plates, included locally grown vegetables, homemade mozzarella, baguettes, chicken and fruit tarts. What ensued was a lovely, generous community meal, a summer’s last prayer before fall, and a gathering of people who will long remember its grace and beauty.
Main photo: Glynwood Farm provided the locally focused meal’s chicken, which was brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton
Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?
Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.
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Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
Just like family members, Kelly Beef cattle are raised with care and love. At the Arrow T Ranch in the Williamson Valley outside Prescott, Arizona, Tom Kelly and his wife, Tammy, bring together their relatives to work and gain expertise in treating animals, and human beings, right.
Tom Kelly was born in northwestern Arizona, where ranches are measured in not acres but square miles. He always wanted to be a rancher. But he realized that the landowners were often “attorneys from Phoenix or Wickenburg” — in other words, well-to-do gentlemen farmers. So Tom became a lawyer in order to finance his dream of becoming a rancher — and succeeded. Now he produces 100% grass-fed beef in the old-fashioned way while making sure that skills and experience needed to raise cows is passed on to another generation.
Home on the (free) range
The cattle are raised on two different spreads. Their first year is spent on the Kellys’ La Cienega Ranch, 130 square miles of mountainous open range in the Mojave desert. The calves thrive in this uncontaminated habitat, grazing on 27 types of forage. When the animals weigh 450 pounds, they are moved to the lush subirrigated grassland of the Arrow T Ranch. For the past 70 years, the native grasses in these verdant meadows have been nurtured and the invasive grasses culled without pesticides or herbicides.
Herding day on the ranch
Late last summer, I joined Tom for a roundup — which might more accurately be called a “push-up” — to the sorting pens. For these events, Tammy’s brother, Kasey Looper, brings his wife, Tyler, and children Cole, 12, Rio, 10, and Sage, 8, to work alongside family friend Mark Mingus and fiancée Savannah Lindau. There are no clouds of dust, no thundering hooves. What appears to be a quiet Sunday ride with his young nieces and nephews is in fact a carefully choreographed dance, as their horses “push” the young cows in the right direction from a distance of up to several hundred yards; the movement is gentle rather than aggressive, because stressed cows are hard to handle and even tougher to eat.
When the cattle reach the sorting pens, Tom allows time for a family lesson. The children learn about the sorting process, which Tom describes as “a conversation and comparison of opinions” about the quality and potential of each calf. Some are returned to La Cienega as breeding stock and others enter the commercial beef pipeline — but the best calves are selected to remain on the grass, fattening up naturally for up to 18 months until they are ready to be sold. Cole is already acquiring the skills that must become second nature to every cowboy, such as “heading and heeling” the calf. As dad Kasey throws one lasso over the animal’s head, Cole quickly lassoes its two back legs, or heels, on his first throw, displaying the accuracy that is needed to do the job gently and safely for both the riders and the calf, which can now be branded.
Looking back, moving forward
As small-scale producers, Tammy and Tom are developing a following for Kelly Beef one client at a time. In her Prescott store, The Rancher’s Wife, Tammy explains the more-unusual cuts of meat, providing instruction and recipes to help customers make the most of the nutrient-rich, almost purple meat. Don’t assume that health-conscious urban foodies are their best customers: Locals who still have roots in the agricultural community buy half or a quarter of a calf, sometimes on the hoof. They value knowing every player in the supply chain and are comfortable cooking every cut of meat.
But the Kellys are not trying to return to a lost agrarian paradise; they are looking to the future. They believe the demand for grass-fed beef is growing and that “knowledge-rich farming,” to use a term coined by rancher-author Allan Nation, will lead a younger generation to good breeding and good grazing management. That much was clear from my visit to Arrow T, as I obeyed his instructions about photographing the roundup from my car discreetly: no raised voices, no sudden movements that might spook the herd. Next time, though, I want to be riding beside him through the thigh-high red-wheat grass, watching the cows stroll back to pasture.
Main photo: On the Arrow T Ranch near Prescott, Arizona, the eponymous family behind Kelly Beef raises 100% grass-fed cattle. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
Start a sheep farm to lower your taxable income? That’s what Deborah Sowerby did when she launched Olive Ewe Ranch in 2005 in Bradley, California, 20 miles northeast of Paso Robles, the noted wine region on the Central Coast.
The idea started when Sowerby’s husband, Paul, the national sales manager at Adelaida Cellars winery in the mountainous Adelaida District of Paso Robles, brought home a book about it one day and suggested she try it.
For the stay-at-home mom, it sounded like a good opportunity, and the book provided the guidance she needed to get started. Because Sowerby enjoys lamb, she opted to raise a good meat breed, starting with four ewes that grew to a flock of 100. Her sheep of choice is the medium-sized hair breed called Dorpers, which are easy to train and flock well. “As a meat breed, they are mild and buttery in flavor. They don’t have strong flavor like the wool breed,” she said.
Sheep grazing benefits local wineries
In the past four years, the meat business has morphed into a Sheep in the Vineyard program, in which sheep help control weeds in vineyards and reduce the carbon footprint by cutting back on fuel emissions, Sowerby said.
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She got the idea to start the program after she was approached by vintners looking for a holistic way to farm. With Sheep in the Vineyard, grazing sheep clear weeds and other invasive ground cover that can deplete soil’s nutrients. The grazing helps restore soil vitality and even nourishes the vines.
Sowerby’s sheep have found homes in some top-notch wineries in Paso Robles, among them Adelaida Cellars, Tablas Creek, Booker Vineyards, Ambyth, Dover Canyon and Villa Creek.
“A 100-pound sheep deposits 4 pounds of fertilizer daily,” she said of another benefit to Sheep in the Vineyard. “Over a five-month period, 20 sheep deposited 12,000 pounds in the 7-acre Bobcat Crossing Vineyard.”
Bobcat Crossing is part of the Adelaida Cellars’ 168-acre ranch that is home to 24 sheep, a couple of alpacas and a guardian llama named “Lliam.”
Sheep in the Vineyard was initiated at Adelaida Cellars. “There was so much mustard and vineyards adding to the biodiversity,” she noted. In addition to the benefits to the health of the vineyards, the sheep are also a draw for the winery’s visitors.
Initially, Sowerby’s sheep were brought in from her ranch after the grape harvest, grazing in the vineyards from October to March. Soon, though, she decided to leave the flock year-round so they could graze in the walnut orchards and mustard fields between March and October.
“For two years now, this is home to 24 Dorpers,” she said of the Adelaida Cellars ranch. Of this herd, six are owned by Adelaida Cellars, while the rest belong to Sowerby.
Ill effects of California drought
The drought in California affects the sheep and Sowerby’s plans for the future. Each year, Olive Ewe Ranch attempts to grow a field of forage mix (oats, wheat and barley) with the hope that sufficient rain will fall so they can cut and bale it for supplement feed, along with purchased alfalfa, which is a good source of protein for the flock.
“The reality is with several years of drought, growing a crop based on the whims of Mother Nature to grant us sufficient moisture is like rolling the dice,” Sowerby said.
Sowerby’s work in agriculture work belies her fashion background. Previously, her only relationship with wool was with fabrics and textiles. As a design and merchandising specialist, the former Orange County resident’s travels took her around the world on Princess Cruises and working for Giorgio Armani boutiques. Her lifestyle changed when she moved with Paul to the Central Coast 20 years ago. They purchased their 40-acre property nine years ago.
Olive Ewe Ranch has expanded to the point that she has now partnered with Mary Rees, another sheep producer, to create a comprehensive program that not only supplies sheep but also training and assistance specific to the wineries. While some wineries rent their herds, others raise their own flocks.
Breed recommendations for sheep farming
When clients look for recommendations for a particular breed — more sheep breeds are available than any other type of livestock — Sowerby suggests Dorpers. “It’s possible to triple the flock’s size in one year (with Dorpers) since they have the ability to lamb year-round,” she said.
In addition, they shed and don’t require shearing, which can be expensive. Sowerby also advises picking a sheep species based on the desired taste. The species fall into two categories — hair breeds and wool breeds. The wool breeds have a more lanolin flavor that becomes more pronounced as the animals age, while hair breeds maintain their softer, buttery flavor.
Olive Ewe Ranch Lamb Sliders With Aioli
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
For the lamb burgers:
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
For the carmelized onions:
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons thyme
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup Adelaida Cellars Syrah (or a full-bodied red wine)
For the aioli:
6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (optional)
1 cup olive oil
For assembling the sliders:
8 slider buns, gently seared on the grill
2 cups arugula
8 slices Gruyere cheese
For the burgers:
1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Form into eight small patties.
2. Brush lightly with olive oil and grill until desired doneness.
For the carmelized onions:
1. Heat butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme. Let the onions brown, turning occasionally, 15 minutes. Add garlic and shallots, continue cooking, turning occasionally, for another 3 minutes.
2. Add the stock and cook until the mixture is reduced to a brown color but not scorched. Then add red wine and continue to reduce until the onions turn light brown and caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Set aside and warm before serving.
For the aioli:
1. Put garlic and salt in a mortar and mash with a pestle to form a paste.
2. Place in a bowl and add egg yolks. Whisk gently.
3. If using, add the mayonnaise to the bowl and mix. (For foolproof aioli, this helps the binding process.)
4. Slowly start adding olive oil a few teaspoons at a time while whisking, until all the oil is added. The end result will be a mayonnaise-like consistency. Aioli can be refrigerated for up to five days.
For assembling the sliders:
1. Apply a thin layer of aioli to both sides of the warmed buns.
2. Place a lamb patty on the bottom portion of the bun, followed by a slice of Gruyere, a heaping teaspoon of hot caramelized onions and then a few leaves of arugula. Cover with the top portion of the bun.
Recommended wine pairings
Adelaida Cellars’ Anna’s Vineyard Syrah or select among other Paso Robles Syrahs, including Ecluse, Anglim, Tablas Creek or one of the full-bodied Paso Robles blends from Linne Calodo.
Main photo: Sheep grazing in Adelaida Cellars’ Bobcat Crossing vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Deborah Sowerby
Regionally sourcing flour for 15,000 pounds of bread a week is the equivalent of a lunar landing, but in Vermont one bakery has found the way to do so. Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. By the end of this year, all of the flour that the bakery uses will come from within a 150-mile radius.
“As a baker, it’s a real luxury to have the same wheat all the time,” said Randy George, of Red Hen Baking Co. The Vermont baker spoke about local flour with Quebec farmer Loic Dewavrin at the Northern Grain Growers Association conference in March, in Essex, Vermont. The two have an uncommon partnership.
Such leaps forward don’t register as significant to consumers because growing grains and making flour are almost invisible processes. However, the farmers, bakers and food advocates at the conference appreciated this achievement, and listened hard for details of the challenges en route to this success story.
The importance of local flour
“Normally, you will see some variation from flour lot to flour lot. You can never count on complete consistency,” George said. The typical roller mill draws wheat from a variety of sources, but the flour from Le Moulin des Cedres all comes from wheat grown by Dewavrin and his family at their organic farm, Les Fermes Longpres.
“Roller mills are incredibly expensive infrastructure. I never heard of one that was on a farm,” he said.
Stone mills located on farms are not uncommon. This type of mill is relatively simple to run and inexpensive to purchase. Roller mills, however, are industrial-scale equipment. Les Fermes Longpres, located just west of Montreal, recently finished assembling a small roller mill. The family took four years to complete the project, using parts from a defunct French roller mill and doing much of the work themselves to minimize the investment.
A family mill makes uniform flour
At Le Moulin des Cedres, the Dewavrin family mills wheat grown on the farm. With an eye toward evening out seasonal irregularities, the flour is made from a combination of two years’ crops. This is why baker George was marveling at having access to uniform flour.
All mills use raw materials that are products of nature and have a wide range of potential expression. Since roller mills pool wheat from multiple sources, the result can vary. Even with careful testing of grains to try to keep the range within limited parameters, mills are blending wheat from many different climates and micro climates, from many different farms with various cultivation, harvest and storage habits, and the flour and its performance changes accordingly.
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Le Moulin des Cedres is unique, but exemplary of the farm’s approach. When Dewavrin returned to the family farm after a career as an industrial engineer, he and his brothers began to convert a conventional corn-soy crop farm into a more diversified organic operation. This was in pursuit of a system that could support the brothers financially, and support the farm’s health and long-term viability.
To make the most of what they grew, the brothers sought methods to capture crop value on the farm and avoid selling crops into the commodity market as much as possible. Making sunflower oil was the first value-added process they tackled. Next, they considered whether to do something with the soy they grew, or the wheat. After investigating the markets, they saw that what they could do with soy didn’t hold as much promise. Flour seemed the best route. There was enough whole-grain, stone-milled flour, however, and bakers had expressed interest in locally grown and produced white flour.
Keeping the integrity of the crop
The idea of having full command of the crop from seed to selling had great appeal to the Dewavrin family. Without running a mill themselves, their production was mixed with grains from other farms.
“Our goal was to keep the integrity of the crop,” Dewavrin explained. Selling wheat to a mill meant their crops were mixed with many others. “We lost the purity of the product and the controlled efforts we put into it.”
Les Fermes Longpres is a very careful farm. The family puts a lot of thought into crop rotations, tillage, and other ways of building good soil, the basic tenet of organic farming.
For the mill, they also worked hard on wheat quality issues, from selecting plant varieties to combating diseases and pests that challenge wheat in the field, and in storage. They began milling slowly last year, determined to understand the process and create a good flour for bakers.
A bakery-mill collaboration
Feedback from bakeries like Red Hen, one of the few bakeries using the mill’s limited supply, helped in this area. In response to what George observed when baking with Les Cedres’ early mill runs, Dewavrin increased the level of starch damage slightly to improve the baking quality of the flour.
“Damaged starch” is an odd term. While it sounds like a bad thing, it’s just milling terminology for opening up the starch granules.
“Getting just the right amount of ‘damage’ is critical so that the flour is in the right state for the baker to continue the ‘damage’ in the baking process,” George said. All mills have to get this right, so the adjustment made is not unique. But the way that the correction came about, through the baker communicating with the farmer/miller was entirely different than the norm.
Leaps forward in decentralizing the production of staple crops don’t register as significant, not yet. But the more that bakers seek local flour, and the more that farmers seek noncommodity marketing options, the more consumers will learn to understand and appreciate the small food mountains people are moving.
Main photo: The Red Hen Baking Co. has been baking organic bread in central Vermont for 15 years. Credit: Copyright Courtesy Red Hen Baking Co.
China Ranch is a thriving oasis of boutique date palms that began with the whimsical planting of an ornamental garden nearly a century ago. To the casual traveler driving north from Baker to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in California, it is nearly invisible; you must look out for the signs for the Old Spanish Trail and follow it into a steep canyon, through bare, rough hills and exhausted talc and gypsum mines. There, watered by a creek running south to the Amargosa River, is the improbable sight of 1,500 fruit-bearing trees.
China Ranch 100 years ago
In 1920, Vonola Modine moved with her husband from nearby Shoshone to the property then also known as The Chinaman’s Ranch after an industrious, possibly mythical Chinese rancher called Ah Foo. She wanted some trees to line their new roadway and ordered seeds from the date industry burgeoning near Mecca in the Coachella Valley. They arrived in a wooden box by rail. She had never seen a date palm nor tasted a date nor heard the old adage that the fruits “like their feet in water and their heads in fire.”
The Modines wound up selling China Ranch shortly after the palms were planted. For the next 50 years, successive owners’ attempts to establish hog, sheep and alfalfa farms all failed — even as the original date palms flourished into magnificent trees. In the 1970s, Vonola’s relatives by marriage, the Brown family, repurchased the land — and in 1989, Brian Brown, her grandnephew, realized he had the “water and fire” to create the perfect conditions for a viable date farm. He and his wife, Bonnie, began focusing all their efforts on developing and expanding the garden.
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China Ranch today
The original seeds sent to China Ranch were brought to California by agricultural pioneers bearing offshoots from Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Baluchistan, Morocco and Egypt. But date palms grown from seeds never replicate the parent plant, so the trees in the original grove yield hybrid dates that are unique in the market. Brown has continued to reproduce these happy accidents, including the dark, moist Black Beauty; the sweet Gourmet; and the soft, caramel-colored China Ranch Hybrid. The Browns also introduced new date palms and now have 15 varieties such as Dayri, Halawy, Bahri, Hayany and Khadrawy growing on 25 acres. Their crop is in sharp contrast to that of the huge commercial enterprises, which tend only to produce the Medjools and Deglet Noors that your grandmother served at Christmas.
Brown works eight days a week: It is hard physical labor, from trimming the crowns, and battling 4-inch thorns to clearing the offshoots and pollinating the female trees by hand. And help is scarce in the harsh Death Valley environment. There are no palmeros, as the skilled workers who have enabled date production in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century are called, here. Some dates are harvested in the khalal stage, just before they ripen, and others at ripeness; the entire harvest period extends from August to February. The work during these six months can be punishing; in late summer, the temperature can soar to 120 F and the black flies bite through your clothing.
The fruit of family labor
Then the picked fruit must be sorted. Perfect specimens are for eating, while the funky-looking ones are for cooking, eventually macerated to produce a date paste used by bakers, raw-food chefs and upscale Las Vegas restaurants that value local sourcing. And thanks to the wild success of the cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, home cooks are in hot pursuit of ingredients such as date molasses too. Specialty-food agents come to China Ranch in search of unusual dates to supply stores all over California, while employees at the ranch store make converts of casual visitors with cool, thick date shakes and date-nut bread baked daily from Bonnie Brown’s secret recipe. Bonnie also runs an eclectic retail shop and an online mail-order operation that ships gift boxes of fresh dates all over the country.
The farm has an unexpected sideline as well. The Dayri palm, originally from Egypt, puts out long, straight, symmetrical fronds that make perfect lulavs, which are used in the Jewish celebration of Sukkot. For the past seven years, rabbis have come from as far as New York to select and cut some 300 of these fronds. Despite their inconsistent harvest and light yield, Dayris will always be grown here.
Little did Vonola Modine know that her ornamental trees would be an inspiration to Brian Brown nearly 70 years after she planted them. She returned to China Ranch in 1991 to see the glorious mature palms that now line the path leading to the Browns’ great adobe home — and you should see them, too. The setting is bizarre, but the dates are sublime.
Main photo: The accidental oasis that is China Ranch date farm. Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel