Photos by Bowerbird Photography
As a child, my mom remembers driving with her father to a cherry farm to check out the farmer's crop. My grandfather was a wholesale produce man whose job was to visit farms and buy whole harvests for the season. The farmer would give her huge cherries bigger than her hand and allowed her to gorge on the juicy fruit. My grandfather died when my mom was five years old, and so this memory is special to her. This story is important to me as well, since I never met my grandfather, and have always been curious about California's orchards.
CUESA, which organizes the farmers' market at the Ferry Building, also hosts farm tours. I signed up for the Stone Fruit Tour, and boarded a bus on Fri/15 which left the Ferry Building and took us to the Central Valley, first stopping at Bella Viva orchards in Denair, about two hours east of the city.
The sun was hot and the orchard smelled like warm fruit. We meandered through white nectarines, yellow peaches, eating (and eating!) as we went, sticky nectar dripping down our shirts. Bella Viva is a family business, run by the Martinos family. Victor Martinos gave us a tour, along with one his daughters (he has two, Belle and Vivian, hence Bella Viva, which means “beautiful long life” in Italian). We learned about his organic farming practices. He strings pheromone paper strips in the trees to confuse pests and scatters the property with homemade owl homes to hunt gophers that enjoy munching on cherry roots.
The Martinos also own another orchard that is non-organic, or conventional, and compared his practices. I was surprised to hear that some of the organic sprays (like lime sulfate, which has a skull and cross bones on the label) are more toxic than the conventional alternatives, especially when it comes to preventing the dreaded bloom rot. In fact, he is prohibited by law from using the same sprays he uses at his organic orchard at his conventional one because of its proximity to a school. I got the impression that Martinos takes safety seriously, holding frequent meetings with his workers, and requiring them to wear protective suits and masks when applying hazardous sprays.
We were allowed to carry back as much fruit as we could hold in our two bare hands. My strategy was to eat as much as I could off the trees, then and there. Talk about fresh! High on fructose, we made our way to an open field to check out the orchard's impressive drying operations. As far as the eye could see, red cherries dried in the sun. Pretty stunning!
After a delicious lunch made from farmers' market produce, that CUESA whipped up, we headed out to our second stop, CandyCot Fruit Company apricot orchard in Waterford. These are no ordinary apricots. John Driver, the owner, is like a mad-scientist seeking to breed the perfect apricot. He spent years in Central Asia, the fruit's origin, searching for the perfect specimens. It took him a whole fifteen years to create his crop, which is fit for California weather and was approved (after two year in quarantine) by the USDA. He plans on selling them this week at the Ferry Building farmers' market. They are unlike any apricot you've ever tasted, sweet and complex. I wouldn't be surprised if Bi-Rite creates a gourmet ice cream flavor for it.
On the bus ride home, as Sam Love dozed off in the evening sun, I looked out the window at the passing trees, dripping with summer wonderfulness, feeling, perhaps not unlike how my mom felt as a little kid on her way back to the city after a day spent at the orchards.