Farming in Drought: Grass-fed meat producers struggle to grow grass

Rachel de Rosa surveys her ewes, which are grazing a piece of irrigated pasture. Even in drought, the farm must irrigate and grow some grass in order to keep their sheep healthy. The sprinklers also help keep the sheep cool.

Rachel de Rosa surveys her ewes, which are grazing a piece of irrigated pasture. Even in drought, the farm must irrigate and grow some grass in order to keep their sheep healthy. The sprinklers also help keep the sheep cool. Photo by Sarah Trent.

Lisa Leonard opens the gate to her sheep pasture in the heart of the Capay Valley and walks a few paces inside. In the distance, the hills flanking this narrow Yolo County valley rise up, covered in patches of green forest — stark contrast to the dry, yellowed fields and browning oak trees on the valley floor.

Behind us, the rest of Winddancer Ranch is dotted with a dozen Spanish turkeys and a collection of rusty-but-working farm equipment; the plott hound keeping watch has kicked up a cloud of dust. As we move forward into the field, some 400 Navajo-Churro ewes flock together.

Lisa and her partner, Jim, came here 10 years ago from the Bay Area to raise rare, heritage breeds of meat animals on grass rather than commercial feed-lots — Lisa’s only alternative to becoming vegetarian, she said. This year, she’s harvested more lambs than usual, culling her herd because there’s not enough grass to support them.

Selling more meat any other year would mean increased profit for her farm. This year, despite her efforts to grow enough grass, she had to buy two tractor-trailers of hay to feed the animals.

“It wiped out any revenue we could possibly make,” she said.

This year, they won’t even break even.

In mid-July, the University of California, Davis, published an economic analysis of the 2014 drought. It summarizes farm revenue and job loss estimates, tallies the number of unused (fallowed) acres, and recommends lawmakers work to improve groundwater management across the state to preserve California’s primary source of water during drought years.

Looking at direct losses in crop, livestock, and dairy revenue along with the additional costs of pumping water, the report estimates a total economic loss of $2.2 billion in 2014 due to drought. And this number may be low: some farmers have criticized the report, suggesting it may not take full account of the indirect losses caused by lower crop production.

Lisa Leonard keeps only rare and heritage breeds of animals, including Navajo-Churro sheep, which she raises for wool, milk (cheese), and meat.

Lisa Leonard keeps only rare and heritage breeds of animals, including Navajo-Churro sheep, which she raises for wool, milk (cheese), and meat. Photo by Sarah Trent.

At Winddancer Ranch and other small, grass-fed meat operations, the direct losses are enough to worry about, and are shaping the way these farms are managed. Lisa let a valuable alfalfa field go dormant in favor of irrigating Sudan grass: this grass is not as good a feed as alfalfa, but it takes less water. “Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully the alfalfa will come back with the [winter] rain,” she said. Replanting alfalfa would be a major investment.

Until it does rain, all Lisa can do is be careful, keep an eye on how much groundwater is in her well, and try to be as efficient as possible in using it. Any time she uses water, she said, it serves two or three purposes: when she irrigates her fruit trees, for example, she grazes rabbits on the grasses that grow in between.

This year more than ever, she said, “we’re acutely aware of the balancing act of using that resource effectively.”

Just down the road, Casa Rosa Farm knows this balancing act well. Rachel de Rosa and her partner, Anthony, moved to the Capay Valley from Madera County less than two years ago, in part because larger operations surrounding their original farm were sucking the groundwater dry. Here, Rachel said, with no big ag wells nearby, they’re lucky to manage their own aquifer.

In response to the drought, the de Rosas opted against planting summer crops this year, skipped a planned alfalfa planting in their olive orchard, are irrigating about half of their available sheep pasture, and feel lucky to have a family connection with hay to help feed their 100% grass-fed California Red Sheep and a small herd of Limousin cattle.

Rachel stresses that she considers Casa Rosa to be a farm rather than a ranch: they raise crops, like grass, and feed them to the animals. In a year with about one tenth of the normal rainfall, when grass is difficult and resource-intensive to farm, feeding the animals is difficult too.

Like Lisa, Rachel has had to cull her sheep herd — she’d been aiming to increase her 2013 flock of 75 ewes to 100. Instead, she cut back to about 50 to reduce stress on the pasture.

Earlier this year, Winddancer Ranch and Casa Rosa Farm joined forces with two other Capay Valley grass-fed meat producers to reduce stress on themselves and their families — forming the Capay Valley Meat Co-op had little to do with the drought, but may help each farm get through hard times in other ways: the four women farm-owners take turns selling at farmers’ markets so each can maintain their own market income without sacrificing every Saturday or having to drive hundreds of miles each week.

Alexis Robertson shows off the newest addition to Skyelark Ranch: a "trailer park" of chicken coops to house their laying hens, which have free range of the farm all day.

Alexis Robertson shows off the newest addition to Skyelark Ranch: a “trailer park” of chicken coops to house their laying hens, which have free range of the farm all day. Photo by Sarah Trent.

Alexis Robertson of four-year-old Skyelark Ranch, a third member of the co-op, said the Capay Valley community, including the co-op and their neighbors, has been a valuable resource as she and her partner, Gillis, continue learning how to farm their chickens, hogs, and sheep. Alexis joked that she and Gillis offered “lawn mowing” services to their neighbors, and were able to graze their sheep on neighbors’ fields and orchards when their own pasture wasn’t enough.

Facing one of California’s worst droughts just four years into their farming career “made the growth curve even steeper,” Alexis said, but added that she feels somewhat insulated from the impact she’s heard about around the state. “We’re small, we’re not at our carrying capacity, so we maybe have a little flexibility,” she said. While the drought has delayed her plans to grow the farm, she expects Skyelark will get through it alright.

She also hopes that it bodes well for her future in farming: “We’ve only been farming four years, so every year has been below normal water levels,” she said. “Imagine how we’ll do in a normal year!”

PCFMA Celebrates National Farmers’ Market Week With 2nd Annual “Love My Market” Photo Contest

Love-My-market-posterJoin Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association (PCFMA) in celebrating National Farmers’ Market Week this year from August 3rd to 9th. PCFMA joins the USDA and farmers’ markets around the country in celebrating the first week of August. “Farmers markets are an important public face for agriculture and a critical part of our nation’s food system,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “They provide benefits not only to the farmers looking for important income opportunities, but also help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods.”

PCFMA will celebrate throughout the entire month of August with the 2nd annual “Love My Market” photo contest. To participate, snap a photo of what you love about YOUR local farmers’ market whether it’s the unusual produce, your favorite farmer, being with your family or anything else farmers’ market related. Submit the photo to lovemymarket@pcfma.com OR post the photo on Instagram with the hashtag #lovemyPCFMAmarket between August 1st and August 31st. Please limit ONE ENTRY per person. See official rules at http://www.pcfma.com/lovemymarket . Please also include the name of your farmers’ market in your caption or email.

Contestants will have a chance to win the Grand Prize of a one night stay for two at the Capay Valley Bed & Breakfast and tickets to the nearby Hoes Down Festival at Full Belly Farm. Second place prize will be two tickets to the Farm to Fork Dinner presented by CAFF at the Guglielmo Winery in Morgan Hill. Third prizes include “Carrot Cash” (which is good at any farmers’ market that PCFMA operates) and a reusable bag filled with fresh seasonal produce.

Composting & the PCFMA Garden

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The PCFMA Office Garden is growing!

We are completing work on another planting area around the south corner of the office. Matt Sylvester, market manager and head PCFMA gardener extraordinaire, and other staff members, have planted various tasty summer veggies like zucchini and other summer squash, tomatoes, fresh herbs, sunflowers, and peppers for our  culinary enjoyment. We await the first tomatoes and watch as squash blossoms slowly grow into zucchini. How cool is it to walk out the office door and pick something fresh for our lunch!? So go ahead – start your own small garden! It’s well worth it!

We began composting as well! The inspiration for the bin arose partly from necessity. We don’t have green bins in Contra Costa County and at the office we have a lot of food scraps. We  also wanted compost we could use on our kitchen garden. PCFMA is a certified green business and the staff here cares about being more eco-friendly, so Sara Haston, Market Chef and DSC_0021Creative Specialist for Cookin’ The Market, thoughtfully wrote up a proposal and was quickly approved to purchase one. After she chose the best one for PCFMA, she found a space for it, and discussed with the staff about how to use it.

Thus far there has been a tremendous interest in it. Sara’s role is to manage the contents to make sure there is a proper ratio of nitrogen elements (think food scraps) to carbon (think leaves, hay and dry plant matter): 1/3 to 2/3. Once it is almost full she will let it sit for a few weeks without adding anymore materials, turn it once a week to aerate it, wait for it to breakdown into usable compost, and then shovel it out into our garden. This Sara’s first time using a bin, as her experience has been with pile composting, so we excited about what we will all learn along the way.

 

Farming in drought: Tomato growers embrace the heat

Tomatoes on the vine at Enos Family Farm in late May, just a couple of weeks away from harvest.

Tomatoes on the vine at Enos Family Farm in late May, just a couple of weeks away from harvest. Photo by Sarah Trent.

In late May, UC Davis published a drought impact report projecting 410,000 acres of farmland left fallow, 14,500 jobs lost, and a $1.7 billion hit to our state’s agricultural economy.

Since tomatoes can be a water-intensive crop, I expected that when I set out to ask farmers about the drought’s effect on their tomatoes, I would hear they were planting less, anticipating smaller yields, making changes to their seed orders for next year, and worrying about the future of their farms.

The truth?

“To be honest,” said Phil Rhodes of Country Rhodes Family Farm in Visalia, “this is our best year ever.”

Like many farmers, Rhodes is very concerned about water — the water level in his well has dropped about a foot a year since the 1990s, to the point where he must invest upwards of $50,000 to drill it deeper in the next year — but for now, the heat accompanying the drought has been a boon to his tomato crop, which came in early and strong. Rhodes brought his first tomatoes to farmers’ markets in mid-May, several weeks earlier than normal.

As long as he has water in his well, Rhodes’ farm is not impacted by water rationing by local or federal water districts. Farmers who rely on water from those sources are facing more dire circumstances: Rhodes admits that in the southern Central Valley region where his farm is located, he sees other farmers leaving fields unplanted.

Those unplanted fields may mean that vegetable farmers who have ground water access, farm in areas less impacted by the drought, or whose infrastructure, climate, and soil conditions allow for less water usage will see increased demand for their crops. So while the drought has substantial implications for California agriculture on the whole, farmers like Rhodes are doing well in spite or even because of it.

Ron Enos in the tomato fields beside his farm stand in Brentwood.

Ron Enos in the tomato fields beside his farm stand in Brentwood. Photo by Sarah Trent.

Ron Enos, who owns certified organic Enos Family Farms in Brentwood, also expects he’ll have a good year with his tomatoes. In his region, many of his neighbors are larger-scale farms growing processing tomatoes, which means that demand for his fresh tomatoes is high.

While the high-heat conditions accompanying the drought spelled trouble for his winter and spring vegetables (which do best in cooler conditions), the hot dry summer bodes well for his summer crops.

He also uses less water than many farmers in his region: over the last few years, Enos has transitioned to using a black plastic mulch in combination with drip irrigation for many of his crops, which cut his water usage to about 30 percent of what he needed before.

Another method for using less water on fruiting crops like tomatoes and squash is dry farming: a method of cutting irrigation early in a plant’s life and forcing it to rely only on existing soil moisture. Some vegetable varieties do especially well in these conditions, which result in smaller, more flavorful fruit. While it’s near impossible to dry farm in the extreme climate of the Central Valley, it works well in coastal regions where the soil retains some moisture through the summer.

Thomas Farm in Aptos, south of Santa Cruz, grows organic dry-farmed tomatoes along with other annual vegetables and many varieties of cut flowers. Josh and Kari Thomas are currently experimenting with dry-farming tomato varieties other than the standard Early Girl. If the drought continues, they said, they may need to transition some of their water-demanding flower fields into vegetable rows. While organic flowers are a very high-value crop for their farm, unfortunately, Josh said, “people don’t buy drought-tolerant flowers.”

For now, the Thomases are holding off on seed and seedling orders for next summer, waiting to see what winter and a much-anticipated El Niño have in store.

Kari Thomas checks out her farm's Early Girl tomato rows, which she and her husband dry farm by cutting irrigation off when plants are about a foot tall.

Kari Thomas checks out her farm’s Early Girl tomato rows, which she and her husband dry farm by cutting irrigation off when plants are about a foot tall. Photo by Sarah Trent.

“There’s not a day goes by that we don’t talk about rain,” said Kari. “There’s a little bit of denial there,” she added. Farmers everywhere and in every climate rely so heavily on weather conditions that they are used to taking each season in stride, adapting as needed and moving forward with their businesses however they can.

Echoing most of the farmers I’ve spoken to while covering this year’s drought, she and Josh said, quite simply: “Hopefully it just rains.”

But, Kari adds, surveying their rows of dahlias, cosmos, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions tucked into a quiet coastal valley, “never has a winter had so much pressure on it.”

 

Sarah Trent can be contacted at sarahtrent@pcfma.com. PCFMA continue to report on drought issues throughout the 2014 season. Stay tuned for monthly updates on how our farmers are faring and what’s happening with California’s many diverse crops due to drought conditions.

June 2014 Market Thymes Newsletter

June-1June 2014 Market Thymes Newsletter

June is Jumpin’!

  • The summer season is upon us and oh, what glorious fruits and vegetables abound! Everything from stone fruit and berries to peppers, tomatoes, corn and summer squash is arriving at your farmers’ market.
  • Stone fruit appears this month. Fire up the grill or get out the canning jars and preserve this sweet taste of summer!
  • It’s barbecue time so toss some zucchini and peppers on the grill. Or cut a big fat peach in half and add to the grill for a sweet dessert. Chef Mario will tell you how.
  • Sarah Trent of PCFMA visited some of our cherry farmers and reports back on how the drought has affected quantity and quality of cherries, not to mention the livelihood of the farmers.

Enjoy the sweet taste of summer in the coming months!

Farmer Matt

 

Matt 2Matt Sylvester is a new young farmer! He was recently featured on a CBS newscast about the new generation of young farmers. He has started Happy Acre Farm with his girlfriend, Helena Tuman, in Sunol.Untitled-4

He says, “Working at PCFMA has opened my eyes to California agriculture. I have been managing farmers’ markets for over two years now.  It is incredibly rewarding to farm, to have my hands get dirty, and to see the results of what hard work, sun, water, and good soil can produce.”

“I love eating fresh fruits and vegetables and it’s nice to look down into my plate of salad and know that everything in it was grown on my one-acre farm. I am able to relate to farmers more than ever before and I believe that this makes me a better and more knowledgeable market manager. Farmers and I chat about the weather, crops, pests, and techniques of trapping gophers. This type of communication strengthens the community of a farmers’ market through mutual respect.”

Read more about their farm on Facebook at Happy Acre Farm and check out the Sunol Ag Park here.

 

In the Pink

The farmers’ market is in full swing this month, brimming with early tomatoes and corn; crunchy little cucumbers; a splendid variety of juicy stone fruits—most notably short-seasoned apricots and cherries; a plump profusion of cantaloupe and other fragrant melons; and a kaleidoscope of jewel-like berries.

Sweet-tart boysenberries, blueberries, blackberries, and the ubiquitous strawberry–all at the peak of their seasons–seem to find their way into my market bag each week But as much as I hate to play favorites, it’s delicate, velvety raspberries I treasure most. Is there any more elegant healthy breakfast than a bowl of raspberries crowned with a dollop of Greek yogurt?

Berry Interesting Facts

-There was a time when raspberries were wildly expensive; and still can be, when

imported from South America and New Zealand. Buy them now at the farmers’ market,

when they are at their peak of ripeness and affordability.

-Like boysenberries and blackberries, raspberries are made up of clusters of tiny sacs that

adhere to a central core. Each sac is bursting with sweet-tart juice.

-If the green hull is still attached to the raspberry, it means it was picked too early and

will undoubtedly be tart.

-Although all taste similar, raspberries are available in red (actually a deep pink), golden,

and the less common “black.”

-Unlike supermarket raspberries that have been enclosed in a plastic clamshell for

an indeterminate length of time, farm-fresh berries should not be stuck together or

moldy.

-To refrigerate raspberries, line a pan with paper towels and arrange the unwashed berries

in a single layer. Top gently with another paper towel and cover tightly

with plastic wrap. Berries are best eaten within 3 days.

-Raspberries are fragile. There is no way around it. If needed, carefully rinse them under a very gentle spray of cold water and pat dry with paper towels. (I rarely, if ever, rinse

organically-grown raspberries.)

-Use uncooked raspberries in salads and compotes; smoothies; pureed in dessert sauces;

perched atop fruit tarts, puddings, or other desserts; or baked into muffins, scones, or

cakes. Raspberries also make an extravagant pie filling; as well as notable jams, jellies,

and preserves.

-1 cup of raspberries weighs in at about 64 calories, 15 carbohydrates, and 8 grams of

fiber. They are high in vitamin C and manganese, and contain fair amounts of iron and

potassium.

-In addition to tasting better, fully-ripe raspberries contain significantly more  antioxidants.

Here is my rendering of a recipe that appeared in Gourmet magazine about 5 years ago. This deceptively simple cake is ready for the oven in about 15 minutes, yet ends up tasting like it came from a chic pâtisserie. It’s lovely with a cup of tea or coffee in the afternoon; and makes a sophisticated dessert for a summer evening. Serve it au natural, or with a spoonful of sweetened crème fraiche, whipped cream, or frozen yogurt. And pray for leftovers.

Raspberry-Buttermilk Cake

1 cup bleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt

Optional: finely grated zest of 1 orange or lemon

1 cup farm-fresh raspberries (about 5 ounces)

  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and butter the parchment. Dust the pan with flour and shake out the excess.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk gently to blend.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the butter and the 2/3 cup sugar. Beat with an electric mixer on Medium-High speed until pale and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla until well blended. Beat in the orange zest, if using.
  4. With the mixer on Low, add the flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk, and beginning and ending with the flour. Mix just until combined.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan, smoothing the top. Scatter the raspberries over the top and sprinkle with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar. Bake until the cake is golden and just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan, and a toothpick inserted into the center shows no evidence of uncooked batter, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes; then turn out the cake onto the rack to cool 10 to 15 minutes longer. Peel off and discard the parchment. Invert the cake onto a serving plate so the raspberries are on top. Serve barely warm or at room temperature. Serves 6.

Farming in drought: A light year for cherries

Ripening cherries at Allard Farms.

Ripening cherries at Allard Farms.

Living in the Bay Area, it’s difficult to grasp the full impact of the current drought. April’s light rains have been enough to keep lawns green, wildflowers bloom by the roadside, and while there’s talk of conservation, there are few restrictions on residential water use in our counties and cities.

Traveling I-5 through the Central Valley paints a different picture: among the countless rows of almond, cherry, and stone fruit trees lining the freeway from Stockton to Bakersfield, whole orchards have been left for dead; acres of bare white limbs stand like ghosts in California’s most productive agricultural region.

“Consumers know there’s a drought, but they don’t realize the scope of it,” said Raj Iyer, who grows cherries, almonds, and stone fruit on Iyer Farms in Gustine, 60 miles south of Stockton. Iyer’s access to federal water has been shut off. His local water district is rationing at 25 to 30 percent of the usual supply. Well-drilling companies are booked for 10 months or more. And anyone who owns rights to water is selling it for upwards of $2,000 per acre-foot (the non-drought value being $50-70 per acre-foot).

“It’s so bad this year that if we don’t get a wet winter, there’s a serious chance that California agriculture may collapse,” Iyer said. “The largest industry in California may just go down the toilet.”

As fruit crops begin to hit markets and the growing season approaches its peak, Iyer and other farmers expect that consumers will finally feel the drought’s full effect on the price, quality, and availability of food.

 

Raj Iyer holds a ripening cherry, a blossom, and an aborted fruit. It is very rare for a cherry tree to have all three of these at the same time. The scattered bloom caused by the warm summer will mean a smaller harvest this year.

Raj Iyer holds a ripening cherry, a blossom, and an aborted fruit. It is very rare for a cherry tree to have all three of these at the same time. The scattered bloom caused by the warm summer will mean a smaller harvest this year.

A light year for cherries

The first orchard crop of the year, cherries may give consumers their first real taste of drought. Farmers up and down the Central Valley are expecting extremely light cherry yields — but it’s not because of the lack of water itself.

The unusually warm winter that came alongside the drought “confused the trees,” Iyer said. Cherry trees all across California bloomed early and unevenly. As Iyer explains it, once a cherry tree sets its first blooms, the tree begins to emit ethylene gas, which prevents later blooms from setting. In normal conditions, this prevents the tree from carrying more fruit than it’s able to support — this year, it means the harvest is going to be early, but very small.

“There’s only one benefit from all this,” Iyer said. When there’s less crop on the trees, each cherry is better, bigger, and sweeter, “so there’s going to be some really, really good cherries out this year — just not very many of them.”

Rising costs, rising prices

With the light harvest and the skyrocketing cost of water, cherry prices will likely be higher this year than last. Across the board, the price of California produce is expected to rise 10 to 15 percent this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. That increase may actually be felt less at farmers’ markets than supermarkets, since farmers report feeling more accountable to customers they see face-to-face each week.

Anticipating a $60,000 or more cost to upgrade to his well-water infrastructure if water district allocations dry up, Guy Allard of Allard Farms expects his farmers’ market prices may need to come up a little bit, spread out over many years, to keep his farm running. Allard Farms grows cherries, almonds, and stone fruit in Westley, 30 miles south of Stockton. Until he must increase prices, however, Allard hopes to keep them close to last year’s.

“We’re going to sell [cherries] as cheap as we can and still make a decent profit at it,” he said. “And be here for years to come, I hope.”

Guy Allard examines the fruit in his cherry orchard.

Guy Allard examines the fruit in his cherry orchard.

The future of orchard fruit

An early season, high-value crop, many farmers have diverted as much water as possible to keeping their cherry orchards alive this year. Almond orchards, too, are being watered at the sacrifice of other, less valuable crops.

Farmers have thousands to millions of dollars invested in their trees, which provide decades of income compared to a few months’ yield on a field of broccoli or kale. It takes a cherry tree five years to come into production, making it hard to recover from any unplanned tree loss.

“If I don’t have enough water and my trees die,” said Allard, “to be pretty blunt, I’m out of business.”

Some farmers, including Iyer, are sacrificing older orchards to keep younger ones productive. According to both Iyer and Allard, friends and neighbors who grow row crop vegetables have left fields fallow to keep their orchards watered, which will likely affect the price and availability of tomatoes, peppers, and more starting this summer.

With the early crop of cherries this year, Allard said he could water these trees less after the harvest wraps up, and therefore give more to his almond trees. But he admits that could affect the size and quality of several years’ future harvests. Relying on well water, which is high in minerals and salts, could also hurt his trees in the long run, he said. As he navigates these tough decisions in response to the worst drought his 100-year-old farm has ever seen, “it’s not just this year we’ve got to worry about,” he said.

Standing in his orchard, Raj Iyer examines a cluster of unevenly-ripening cherries while a mower takes down the water-sucking weeds coming up between the rows. “I was once told that there are three secrets to farming,” he says, “They are water, water, and water. Without that, nothing else matters.”

Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association will be following the impacts of the drought on California farmers and their crops throughout the year. Stay tuned each month for a new take on “Farming in Drought.” Author Sarah Trent can be reached at sarahtrent@pcfma.com.

May 2014 Market Thymes Newsletter

May 2014 Market Thymes Newsletter-1May 2014 Market Thymes Newsletter

May reminds us just how lucky we are to live in California. Even with the intense drought we’re suffering through, our farmers still bring us fantastic produce each week. We might find that local produce is a bit more expensive this year because of the drought, but the products they offer are still of great quality. This quote pretty much sums up how we really should think about what we’re eating and where it comes from:

“Food is what ought to remind us every day that we are part of Nature, that we belong to Nature, that we are inside Nature – the greatest living system.”
—Carlo Petrini, Founder & President of Slow Food.

Next time you walk through your farmers’ market or sit down to a home cooked meal, ponder where it came from, who grew it, and how you can help preserve the food systems that brought it to you. Thank you for supporting your local farmers’ market!

Golden Treasures

April showers have brought far more than spring flowers to the farmers’ market. Strawberries are suddenly everywhere—more plump and tender than ever. Produce aficionados also stand ready for the arrival of early summer crops like tomatoes, zucchini, and stone fruits like nectarines, peaches, plums, and pluots. But right now it’s hard to think about anything other than locally-grown apricots and cherries—those perennial favorites with only the briefest of seasons.apricots

Apricots date back at least 4000 years, when they were discovered on the mountain slopes of China. From there, apricots traveled across the Persian Empire to the Mediterranean. Spanish explorers introduced the fruit to California in the 18th century, and apricots became an integral part of the Mission Santa Clara gardens. Recorded history indicates the first major California crop was produced in 1792. By 1920, when fertile farmland was still relatively inexpensive, the California apricot literally flourished in the Santa Clara Valley. However, due to rising property values, housing expansion, and industrial growth following World War II, many California apricot farms abandoned one valley for another–the San Joaquin Valley.

Today the San Joaquin Valley produces 95% of the apricots grown in the United States; and most of these farms are still small, family-owned businesses. The demand is high and the inventory is low, so it pays to shop for fresh apricots sooner rather than later, before the crops are snatched up by commercial canners and other food preservers.

Not only delicious but amazingly versatile in the kitchen, velvety California apricots are one of the healthiest and most beneficial fruits available. They are filled with disease-fighting anti-oxidants; and rich in beta-carotene, Vitamin C, potassium, iron, Vitamin A, copper, and lycopene. They are also high in fiber and low in saturated fat and sodium.

Unlike those anemic, cottony little rocks we see piled high at most supermarkets, tree-ripened apricots are golden-orange in color, aromatic, and honey-sweet. (Due to their fragility and need for special handling, these apricots rarely make it to supermarkets.) On top of that, growing them is a labor of love, as the apricots on each tree ripen randomly, in their own sweet time. This means the same trees must be hand-picked four to five times during the 2-month harvest to ensure that each apricot has reached its potential.

A good apricot is such an ethereal delicacy that eating it out of hand is often the ultimate luxury. But once in a while it’s exciting to celebrate the season by creating a homey dessert for a chilly evening. A private little dessert that doesn’t have to be shared with anyone.

This basic crisp recipe will carry you through the summer months, switching out the apricots as other stone fruits become available. It requires no exotic ingredients, is assembled in minutes, and bakes to perfumed perfection while you’re eating dinner. You can play around with the topping to suit your taste, adding a few chopped walnuts or other aromatic spices like ground cardamom or freshly-grated nutmeg.

This crisp is comforting and satisfying on its own, but even better when served with a spoonful of cold vanilla-flavored yogurt or a scoop of ice cream.

Easy Apricot Crisp-for-Two

For variation, add a few blueberries or pitted cherries to the apricots.

1/2 pound firm-but-ripe apricots (about 4 large apricots)

4 tablespoons light brown sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, well-chilled

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons old-fashioned rolled oats (oatmeal)

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Grease two 1-cup ramekins or gratin dishes.
  2. Halve and pit the apricots. Working over a bowl, cut the apricot halves into 1/2-inch-thick wedges. Add 1 tablespoon of the brown sugar to the bowl and toss gently to mix. Divide the apricot mixture equally between the ramekins.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the butter and flour. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons brown sugar, the oats, salt, and cinnamon. Scatter all of the mixture evenly over the apricots in each ramekin and bake until the topping is golden brown and the apricots are just tender and bubbly-hot, about 20 minutes. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

“My parents moved from San Francisco to Mountain View when I was five…Silicon Valley for the most part at that time was still orchards—apricot orchards and prune orchards—and it was really paradise.”                                                                                                   –Steve Jobs

 Smithsonian interview, April 1995