By Cheryl Koehler
Life is full of vicissitudes, and no one knows this more than the small family farmer. Every year he literally bets the farm against the whims of the weather and the marketplace. And every year he goes up against the wiles of an infinitely clever army of creatures great and small that would like first dibs on his inventory.
It was the gophers of Brentwood that had Farmer Al Courchesne a bit worried on an autumn afternoon at his Frog Hollow Farm. Two of his field hands were working along a row of young organic peach trees where a whole sapling had disappeared down a gopher hole overnight.
In an older orchard of Bing, Brooks, and Rainier cherry trees, uniquely gnarled shapes of the wood displayed effects of past gopher incursions. “The trees are pulling in to be ready for winter,” said Courchesne, as he examined a branch that was dropping its leaves. “Their growth is all inward at this time of year. They’re responding to the angle of the sun, the length of the day, temperatures that might drop to 20 degrees at night.”
With the harvest completed, the workers taking care of the gophers, and the trees in their restful mood, Courchesne now can turn his attention toward the broader issues of keeping Frog Hollow Farm a thriving year-round business—marketing, developing value-added products, and peering into the future to see which new heirloom variety of fruit his customers might be waiting to discover. “I’m really excited about the potential for apricots,” he said.
But it was a young grove of heirloom apples that seemed to draw his deepest reverence. “Apples for the kitchen,” he said, pointing to a spindly orchard of Sierra Beauties, Spitzenbergs, Pink Pearls, Pink Ladies, and Ashmead’s Kernel.
“So, are people getting into baking again,” he’s asked?
“Not especially, but we are,” was his reply.
Sunlight floods into the huge airy Frog Hollow kitchen, where Courchesne’s wife, Rebecca Smith of Moraga, directs a band of bakers and jam-makers. The crew was especially busy on this post-harvest pre-holiday afternoon, making buttery fruit pastries; filling jars with gem-colored marmalades, conserves, and chutneys; toasting grains and seeds for a delicious, nutritious granola with dried fruits; and wrapping the world’s most delectable fruitcake in its rum-soaked cheesecloth bandages.
The kitchen staff works with a full view of the orchards, edged in on this eastern border by the original irrigation ditch that has been bringing Sacramento River Delta water into this fertile farmland since 1914. Intensive farming began here in the 20s, but it wasn’t until 1976 that Courchesne, a former schoolteacher, bought his first 13 acres of prime Brentwood farmland and planted it in peaches, as a neighboring farmer suggested he should do. Courchesne immediately began to diversify his plantings and continued to diversify while acquiring an additional 117 acres.
But during these 30 years, he has watched with growing concern as farmers who sold out their land in San Jose have moved up to Brentwood expecting to reap the profits a second time from an escalating real estate market. “But some have come full circle,” he said. “Tom Bloomfield was pro-development, but now that he’s been farming for 13 years, he’s so passionate about it that he joined the board of directors at BALT (Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust).”
Courchesne said that “to grow food you will always need soil, and to feed 10 billion people, you need a lot of agricultural space.” From his farm he looks westward toward Mount Diablo, the direction from which the Bay Area’s urban flood is flowing as it melds into the mushrooming urban centers of the Central Valley. Courchesne said that he saw what was coming as much as 20 years ago and began looking for ways to turn the tide. One way would be to enhance consumer awareness through branding of the exceptional Brentwood fruits. A lesser hope might be the not-in-my-backyard attitude of new homeowners enjoying their quiet pastoral corner of the busy Bay Area.
But the most active response that he and his partners have made has been in the creation of their value-added products—items they can sell year-round, but also that recapture the value of over-ripe or blemished produce—the 15 percent of their harvest that would otherwise be unsaleable. It started about 10 years ago when Frog Hollow first peeled, sliced, and laid out their over-ripe Summer Fire peaches to dry in the sun. They still get dried every year, and the leathery morsels—earthy sweet, moist, and addicting—have made many loyal customers out of Ferry Plaza Market shoppers and the regulars who haunt the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.
Courchesne credits the wine industry with showing the way. “You see farmers growing grapes for wine, a prestigious, high-value product that is bringing credit to agriculture.”
Another pillar of hope is the growing interest in the community-supported agriculture concept. It is only recently that Frog Hollow has joined that CSA movement, bringing consumers into the project of saving local agriculture by asking them to subscribe to receive regular deliveries of seasonal produce. Frog Hollow’s new Happy Child CSA offers a year-round supply of fruit by augmenting its own produce with fruits from a wide network of like-minded organic farmers—people with whom Courchesne trades food for his own family’s fare. Besides Frog Hollow peaches, cherries, apples, and pears, the Happy Child box might include incredibly sweet Valencia oranges, navel oranges, heirloom apples, kiwi, cherimoyas, sapotes, or avocados from other Bay Area or Central Valley farms.
Courchesne refers to these efforts as “vision,” a refocusing on the larger picture that producers and consumers alike must adopt if we are going to save our farmlands. When Prince Charles visited the Ferry Building in November 2005, Courchesne was pleased to share a taste of his Frog Hollow marmalade with this man of vision, who is also a gentleman farmer. A year earlier, Courchesne had been deeply inspired by the speech Prince Charles gave at Terra Madre, a Slow Food gathering of family farmers in Turin, Italy, now spoken of as a watershed in the Slow Food movement.
“He is passionate about organic, sustainable farming, he’s opposed to GMOs and he’s concerned about the trends in corporate farming,” said Courchesne. “And he doesn’t have to answer to anybody.”
Mulling on Courchesne’s afterthought during the drive home, the thought arose: The Prince doesn’t have to answer to anyone, but the farmer does—he answers to all of us.
Send a Farmer to Terra Madre
The celebrated Slow Food conference of October 2004 in Turin, Italy is scheduled to reconvene in October 2006. In order to be sure that East Bay farmers will be well represented there, Susie Maurer a Slow Food East Bay Convivium member, is raising funds to help farmers with travel costs. With the support of her fellow staff-members at Landmark Travel Ltd. of Orinda, Maurer has come up with an event to showcase some of our East Bay culinary treasures.
Imagine: You begin the day at 10am at the Spanish Table on San Pablo in Berkeley with a tasting and demonstration of the finest culinary ingredients and equipment from the Iberian Peninsula.
Next, you travel up to Shattuck, where the awesome new cooking school, Kitchen on Fire, has just opened. It’s next door to Chez Panisse in the new Epicurious Garden of the Gourmet Ghetto. There you will be treated to a fabulous lunch and a preview of the classes the school will be offering.
After that, you will be expertly guided through one of the Berkeley farmers markets, where our local guardians of traditional, sustainable local agri- and aqua-culture will be showing off their beautiful products. You might even meet Farmer Al Courchesne. According to Farmer Al, the end of the day at the Berkeley Farmers Market is one his favorite times to meet and talk to people who are passionate about food—farmers and feasters alike.
All that is required is that you take the day off on Thursday, Jan. 26 or Feb. 2, or Tuesday, March 14 or 21 to join the event and pay up your $145 registration fee well in advance. Add an extra gift to your fee, and you’ll be even more assured that an East Bay farmer will have the transformational experience of going to Terra Madre. You can learn more about Terra Madre at slowfoodusa.org, but be sure to sign up for Susie Maurer’s “Cutting Edge Day of Culinary Pleasure” by contacting Landmark Travel Ltd. at 925.253.2600 or 800.220.2262.
Edible East Bay Publisher/Editor Cheryl Koehler is a foodie by birth and a devoted home cook. Her writing has appeared in the East Bay Express, San Francisco Chronicle, Lonely Planet Publications, KQED radio, Castro Valley Forum (where she was features editor), and Market Hall News (where she continues as senior editor). Her guidebook to the Sierra Nevada is scheduled to be published in 2007 by the University of Nevada Press.