Avocado Adventure in Zone 16
Living the green dream at Hayward’s Chetwyn Farm
BY CHERYL ANGELINA KOEHLER | PHOTOS BY EMMA NAJARIAN
The tumbledown 1890s-era farm tucked into a barely accessible fold in the hills above Hayward was one of those properties real estate agents feel reluctant to show. In spite of its proximity to the luxurious Five Canyons subdivision, the place never had piped water other than what past residents were able to channel in from the creek. There was a stunning view of Hayward and San Francisco Bay from the western hillside, but at the time, the only humans enjoying it were hikers traveling by on the Bay Trail. Rodents had the run of the house.
But when Patti Boyland—a woman in her mid 70s, who had raised her family hippie-style on a farm in Mendocino—took a look, she turned to her daughter, Anna Najarian, and said simply, “Sunset zone 16.” The reference to Sunset Magazine’s indispensible climate zone map for gardeners transported the two into a blossoming vision of all the healthy food the extended family of seven could grow in this ideal spot, both at the house level as well as up and down through the various microclimates offered by the property’s steep southwest-facing orientation.
”This Adventure Is What You Make It”
Eight years later, the water problem is solved. “The well has been essential,” says Patti’s husband Michael Boyland, a retired pastor with a lovely British accent, who might be the most gregarious of this exceptionally friendly crowd. In fact, conversation shuttles easily from one Boyland and Najarian to the next, and it’s clear they’re all equally and cheerfully onboard with the family motto: “This adventure is what you make it.” The slogan is silk-screened onto the T-shirts they wear when selling their Chetwyn Farm avocados at the Saturday Hayward Farmers’ Market.
Continuing the water story, Anna describes how a hired dowser steered his divining rod around the property until it twitched and bobbed at the spot they should drill. “Three hundred feet under the ground and we hit it,” she says as her husband, David, and their teenage daughters Kimberly, Emma, and Sarah all nod in agreement.
Planting fruit trees appears to be a family obsession, with the pastor as the main instigator: “It’s so much fun planting them, and we don’t even have a medlar yet,” says Michael, referring to a distant cousin of the apple tree that produces what some fruit growers call “the best fruit you’ve never heard of.”
The family members explain all at once that their avocado, fig, and citrus trees sit on the driveway level, while stone fruits and apples are planted downslope toward the creek bed, where they benefit from the cooler temperatures.
“As you walk down there in the morning, it’s noticeably colder,” says Anna. “The llama had frost on his coat one morning last winter. He guards the goats.”
Anna, who might be the top animal lover among this nature-hugging crowd of homegrown enthusiasts, says she’s thinking of getting a Dexter cow—a small Irish breed—for milk. “Why would anyone want a small cow?” she says, recalling the response of a traditionalist rancher friend to the idea.
Our Chetwyn Farm tour begins with a stroll along the driveway, where a bunny is chasing a cat around the shed that houses Dave’s granddad’s 64-year-old tractor. The vintage machine gets to flex its muscles once a year to grade the long, winding dirt road to the house, the very road that inspired the farm’s name: “It’s old English for ‘house at the end of a crooked road’,” says Dave. “Literally … ‘chet’ means ‘house,’ and ‘wyn’ means ‘crooked road’.”
The family has enshrined smaller historical artifacts they recovered during renovations on a wall they refer to as the Agricultural Museum: parts of a horse-drawn wagon that once crashed in the creek bed, old seeders and cultivators, scythes for cutting grass, and the two-person saw called a “misery whip.” A barn partly rescued for storage use has the year 1917 stamped into its door hinges.
Patti Boyland’s vegetable garden is encased in mesh against deer and scrub jay, but nature is generally welcome here. The pastor points out a pond where “the bees come to drink” and demos the daily duet of the amphibians—the tree frogs say “ribbit” and the bullfrogs respond with a soft “burr, burr.” He believes in tithing some of their garden’s bounty to nature: “Look, these nice people made us lunch!” And indeed, these organic farmers know that each organism has its role to play in a well-balanced ecosystem. “Avocados need bugs for pollination,” says Anna. “The wind won’t do it.”
We’re So Late, We’re Early
It’s a short hike across the creek to the main avocado orchard, which stretches west along a wide terrace north of the house. When the fog parts, the skyscrapers of San Francisco appear glowing across the bay, upstaging the grove of rather unassuming young avocado trees.
“There was an old avocado tree on the property when we bought it,” says Dave, who was encouraged when a friend—a commercial avocado grower from the south/central coast—visited and noted that even though Chetwyn Farm is rather far north of California’s avocado-producing region, the property, with its exposure to the bay, offers similarly ideal conditions.
“We planted a handful of varieties in 2010 to see if they would bear fruit, and they did. So the next year we planted more varieties, and these also produced fruit. When we started to feel the demand, we planted the grove,” says Dave, who still holds down a full-time off-farm job and admits that sometimes he’d rather be home weeding.
It was only last summer that the Chetwyn harvest was sufficient for a short season of sales at the farmers’ market. Dave says the goal is to have harvestable fruit for 10 or 11 months each year, which might be possible if they grow a wide variety of cultivars that mature at different times. In the avocado homelands of Central America, trees typically yield four harvests per year.
The Ventura County nurseries the family buys from graft various cultivars onto one of two disease-resistant Mexican rootstocks. Tree-buying trips allow the family to hobnob with SoCal avocado growers and pick up tips that might apply to the Chetwyn outlier farming adventure.
“We are experimenting with quite a few different varieties, but the main avocados we have in volume are Bacon, Fuerte, Hass, Gem, Lamb-Hass, Carmen-Hass, Reed, and Zutano, which is our main pollinizer. In Mexico, Carmen-Hass has three crops, and for us, I think we see it come off in early spring, but we’re still trying to figure out how this one is behaving in our area.” On the timing of the Chetwyn harvests in relation to what SoCal growers experience, Dave says, “We’re so late, we’re early.”
It’s 7:30 on a sunny Saturday morning in June as the three young Najarians and their parents pull their avocado-loaded pickup into the Hayward City Center to set up the Chetwyn farmers’ market booth. The market opens officially at 9am, but by 8:30 it’s already teeming with shoppers. “We learn a lot from our customers,” says Dave, noting that many hail from avocado-producing regions like India, Thailand, Africa, and Central America. “They recognize the different types from their home countries.”
Emma Najarian (age 17), who likes keeping the market inventory, says that a week in advance they take their avocado harvest bags out to the grove to pick for the market, gathering the number of mature avocados they think they can sell. Avocados, like pears and bananas, start ripening only after they are picked from the tree. Chilling after harvest slows the ripening, while gassing with ethylene (or by storing with apples or bananas) speeds it up. With the family’s direct farmer-to-customer sales, neither intervention is needed.
At the market, Kimberley (age 18) likes to interface with the customers, helping them choose from among the four bins filled with different varieties and sizes and priced from 50 cents to two dollars per avocado. The fruits will sell out well before the 1pm market close, so at 9am, Sarah (age 14) is already out engaging in her favorite activity: bartering produce with other farmers. She returns from her first foray with a Danvers carrot nearly the size of a baseball bat.
When the family returns up the crooked road to the house this afternoon, the sisters will no doubt spend some time in the kitchen. Ripe avocados, as they explain, can work as a replacement for butter in many baking recipes, like, for instance, your favorite chocolate chip cookies. After all, what else can you do when life gives you avocados? ♦
Photographer Emma Najarian has been chronicling her family’s adventures on Instagram since December 2016. @chetwyn_farm