Updated 8/22/10 with link to new video of almond tree shaking from Massa Organics.
Shopping at the farmers market gives consumers a chance to talk to farmers about their products, see how a farm changes across the seasons, and gain a better understanding of the challenge of farming. It's a big improvement over a sterile grocery store where the origins of fruits, vegetables, eggs and meat are unclear, but a market in a parking lot or closed city street can provide only so much insight.
To reduce the disconnect between consumers and farmers, the San Francisco-based Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) organizes tours of the farms that sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. They are a chance for urban dwellers to see the lay of the land, feel the sun and wind, and get a sense of the tremendous juggling act required to manage a diverse farm. A few months ago I went on CUESA's tour of a mushroom farm and a farm that specializes in berries. In late August, I was on the tour of Lagier Ranches near Escalon, California and Hidden Star Orchard near Linden, California.
This post is about the Lagier Ranches portion of the trip. The organically certified farm is best known for almonds, a rare grape, the exotic-yet-native-to-North America pawpaw, and cherries. They have also started raising geese in the cherry orchards.
Shaking the trees
The tour of Lagier Ranches near Escalon, California (San Joaquin County) began in an almond orchard. John Lagier (pictured at right), provided an interesting explanation of almond growing, harvesting and processing.
He started with the almond itself. It was easy for us to find examples to help understand his explanation: the ground was littered with almonds that had recently been shaken from the tree. These were the "fruits" of the tree — a somewhat leathery hull surrounding the shell that encased the nut that we know and love. Lagier pointed out that almonds are related to apricots (the botanical name for the almond is Prunus amygdalus; apricot is Prunus armeniaca). The pictures on my previous almond post show the similarity. In the case of the almond, though, we normally eat the inner kernel of the seed, not the fruit ("normally" because the green almond will occasionally appear in markets or restaurants in the spring).
Most almonds are harvested using specialized shaking machines. Although it might be interesting to watch one of them in action — CUESA scheduled the trip to coincide with the harvest, but nature forgot to check the farm-tour schedule before ripening the almonds — the fact that the shakers had already been through was probably a blessing because they are quite noisy, as this exceptionally flawed video at YouTube reveals. [Update, 8/22/10: Massa Organics posted a short video showing an almond-tree shaker in action.]
The almonds sit on the ground for a little while and then are picked up by another specialized machine (something like a street sweeper). They are then transported to a processing facility — a facility which is typically not owned by the farmer — where they are cleaned and allowed to dry. After a time, the hull and shell are removed. These two items have value: the hull (or almond "fruit") is sold to dairy farms, while the shell is burned to make electricity or steam.
The majority of articles about colony collapse disorder in European honeybee hives mention almonds as one of the crops most dependent on honeybees for pollination. Generally, almond growers rent beehives during the bloom. The price of rentals has almost quintupled in recent years for various reasons, colony collapse disorder being the latest. Lagier and other farmers are trying to encourage native bees to take up residence in the orchards, like the mason bee and blue orchard bee. Both of these bees are solitary. (An earlier post has a link to a video about bee research)
Lagier told us that raising almonds organically is even more of a challenge than other crops. For one, the trees are vulnerable to fungus in the early spring and none of the approved treatments are fully effective. The almond is a hungry species, with a need for a lot of nitrogen, a nutrient typically supplied by fertilizer from the petrochemical industry. There are alternatives approved for certified organic operations, like fish emulsion (ground-up fish), which Lagier uses as part of his fertilization strategy. That raises an interesting question: are organic almonds (or other crops) grown using fish emulsion not suitable for vegetarians?
Other sources of nitrogen are leguminous plants like clover, which extract nitrogen from the air and "fix" it below ground. Lagier plants clover as a ground cover in the rainy season and then spends a lot of time trying to remove it to make the almond harvest easier (the harvesting machines have trouble with vegetation).
A few other almond factoids from the trip:
A Bronx tale
We took a look at the grape vines, some of which are the very rare Bronx grape, a variety which has been placed in the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste. The Bronx grape is a hybrid between the Concord and Thompson varieties, with the flavor of the Concord and the texture of the Thompson. It is extremely delicate — perhaps it has been the recipient of too many Bronx cheers from grape-growers frustrated with the fragility — and therefore hard to sell commercially. We sampled grapes directly from the vine, and they were delicious, thin-skinned and full of flavor.
The grapes are able to travel to some farmers markets, including Lagier's Ferry Plaza market stand (I couldn't buy any on a recent Saturday visit because I had several other errands to run that morning and they would have been crushed).
The Lagier Ranches recently started raising geese in the cherry orchards. The geese are a triple-benefit for the farm: an additional source of revenue, natural weed control, and a way to fertilize the orchard.
The life cycle of the geese fits nicely into the rhythm of the farm with goslings hatching about one month before cherries are harvested. By the time they're ready to be put to pasture, the cherry harvest has ended. Living in a 1/8th-acre pen that is moved to a fresh area every four days, the geese eat Johnson grass (one of the most noxious weeds in the cherry orchard) and convert it into a beneficial fertilizer. The geese are sold during the Christmas season and to the Roli Roti company (a mobile rotisserie that has a stand at the Ferry Plaza Market on Saturdays).
Pawpaws and other crops
The Lagier Ranches are a diverse and entrepreneurial operation. In addition to the crops described above, the farm also grows citrus and the somewhat exotic fruit (in California, anyway) called the pawpaw. North America's largest edible fruit, the pawpaw is native to the Midwestern and Southeastern United States. It has relatives in the tropics, including the custard-apple, cherimoya, sweetsop, and soursop. Like its relatives, a pawpaw contains large, hard seeds surrounded by marshmallowy, sweet, fragrant fruit. When I ate the pawpaws that I bought from the Lagier Ranches stand at the Ferry Plaza market a few weeks after the tour, I noticed aromas of mango and a slight hint of the good (but mostly hidden) aromas of durian and jackfruit. Autumn is the season for pawpaws in California, so if you shop at the Ferry Plaza market, stop by for an exotic — yet still local — treat.
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