Farming the Fringe
Four Families Push the Boundaries of Agriculture on the Santa Barbara Coast
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Though bigger-city restaurants and chefs tend to get credit for sparking a broader movement, the farm-to-table aesthetic is deeply entrenched in the bloodline of everyday Santa Barbarans, who’ve been rejoicing in weekly Farmers Markets since the early 1980s and living off the region’s thankfully reliable bounty for even longer.
Our commitment to that lifestyle — which, we know, isn’t always the thriftiest option — enables generations of farmers and ranchers to survive and thrive while also serving as the perfect environment for agricultural experimentation. If Santa Barbarans can’t support a particular crop, then probably no one will.
So this week we are celebrating a few farms that are pushing the boundaries of what can be harvested here along the Santa Barbara coastline, from pigs to papayas, coffee to cherimoyas, good money to sustainable mindfulness.
By Paul Wellman
CaliTropics • Rincon del Mar • S.B. Exotics • Gigi’s Rancho el Rincon: Championing the Cherimoya
Who: The extended Brown family.
What: Cherimoyas, plus avocados, calla lilies, apples, and pineapple guavas.
Where: More than 100 acres and two packing houses in the foothills of Carpinteria.
When: Though the Browns have been citrus growers for a century, the cherimoya trees were planted in the 1970s.
How: There’s no denying the exoticness of a good and proper cherimoya. Oblong and green, the fruit has a sneaky density to it and a skin that is flecked with ridges and knobs oddly reminiscent of what it might feel like to pet a dinosaur. But the real wonders come once you crack one open; the inside is a truly delicious, albeit seed-riddled, soft, and sweet fruit with a sherbet-like consistency that was a fabled delicacy of the Incas.
“Most people have never seen a cherimoya before, and it can be a pretty hard thing to describe, so I like to show it to them and let them try some,” explained Sierra Brown, whose family has been the primary cherimoya growers and packers in North America since the 1970s. “As soon as they have a taste, the response is always, ‘That’s amazing!’ or ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ I mean, for people who love cherimoyas, they really love them.”
Sierra Brown (above in green, with her uncle Johnny) helps run CaliTropics for her father, Steven Brown.
At one time, after Sierra’s great-grandfather immigrated from France and worked his way west to settle on the South Coast just over 100 years ago, the Brown family owned much of the coastline from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria. Citrus was the name of the game then and stayed that way until the 1970s, when the infamous cinnamon root rot decimated the region’s crops. The Browns, then presided over by Sierra’s widowed grandmother Mary Rose, were wiped out.
That’s when Sierra’s dad, Steven, along with his brothers Tony, Johnny, and Peter Nichols, made the fateful pivot to cherimoyas. It was Sierra’s uncle Tony, the “botanist of the family,” who searched out the fruit and then hybridized the two most commonly grown varieties of the cherimoya, the “Rincon” and the “Lisa,” and the family’s remaining holdings in the foothills of Carpinteria behind Rincon and on Casitas Pass Road became ground zero for the fickle fruit’s North American invasion.
Though experts like to debate whether the cherimoya is native to the Andes or regions of Central America, where very similar fruits grow in the wild, there is no doubting that this exotic, whose season runs November to June, does not belong in these parts. In fact, since there are no native pollinators here, each tree must be hand-pollinated by paintbrush — no small task when you’re talking about thousands and thousands of trees. CaliTropics, the company owned by Sierra’s immediate family, tends to 27 acres with about 100 trees per acre. She admitted, “It can get pretty intense.”
Nick Brown helps his dad, Anthony Brown, run Rincon del Mar and also manages Gigi’s Rancho El Rincon for his mother, Jehanne Brown (also pictured).
Today, the extended Brown family is involved in most, if not all, of the commercial cherimoya growing in California, be it through their packing house operations or actual farming. The family ranches started splitting up a bit in the 1990s, but all of Mary Rose’s children are still in the cherimoya game: Johnny and Steven run the CaliTropics ranch and packing house; Peter Nichols has S.B. Exotics in Carpinteria; and Tony runs Rincon del Mar just off Highway 150 with his son, Nick, who also runs his mother’s adjacent property, Gigi’s Rancho El Rincon, together selling fruit all the way down to Santa Monica and Mar Vista.
“It is a direct but friendly competition that we have with each other, and we all are really respectful of each other’s clientele,” summed up Sierra with a smile. “It’s not an easy fruit to grow or eat, but my grandmother was a matriarch, and I like to think we are all helping keep it alive for her.”
By Paul Wellman
TROPICAL TANDEM: Adam Rhodes (left) and Damien Raquinio stand beneath one of their papaya trees, which are now also shading young pineapples (below).
Golden State Papayas: Tackling the Tropicals
Who: Damien Raquinio and Adam Rhodes.
What: Papayas, plus pineapples and bananas.
Where: Three large-scale greenhouses (soon to be four) off Nidever Road in Carpinteria.
When: The first trees were planted in 2011.
How: In a series of nondescript warehouses just east of the Santa Barbara Polo fields, Damien Raquinio and Adam Rhodes are trying to do the near impossible: grow finger-licking-good, sweet, Hawaiian-style strawberry papayas on the California coast. Walking past his rows of several hundred trees on a recent foggy morning, Raquinio was more serious than joking when he said, “You look at these guys wrong or talk to them wrong, and they just crash and burn. We’ve basically been failing and trying and failing and trying for three years now.”
But success seems imminent because whenever Rhodes and Raquinio peddle their papayas at the farmers markets, they’re the darlings of the scene, regularly selling out and coveted by such restaurants as The Hungry Cat, Sama Sama, and the Wine Cask’s Intermezzo for dessert and drink recipes. After all, papayas are celebrated the world over for their low-fat, low-calorie, high-fiber, high-vitamin-C, digestion-helping, and cancer-fighting ways.
But Raquinio, a Big Island native, still wasn’t satisfied with the taste and yields of his organically grown delights, so he and his partner pulled the plug and went back to the greenhouse to fine-tune the formula. Currently, the duo is working with six different varieties from places like Brazil, Taiwan, Malaysia, and, of course, Hawai‘i as the two of them determine what exactly it takes to grow world-class papayas here in Santa Barbara County. It is, as Raquinio puts it, “experimental production.”
Eyeing a return to the farmers markets later this fall, the experimentalists’ work has already doubled their yield, and they’re now growing pineapples and bananas, as well. “We still have more questions than answers, but we are getting there,” said Raquinio. “Our goal is to eventually be the full-on tropical fruit guys. I mean, how cool will it be when we can go to market with full loads of locally grown organic papayas and pineapples and bananas for dollars on the pound less than Whole Foods?”
By Paul Wellman
PUERCO Y QUESO: Warren Brush and Cyndi Harvan (top) purchased the Casitas Valley Farm less than two years ago, but four generations of their family — including son-in-law and day-to-day manager, Jesse Smith — are already hard at work making cheese, raising pigs, and turning the farm into a permaculture classroom.
“The whole plan is to change this from a monoculture farm to a polyculture farm,” said Smith, while walking through his apple, persimmon, and avocado “deserts,” where he is now experimenting with interstitial plantings of lemon, lime, ginger, cardamom, kiwi, figs, mulberry, and even Jay Ruskey’s coffee. On the hillside, they’re stumping 60-foot-tall avocado trees to bring the canopy down but using the chopped wood on the slopes to make basins to collect water and nutrients, a job aided by the pumpkins sprouting there, as well. And in the apple orchard, which was decimated by moths last year, they’re using corrugated cardboard and wasps — not pesticides — to fight back.
“We are making sacrifices up front for the benefit of the long-term system,” said Smith of the patience required for these systems to thrive, as opposed to just dumping nutrients into the soil to maximize crops and profits. “When you do these plantings, the way they are supposed to be done and create a food forest, everything works in unison.” Most of all, they want to share what they’re learning, offering permaculture classes, including a four-week intensive course that begins this week.
Then there are the pigs, nearly 30 of them at last count, huddled near the new solar panels and water well, all nourished from the leftover barley mash the farm gets from Island Brewing Company and Ventura Spirits. They’re now for sale to restaurants and private households as well as chopped into smaller cuts that are sold to members of The Piggery program, which people pick up monthly, much like the cheese program.
As for the creamery, which is managed by Brush’s niece Makaila Harvan-Thompson, it continues to thrive, as the crew received a “great response” during the California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. “We were really excited to be playing with the big boys,” said Smith. “Cheeseheads from all around loved our stuff.” They continue to search for a few milk animals of their own — and, perhaps harder to find, someone to milk them twice a day — but will then have to navigate the almost prohibitively strict federal dairy rules.
Perhaps then, Smith and company will be able to sit back at the end of the day, sip on some handmade persimmon brandy (now made from their trees by Ventura Spirits), and eat a homegrown fig wrapped in bacon that they cured and stuffed with cheese made from cows they raised.