Watch video “Innovation Bears Fruit for Family Farm” (Peak Moment episode 162).
In the northeastern Sacramento valley between Paradise and Oroville, gigantic Table Mountain overlooks more than 2000 acres of green in a sea of brown grasslands. Up close, that green turns out to be primarily heritage Mission olive trees, plus other fruit and citrus fruit trees. They’re irrigated by water collected atop the once-volcanic Table Mountain, rising 1100 feet above this, the Chaffin Family Orchards.
We videotaped a Peak Moment tour of this sustainable, organic, integrated farm with engagingly articulate sales manager Chris Kerston. Besides the orchards, the other main components are animals, who Chris aptly noted were “employees” along with the five humans who run the farm.
Instead of using diesel tractors, they’re using goats to prune the tree shoots and brush. Cattle and sheep mow the grasses. They’re followed by chickens who eat the bugs and shorter grasses. And all of the animals fertilize the orchards with their poop! The animals are moved from one orchard site to another, where they’re contained in a large, portable electric fences (each powered with a solar panel) where they have plenty of room to roam. Thanks to the animals, they’ve not needed to buy chemical fertilizer AND they cut their diesel usage down by 85%. They’ve employed their animals for organic farming practices over the last ten years.
We learned of Chaffin Family Orchards because we subscribed to their Fruit CSA this past summer. In a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), subscribers invest in the farmer’s operations, sharing risks and rewards. We paid our share at the start of summer (giving them finances they can count on). Our reward was a weekly box of 6-10 pounds of fruit. (Part of the risk was losing some long-awaited peaches one week when they all fell off the tree before they could be harvested. But Chris was very good to us, giving us homemade jam and local rice instead).
And not just any fruit! Most of the trees are over 50 years old, so we are savoring heritage fruit with all its specialness. One week when we got three different varieties of apricots, we couldn’t believe it. Flavorful, ripe, subtle, each distinctly flavored — reminded me of the apricots I grew up with in Los Altos, and haven’t found since, even in natural food stores. Re-ignited my love of apricots in a heartbeat! We’ve delighted in several varieties of peaches, nectarines, sweet grapefruit, heritage grapes, pomegranates, even super-creamy heritage Duke avocados whose skin is so thin you just eat it.
On our tour, Chris showed us the egg-mobile, which is rolled along wherever the egg-laying chickens are kept in pasture. It’s their nightly roost, complete with nest boxes. If I remember right, they have about 1500 chickens, 500 mature layers, 500 younger layers, and 500 broiler chickens. They also harvest lamb, goat (the most widely-eaten meat in the world), and beef. Their heritage Mission olive oil just won the top prize in the California competition. Mellow-flavored, not sharp or acidic.
Chris is working on building the niche market for their products. Their emphasis has always been producing for local-scale, rather than being a packing plant for large quantities to ship far away. The Fruit CSA is one part of it; he and his family attend eight regional growers markets in the summer; and has buying clubs in the Bay Area besides the farmstand itself. He’s working to develop a meat CSA, and a winter Fruit CSA too. CSAs are less work for him, provide a more secure financial base, and a reliable source of wonderful food for the members.
The whole enterprise — still in the Chaffin family after more than a hundred years — is resourceful, sustainable, organic, intelligently designed, and stocked with heritage varieties hard to find elsewhere. It’s based on what are now called permacultural principles (founder Del Chaffin was ahead of the game).
Chris says their goal is not a looks-good farm (though I found it down-home wonderful) or picture-perfect fruit, but food that’s flavorful, healthy, organic and sustainable.
Suits our taste perfectly.