This is the twelvth in our series “Connecting With Local Food.”
Tom Brewer and Pam Armstrong’s Chestnut Ridge Ranch
By Pam Armstrong
In 1976 we started our long search for the perfect place to live in the country. Tom had spent a very wonderful year on his grandfather’s peach farm in the Ozarks when he was 9 years old. From that time on, he knew he would someday find his own place to live and be a farmer in a beautiful place. Being an Air Force brat and having moved many times while growing up, I, too, had dreamed of someday having a permanent home in a peaceful spot in the country, so I was happy to support Tom’s dream.
We first started seriously thinking about and looking for our place when we were each very busy with our work lives, burdened with long tiring commutes, and raising our blended family. It took us about 15 years to settle on both what we wanted to grow as a commercial crop and where we wanted to do it. During that 15 years, and aiming to make our move when our kids were grown and on their own, we spent many vacations and weekends exploring possibilities. We considered growing cherries in Washington State. However, when we visited an old farmer (uncle of a friend) who’d actually grown cherries for decades in White Salmon, Washington, he advised against it. He said too many things can go wrong and cause crop failure. We also explored the beautiful area around Portland for growing berries. In the end, we decided we would rather be closer to our children who were mostly establishing themselves permanently in the San Francisco Bay Area where we lived at the time.
The decision to grow chestnuts came about when Tom read about them in an old ag textbook. He was looking for a crop we could grow without major competition from big ag corporations. Chestnuts fit that requirement and also would most likely grow well in the Mediterranean climate of Northern California. Once we decided on chestnuts, we then focused on finding property with the right type of soil and weather to grow them. Through ag advisors at UC Davis, Tom found out about the Zeni family who had 100+ year old-year-old chestnut trees still producing well here in Mendocino County. We visited George Zeni at his place on Fish Rock Road in the mid-80s to confirm that this was a good area for us to consider. George was very friendly and helpful, showing us his ranch and all of his abundant chestnut trees. We loved his place and saw for ourselves that the chestnut trees his Italian immigrant grandparents had planted were indeed still thriving and producing, so we began concentrating our search for property in the Mendocino and Humboldt County area.
Finally, on a clear, sunny only-in-California March weekend in 1990, we found the perfect spot. We purchased our totally undeveloped property here at the top of Peachland Road, on a ridge overlooking the Anderson Valley that’s called the High Spot on the old maps of the area. We named our place Chestnut Ridge Ranch and began the multi-year process of creating our off-the-grid water, solar power, phone systems, and building a 3-story ‘barn’ with our residence on the top floor. We planted 500 chestnut trees over the first 6 years, of which about 320 have survived. In 1996, we harvested our first chestnuts—just a few pounds. Every year since then, our crop has increased. This year we just completed our harvest of about 1,800 pounds, which makes us a small-scale commercial producer.
Chestnut trees at maturity are one of the most beautiful trees in the world. In the fall (and as I write this), they turn radiant shades of yellow and gold. They do not like wet feet, therefore prefer to grow on slopes in well-drained soil, and they love our nearly year-round sunshine at the open top parts of our ridge. The nuts mature in early fall in our climate, falling from the trees in their prickly burrs when they are ripe. The nuts were ripe starting in late September this year, a bit earlier than normal.
The Colossal chestnut is a hybrid between the Japanese and European chestnuts. The mother tree is believed to be over 100 years old and is still producing chestnuts near Nevada City, CA. Colossals are larger than most chestnuts and have a pellicle, the bitter thin cover of the nutmeat, that is less convoluted and easier to remove than in most other types of chestnuts. The meat of the Colossal is very sweet. Marketing our chestnuts has been challenging but interesting. Fortunately, there is a growing interest in chestnuts in California. We have been able to sell our entire harvest every year. Harvest Market in Fort Bragg is one of our biggest customers, along with Corners of the Mouth in Mendocino; Community Market in Santa Rosa; Village Market and Piedmont Grocery in Oakland and Piedmont; and several smaller stores in the area. This year for the first time Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco is selling our chestnuts. We also sell small amounts through our website every year. (www.chestnuts-for-sale.com)
We have also created added value by selling roasted and peeled nuts to high-end restaurants and others. Since chestnuts take a lot of work to get out of their shells and pellicles, offering them in ready-to-use form is quite appealing to busy chefs. Our market for this product is growing every year as Tom contacts more and more potential buyers.
Part of our yearning to live in the country was also to be able to grow our own wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Early on, we planted at least two of every kind of fruit and nut tree that would grow here. We even planted a number of trees of varieties we took a chance on, ones that we weren’t sure would grow in our area. Some have survived but not thrived, others did not make it, and many have been successful. Tom is the veggie gardener, planting multiple varieties of squash, kale, tomatoes, etc., etc. every year. We also grow raspberries, hybrid blackberries and grapes. In short, we grow just about anything that is edible that will grow here, and we are always looking for new things to try.
My granddaughters and I have recently started a baking business called Grammy And Girls (www.GrammyAndGirls.com) in which we use our own homegrown sustainably produced fruits and vegetables for a number of our products, including Chocolate Zucchini Cake and Pear Bread. We’ve expanded our list of products to include many old and new favorites that do not incorporate our fruits, and we are concentrating on expanding our already extensive gluten free offerings, but we still are committed to using our homegrown produce as much as possible.
I have been a passionate ornamental gardener for most of my life, so I must admit that one of the biggest appeals of having lots of room to grow was to have space to landscape on a large scale. Ornamental native plants as well as old fashioned and other types of landscape roses are some of my passions. Tom has helped ‘sculpt’ several areas to plant our 150+ roses of many varieties, which have mostly turned out to be quite tough and drought resistant.
Tom and I make a good gardening and landscaping team. He’s the land-sculpting genius. I’m the layout and plant planner. We enjoy always having a new gardening area to create and also working on maintaining already developed areas. We think of our place as our big ‘sandbox’, and we constantly have fun playing in it. We are a bit off the beaten path so it takes determination to get to us, but we’re always happy to share our views and gardens with anyone interested in seeing them.
In two weeks in the Connecting With Local Food series, the AV Foodshed Group will bring you an interview with the Gowan family by Alice Bonner.