This is the thirteenth in our series “Connecting With Local Food”.
Gowan’s Oak Tree and Orchards
By Alice Bonner
Grace Espinoza was one of the first people I met in Anderson Valley. We sang together in the community chorus, but I didn’t have a chance to talk with her until we sat next to one another at my first Grange Holiday Dinner in 2010.
“How long have you lived here, Grace?”
In her quiet, unassuming way she answered, “Oh, about all my life.”
Not too many Valley residents can say they are a fifth generation local farmer. Grace manages Gowan’s Oak Tree, a popular stop for visitors and residents alike. Open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, the welcoming stand offers produce from the family’s 250 acres of orchards and 25 acres of vegetables. I recently sat down with Grace and her mother, Josephine ‘Jo’ Gowan, to learn more about their farm and its history.
In 1876 Daniel Studebaker purchased property from the Nunn family. Daniel’s son, George, began peddling fruits and vegetables in 1880 from Philo to the Mendocino coast. In 1902, George Gowan moved his family from Shelter Cove and settled on land that had been used for cattle grazing and hops. It was right next door to the Studebakers. Marriage brought the two families together. George Studebaker’s daughter, Alice, married George Gowan’s son, M. Cecil. In 1922 M. Cecil took over both properties. He planted more fruits and vegetables, and he expanded the peddling route as far as Ft. Bragg and Gualala.
In the 1930’s Alice began selling fruits and vegetables next to an eight foot oak tree north of Philo alongside what is now Highway 128. She left a coffee tin for people to pay for what they took. Jo explained that, ‘’Lots of people used to do that then, but for some reason ours stuck.” The branches of the same oak tree now tower over a fruit stand that has been expanded over the years. After over 75 years of continuous operation, Gowan’s Oak Tree provides a huge amount of homegrown produce: some 60 varieties of apples, 38 kinds of peaches, and a selection of peas, squash, corn, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, potatoes, walnuts and more. Sierra Beauty, Golden Delicious, and Gravenstein are the most popular apples. They also grow several antique apples including Arkansas Black, Winesap, and Jonathan. Pumpkins are a particular treat for local school kids who take hay rides through the orchards and pick out their own jack-o-lanterns, all courtesy of the Gowans.
In addition to fresh produce, Grace and her crew use the commercial kitchen at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in downtown Boonville to prepare tasty food. There they make apple pies (sold frozen), applesauce, jams, and apple butter. The Oak Tree is particularly well known for its fresh and frozen apple juice. Customers often tell Grace they fondly remember coming to the place with their parents when they were young. They’re very happy the fruit stand hasn’t changed much.
I asked Jo how she came to be part of the family. ‘’I was going to nursing school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On April 15, 1945 I went on a blind date with some of my friends and men from Kirtland Army Air Force Base. Twelve of us piled into a taxi cab to go see a movie. When we came out of the movie house we were surprised to see it had snowed. Some of us decided to walk back, throwing snow balls (mostly mud) at each other the whole way. That’s how I met Jim Gowan. We kept in touch until he was released from the Army in 1946. He came back to Albuquerque, asked me if I wanted to live there or in California, and we decided to head west. We got married in Las Vegas on May 23rd, drove straight through to Philo, and had about $25 in our pockets when we arrived. We started working right away. I grew up farming near Tucumcari and I fit right in.”
James ‘Jim’ Gowan was the youngest of Cecil and Alice’s five children. Jo and Jim lived with his parents for two years. They then moved to the original Studebaker home and began to build their own house which was finished in 1963 after their seventh, and last, child was born. All the kids worked alongside their parents as soon as they were old enough.
Early on, most apples produced were used for dried apples. In the 1940s the Gowans expanded the sale of fresh fruit. Jim went into partnership with his parents and began to ship fresh apples to San Francisco as the dry apple market declined. Jim and Jo were running the operation when they formed a family corporation in 1982, the year they mechanized the sorting and packing operations. By the 1990s it was becoming more difficult make a profit. Two of the children had already chosen other careers; three more followed. Grace and her brother, Donald, and their families stayed on to work with Jim and Jo.
After 64 years of marriage Jim passed away in 2011. At this time Jo is President of the corporation, Grace is Vice President of Retail Sales, and Donald is Operations Manager and Vice President of Wholesale Apples. Grace’s husband, Otilio Espinoza, works with Donald in the orchards. Shauna, the wife of Grace and Otilio’s son Luis, often works in the fruit stand. Luis and Shauna’s four children have begun to help out as they get old enough, just like their Grandma Grace did. Jo’s grandson, Joe, works on the farm, as does his sister Terry’s husband. Housing is provided for them and 3 other families (not Gowans). They work as needed all year long. In the busy summer season Grace hires local teenagers to work at the fruit stand.
Even though Jo is the family elder she is hardly idle. Most of the year she sells Gowan produce three days a week at farmers’ markets in Ukiah, Willits, and Ft. Bragg. During winter months she limits her sales to the weekly market in Ukiah.
Gowan apples are sold throughout Northern California and are shipped as far as Los Angeles. Many of the Gowan apples go into Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider. As I sat at Grace’s kitchen table, pondering the complexity of the Gowan family business, I asked how they are able to coordinate everything.
Jo said, “We should have meetings, but we don’t. Every time we plan to get together something comes up and off we go.”
“I don’t know”, said Grace. ‘’We just know what to do and make decisions as we need to. It just all works out.’’
They both said that new government regulations and laws make it much more difficult to run the business. ‘’Our next challenge is to figure out a way to grow the trees so that we can pick apples without the use of ladders”, Jo said, ‘’because insurance companies don’t want to take on the liability.’’
Even as it gets more difficult and complicated, neither would change their chosen profession. ‘’I just love to watch the whole process’’, said Grace. “Leaves are turning color and falling now. After winter it all begins again with beautiful blossoms and fruit.” Jo’s favorite part of her work is talking with people at the farmers’ markets. Both were quick to divulge their favorite recipes: Sierra Beauty apple pie for Grace and apple brownies for Jo.
They hope their family farm will provide delicious produce for generations to come. When I asked them what advice they might give a young person wanting to start farming, they were unified, “Be prepared to work a lot and stay small. Try not to hire outside employees. You’re not in this for the money but for the love of the work and the land.”