One Sunday afternoon, we went to see Nadine at Birdsong Orchards, her Watsonville fruit and flower farm. Nadine greeted us with a hug and walked us all around the farm while telling her story and highlighting some of her favorite fruits. It is a rare thing she has done, and an audacious dream that is now come to fruition (literally).
She purchased the farm six years ago. One of the first things that had to be done was to dig a well. As much history as she knows about it was that it was a dairy farm in the 1960s and subsequently a horse farm. Some apricot trees that were planted near the farmhouse about fifty years ago are doing very well, so she knew it was a good environment for fruit trees. After a major cleanup effort on the property, she planted her first fruit trees around five years ago, and this year they are finally bearing fruit. In the meantime, she supplemented her income by growing and selling flowers and she still has beautiful gardens of roses, sweet peas, and other delights.
With only 8 acres of land (half of which are planted so far), she knew she couldn’t compete with the bigger farmers in production. What is special about this farm is diversity. Nadine has only one or two of most varieties of each tree, and they are all unique and special, steeped in particular histories. For example, she has eighteen varieties of plum, fifteen peaches, and twenty-three dwarf citrus. She has pomegranates -- almost unheard of in this area, which may still be too cold for them. She’ll have to see if they bear fruit. She also grows cherries, figs, walnuts, plums, and other fruits.
She grows historical varieties of apples and pears, and indeed this is what she ships out through her online store. As we ambled along the rows, she pointed out Harrow’s Delight, an old world pear with a perfect pear shape and beautiful blush. Wickson, an edible crab apple, are some of her favorites and are loved by children for their perfect hand size and sweetness.
In the row of persimmons, far beyond the two varieties usually available here, she pointed out the saijo, “the best one” in Japanese, persimmon. Indeed it does have the best flavor. Most fruits commercially available have been selected for their longevity on the shelf.
She has many varieties of European and Asian plums. She pointed out the Damson plum (mentioned in Shakespeare), the Shiro (Japanese) plum, and the Santa Rosa (which she gave us some of to take home). We learned about European plums and their “drupe” form, which have an elongated shape like a teardrop about to fall. The Elephant Heart is a big, red plum.
“Pears are for heirs” Nadine explained, because they are a long-lived tree that takes a long time to bear the best fruit.
Although she struggles against the gophers, like other farmers, she showed a strong and genuine love for the jack rabbits, lizards, snakes, and toads that live on or near her farm. She sees planting trees, which sequester carbon, as a way of trying to pay down her carbon debt “in life.” Nadine’s personal history includes growing up partially on a commercial corn farm in Indiana, and taking a class on orchard management class at UC Davis. Like many people in this area, she worked for a couple of decades in tech. She has had genetic testing and found she is ethnically Turkish, which must explain her affinity for figs. Figs come from hot climes without dramatic seasons and typically fruit year round. Here in California, they have adapted to having various seasons, but some of them do have two crops -- a summer crop and a fall crop. These figs had their first crop in July, called the breba crop, but all the figs will fruit in September through November.
One reason she chose fruit trees is that she does almost all the work herself, and, for a farm, fruit trees are relatively low maintenance. She employs only a couple of friends on a part time basis.
We learned a lot on our visit. For example that the root stock determines the height of a tree. So that with her apples, they are “semi-dwarfed” by grafting onto a root stock to make the tree 15 feet tall instead of 40. I also learned that owls eat skunks (they can’t smell), often picking off one skunk per night at the orchard. And that chickens eat fly larvae, a fact that Nadine herself didn’t know until she agreed to board some of her friends’ chickens and found that they eliminated the fly problem. It is indeed satisfying to see how all these natural processes fit together in a beautiful interdependent system.
At Birdsong, I ate the most delicious apricot of my life -- the Shaa-kar-Pareh. I barely recognized it as an apricot at all. It had the juicy fragrant sweetness I associate with California plums or pluots. Nadine explained that the prunus genus is crossed a lot. Cherries, peaches, almonds, apricots, and plums are all close cousins.
We visited the llamas. Nadine has three llamas that have accompanied her and her partner on hikes in the past At first, the llamas seemed like pets or an extra on the farm. Then I learned that their very low-nitrogen poop makes ready-to-use fertilizer for the fruit trees. They, in turn, enjoy eating all the prunings, even from the thorny rose bushes, which they negotiate with their dexterous lips and powerful three stomachs.
Birdsong ships apples, pears, and plum and peach jams. She sells flowers to local florists. Visit her website.
You can visit Birdsong Orchards for its open farmstand on Friday afternoons from 1 to 6pm. It is a unique and special place. The farmer is passionate about what she does and generous in sharing the fruits of her labor.