A Visit to Frog Hollow Farm

Posted on May 12, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Last semester I took a class on Sustainable Agriculture. It’s no state secret that I didn’t really want to take the class. I’m interested in what happens to food after it’s been grown and harvested; what is available at the market, why people make the choices they make, how to get people to be less timid in the kitchen. So I wasn’t totally thrilled about driving 45 minutes to a 9AM agriculture class. What do I care about weeds that don’t, at least according to the great state of California, help my migraines? But a funny thing happened sometime during Pittsburgh’s bleak winter. I stated to care. For real. The more I learned about the complexities of growing food in a sustainable food system, about the hard work farmers have to put in to do so, the more I began to think how much these farmers needed to be appreciated. I’m never going to be a farmer, but I want to know them.

Last week I was invited to visit Frog Hollow Farm. They’re a sustainable fruit orchard located in Northern California. I wrote about the farm in my final Ag class paper, and since I was going to be home in Danville, I figured I’d ask them if I could visit. They were happy to have me. (Try asking a corporate megafarm if you could visit them. See what happens…) I met with co-owner and head farmer Al Courchesne on a sunny Thursday morning, and he took me on a tour of the farm.

A little background: Courchesne and Sarah Coddington founded Frog Hollow Farm in 1976 on a thirteen-acre lot purchased from Coddinton’s great-uncle in Brentwood, California. Thirty-five years later, Frog Hollow farm is now over 130 acres. The farm, which began as a corn, mixed vegetable, and fruit tree operation, now grows nearly 100 varieties of stone and tree fruits as well as olives and table grapes. Courchesne as also recently introduced an experimental heirloom tomato plot, something he’s quite excited about. Although they began as a conventional farm, Frog Hollow has been certified as organic by Certified California Organic Farmers (CCOF) since 1989. All the farmland is connected, they grew the farm a few acres at a time. Doing this allowed Courchesne to slowly develop the land, experimenting with sustainable agricultural methods as he did.

Frog Hollow Farm’s sustainable growing incorporates the practice of agroecology. You might be thinking, “what the heck is that strange word, Hal B? It doesn’t spell check at all.” It’s true. Most people don’t know what it means. I didn’t either. Lucky for me, one of the books I read last semester was titled Agroecology, so I was able to get a pretty good idea of what it means. In short, agroecology is a systemic approach to growing; it’s not just about the output of what’s being grown, it’s about the overall health of the land and the community that surrounds it. If you visited a conventional orchard, you’d see neat rows of trees with pristinely manicured undergrowth. It’s different at Frog Hollow.

Frog Hollow’s land is wild. Grasses and weeds grow beneath the trees, and masses of native wild flowers populate the space in between the rows. At first glance, you’d almost think it’s neglected. You’d be so wrong. Trees have deep roots, so the weeds don’t compete with them. In fact, at Frog Hollow they help the trees. Courchesne and his staff will occasionally pull the weeds. The pulled weeds are then used as mulch, helping to reduce the water needs of the trees. In an area with hot, dry summers, this is a clever way to reduce environmental impact of fruit growing. Eventually the weeds decay back into the soil, feeding the trees. Smart, right? The wild flowers? They’re not just pretty, they’re part of a native bee experiment the farm is running with U.C. Davis. See…whole system approach.

Just how integrated is the farm with the land? Well, in the middle of my tour, I saw what I thought was a small deer flying through the plants. It was actually a giant jackrabbit. Huge ears, leaping through the wild. Amazing.

(Also…terribly sorry for the lack of pictures. I was so caught up in the tour I didn’t take any…oops.)

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