I caught up with Farmer Al Courchesne, founder and CEO of Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood. Farmer Al grows pears, a variety of stone fruits, quince, apples, Meyer lemons, kumquats, persimmons, and my favorite – pomegranates. Frog Hollow Farms also runs a café in the San Francisco Ferry Building where you can get coffee, homemade pastries and other goodies.
Here’s what I learned:
Q: I put up about 40 jars of apricot jam last year and I am just starting to run low. I have hesitated to be too liberal with my jams because of all the buzz around the drought – some people have speculated that fruit yields will be lower. What do you say? Will I have fruit to can this summer?
A: We’re seeing normal crops this year. Here in East Contra Costa County, we’re in an old irrigation district – we have legal rights to the water that’s adjacent to our district. Water rights are called “riparian” rights; ours dates back to pre-1914, making our irrigation district, the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, one of the oldest in the state. We will probably have all the water we need this year – we are good to go and will have a normal crop and plenty of fruit. We were lucky to get about 2 to 3 inches of rain in late February and March – that helped.
The challenge is going to come later in the summer when demand for water goes up and more demands are being made on the limited water supply by farms and industry. That’s when rationing will kick in – some farms further south in the southern San Joaquin Valley are already rationing. Those farmers probably decided early not to plant certain crops. But as far as fruit trees are concerned, you have no choice: the trees are already in the ground so you have to water them.
Q: What is Frog Hollow Farms doing to conserve water?
A: We’re changing our soil structure with compost so we have better water-holding capacity. We’re mostly composting residues from our farming and fruit operations.
Q: What’s taking the biggest hit from the drought?
A: Cattle grazing in the mountains relies on grass that grows from rainfall. That sector is going to be hit hard this year. My guess is that crops like cotton and alfalfa will also be impacted. Those crops will be cut back before tree crops are.
Q: I read on your website that you got your start in farming while living in Hawaii. What did you farm there? What lessons did you bring back to the mainland?
A: In Hawaii, I farmed vegetables on two acres of rented land. You can’t plant trees on rented land, so I planted tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces, corn…
The main lesson I learned was about marketing. Back then I was just a tiny grower and I learned the only way to survive was to sell direct to consumers at farmer’s markets, or to work directly with restaurants. Most farmers sell their crops to middlemen at a small fraction of what the consumer value is.
When I started farming on 13 acres in Brentwood in 1976 it was a whole new ball game – I planted trees, not vegetables, so it was a whole different learning curve. Brentwood had a very different climate and soil than Hawaii. I learned that every agricultural project has different requirements for success. Two fundamental aspects of farming are soil and climate. My focus has been growing what responds well to the climate and soil here, and enhancing those crops with sustainable practices like making compost.