My fondest memories of growing up in Saratoga, surrounded by a remnant French Prune orchard, have to do with experiencing the seasonal rhythm of the fruit trees. I vividly remember the excitement of early spring blossoms arriving with their sweet fragrance and pristine beauty. I was drawn to them like the bees.
While the orchard was muddy and heavy work to walk through, tall mustard beckoned us to play and the fruit began to form on the trees. I was always a little sad when the tractor came through the neighborhood to disc the orchards and the bright yellow mustard flowers were turned under the clay soils. But then Spring turned to summer, the fruit grew and deepened in color, and it was time to pick. I can still hear the loud hum of insects and remember the hot air out in our orchard that made you feel dreamy while we picked the warm, sweet fruit.
We were gentleman farmers at best but even so there was an abundant yield from these ancient trees. With the fruit, we made jams and pies and occasionally set up a table on Highway 9, a short walk from home, where we sold prunes by the pound and persimmons for 25 cents each, as much for fun as something for us kids to do.
Fall brought colors to the orchard leaves, smoky evenings when piles of pruning’s were allowed to burn, and then by November, the rain, wind and chill brought an end to the orchard year.
What I didn’t know back then, was that our two-acre property was part of the Glen Una Ranch, which was the world’s largest prune orchard at the turn of the twentieth century.
In fact, Saratoga’s first Blossom Festival was held at the Glen Una Ranch in 1900, and this year, 116 years later, I’ll participate in my first Blossom Festival, sharing some Apricot treats and information about this blog and the Apricot Cookbook-to-be.
Arriving in the Santa Clara Valley in the 1960’s from Washington State, our family was part of the post-war growth that led to orchards being bulldozed for suburban tract housing. By the time the pattern had become endemic, the environmental movement was born and there was a collective sense that something profound was being lost. I felt this loss deeply as year by year, the fruitful landscape of Saratoga was plowed under for housing. So much so, that I was drawn to study and develop a career in environmental planning.
I earned a degree in Land Resources Planning at Stanford which led to my first job after college with a small non-profit organization called “People for Open Space”, an environmental group dedicated to establishing a regional greenbelt around the Bay Area to preserve close-in farmlands, watersheds and recreation areas. The organization has made significant progress over the past decades, educating a generation of environmental activists and civic leaders, and today is known as the Greenbelt Alliance.
So much of the rich topsoil (as deep as 60 feet) of the Valley of Heart’s Delight has been paved with urban development. Today, there are only a few remaining family farms dotted around Santa Clara County. In Saratoga, the Novakovich Orchards has been located on Fruitvale Avenue since the 1920’s. In Morgan Hill, Andy’s Orchard expanded from the family’s earlier holdings in San Jose and specializes in heirloom and newly propagated varieties of fruits.
Over the years as orchard lands disappeared, many cities, including Saratoga, Sunnyvale, San Jose and Los Altos have established “Heritage Orchards” that help us remember and continue to enjoy the orchard traditions of our area. But even these publicly-owned orchards are vulnerable to growth pressures and private family-owned farmlands are especially at risk. In recent weeks, we have read about Morgan Hill’s plans to annex and develop farmlands and orchards. Los Altos had given thought to tearing out part of their Heritage Orchard to make room for a school – fortunately this was voted down by the City Council after consideration of concerns raised by a coordinated group of local citizens.
And even when these pressures can be held at bay, I find myself wondering where will the next generation of orchard farmers come from? Will the current farm families be able to entrust their acreage to the next generation? The farmers I have gotten to know while developing For the Love of Apricots are nearing retirement and as Andy Mariani, who has devoted his life to cultivating apricots and many other fruits and orchard products in Morgan Hill, has said, “I don’t have a 401K”. Santa Clara County has grappled with this question in recent hearings but there are no easy answers.
In addition to my love of cooking and baking with apricots, this struggle of my generation to preserve agricultural lands in the Silicon Valley and around the Bay Area, is one of the strong motivations behind creating an Apricot Cookbook – to appreciate and remember our agricultural heritage, the extraordinary variety and quality of fruit that is still grown close by, and support the remaining orchards and farmers that, hopefully, will find a way to continue for another generation.