Here’s something fun: a few months ago, my friend Karen Eng asked me if I’d like to contribute an article to TUNZA, the United Nations Environment Programme youth magazine, where she is an editor. She sent me some thoughtful interview questions, and of course I ended up writing far more than a one-page article! Karen did a lovely job with the gargantuan task of paring things down to the 500-word length for the magazine, but the full interview was such fun that I thought I’d share it here. (Or click here for the online version of the magazine article.) Thanks, Karen, for a great interview, and for sharing our farm’s story — literally — with the world!
Young farmer Julia Boorinakis-Harper has dedicated her life to making her great-grandfather’s farm a productive, organic family enterprise – and to inspiring others to live off the land.
How did the Ranch come to be? How did your (great-great?) grandfather get to Auburn and decide to set up there? Was he from Greece?
Our family has had the ranch since 1918, when my great-grandfather bought the property, originally an old homestead. He emigrated to the US from the Greek region of Smyrna, Asia Minor (which is now in Turkey), moved to San Francisco, and ran a Greek restaurant there until he had saved up enough to bring over his wife-to-be. But he felt that San Francisco was “no place for a woman” or to raise a family — so he found the ranch property in Auburn, and they settled there. We’ve been here ever since; my grandfather, my mother and uncle, and my cousins and I all grew up on the farm.
What sorts of things do you grow/produce at the farm, and is everything produced for commercial sale?
We mainly grow pears, apples, and plums for sale, most of which come from the original trees that my grandfather planted. We also keep bees for honey and to pollinate the orchard, and we have some chickens for eggs. We’re pretty small-scale, relatively speaking; the orchard itself is about five acres, and we — my family and I — do just about everything ourselves, which is often the case with small family farms in our area. We sell to a few local grocery and natural-foods stores, but we take most of our fruit to the local farmer’s markets. That’s really the most gratifying part of what we do: bringing our produce directly to our customers, talking with them about our farming practices, answering questions, sharing stories and recipes… people are deeply appreciative of fresh, local, real food, and of that direct connection with the people who grow it. Farming is hard work, but the personal connections and gratitude from our community make it so worthwhile.
It appears that this was not originally an organic farm, but that you’ve made the conversion. When did this happen, and what prompted the switch to organic? Was it for environmental reasons, ethical reasons, or to compete in a specialist market? What are some of the challenges and benefits of going organic?
We decided to become an organic farm about five years ago. When my grandfather was farming here, the notion of “organic” didn’t exist yet! But as we had never used a lot of sprays or fertilizers or chemicals to begin with, it seemed like a logical next step — to try switching over to more natural pest control methods that would be friendlier to our environment, and to us, too. We live here on the farm, we work here, the chickens free-range in the orchard, we keep honeybees — all those things were incentives to make the move to organic production.
A farm is really a little ecosystem; there are beneficial insects and pests, “good” weeds and “bad” weeds, and if you manage everything well, you can keep that ecosystem fairly well-balanced in your favour. Our ranch has been Registered Organic for two years now — at first people told us that it was impossible to grow pears and apples organically, and it is difficult, but we’ve been quite successful. It really comes down to being observant, knowing your pests and your orchard, and doing your research — and a lot of experimenting until you get it right. Continue reading