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.
Can you tell us a bit about some of the methods you use — crop rotation, mixed farming with animals for rotational purposes, integrated pest control, soil care?
We use integrated pest management (IPM), which involves monitoring for pests and beneficial insects, encouraging beneficials with hedgerows and cover crops, providing habitat for natural predators like bluebirds, bats, and owls, and using carefully-timed organic treatments only when necessary. It does take time and effort, far more so than conventional methods, but we’ve found IPM to be very effective. And my appreciation for the complexity of our little farm — and for the knowledge and patience of organic farmers everywhere — has increased a hundredfold!
Are the bees required for pollinating the pears?
Bees aren’t required for pollinating pears — pears aren’t one of their favourite food sources, actually — but they are helpful, especially for pollinating the apple and pomegranate trees and our vegetable garden.
What do you plant under the trees in the orchards? Is that part of the pest-control system?
Most commercial conventional (non-organic) orchards will spray the orchard floor regularly with herbicides to keep it completely bare and weed-free. We take the opposite approach, keeping our orchard floor “green” year-round. It’s a blend of cover crops, like clover and mustard, and weeds and grasses that grow naturally in the area. This provides forage for the bees and habitat for other beneficials, and it also reduces runoff from irrigation and rain.
Is five acres the extent of the farm? Or do you also grow other produce crops? What about the terminology of farm versus ranch?
“Farm” and “ranch” are interchangeable — “ranch” is more of a California thing, I think — most of the properties around here were known as ranches, whether they raised fruit or animals. Our family’s property is about 15 acres, but we only farm 5 or so acres intensively. In addition to the orchard, we have vineyards for wine grapes and a large vegetable garden where we grow a lot of our own food. The fruit and honey are our main market crops, though. It is a small farm, as farms go, but we’re literally in town, surrounded by neighbourhoods and (more recently) subdivisions on all sides — so we’re lucky to have as much space as we do!
Do you use machines at all, or is everything done by hand?
We have a tractor that we use occasionally for mowing and spraying the orchard (with organic sprays only; the word “spray” sometimes scares people!), but most everything — picking, sorting, and packing fruit, pruning trees, tending the bees — is done by hand.
Finally, tell us a bit about being a young person doing farming. It seems you were born into this. Was it expected of you to work on the farm as a child? What has motivated you to stay and learn agriculture, rather than, say, to run away to San Francisco to become a designer? What do you envision for the future of the farm and your own involvement in it?
The farm was actually in a semi-dormant phase, commercially speaking, when I was growing up. The pear industry in California took a major hit in the 1960s when a virus killed or stunted most orchards, and most farmers, my grandfather included, could no longer make a living on fruit-growing alone. He kept and took care of the surviving trees, though; most of our trees today are survivors of the “Decline.” When I was little, we would sell fruit from the ranch, but it was more of a hobby and a labour of love than a business.
But I grew up learning to prune trees and plant things, and as subdivisions crept in around us, it became more and more important to me, and to all of us, to keep our farm as a farm — to honour and preserve this really remarkable thing, a historic fruit ranch in the middle of what is now a small city. It was only 8 or 10 years ago that we decided to get serious about farming again — the timing was right, the interest from the public was there, and the orchard was just waiting for us to get to work!
Our local community has been so supportive and enthusiastic, and I think we have such a unique opportunity — as a semi-urban farm — to not only provide wholesome and local produce, but to educate people about food and farming. My goal is to keep our ranch as a successful and self-sustaining small family business, but also to help other people to become more self sufficient, closer to their food, to dust off old ways and re-learn to do things themselves. My mom and I co-host a radio show, the Homestead Radio Hour, focusing on backyard farming, urban gardening, and “do-it-yourself-ing” — ways you can build a more sustainable and satisfying lifestyle, one step at a time. We encourage people to start with little things: plant a garden, then maybe get a few chickens, a beehive….. it’s amazing how much you can produce for yourself, even in an urban setting.
I learned so much from my grandparents — I grew up next door to them – but not everyone has that situation now. Families are more dispersed, people are busier, and things inevitably get lost or forgotten. I think we’re seeing an incredible revival right now, though, in traditional methods and skills — people are hungry to learn to cook, to garden, to preserve foods, even to raise animals. It’s an exciting time to be involved with food and farming, and I’m grateful that we can do all this with such a supportive an appreciative community.