Category Archives: history

What a year! (plus video!)

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Well, here we are, in the sunny dark of winter… that little snowstorm looks to be all the proper weather we’re getting this season. It’s shaping up to be a record drought year, unless the rain comes soon — time to wash the car, hang some laundry, and break out whatever other rain-charms you know, please!

It was a busy year at the B H Ranch — just the way we like it! We grafted new trees, planted our first hedgerows, and brought more varieties of heirloom pears and apples to market than ever before (and converted more than a few people from “pearophobes” to pear-lovers in the process!) Also in the “neat stuff” department: Phyllis and I received a grant to produce a radio series from our monthly program, The Homestead Radio Hour, which means we certainly have our work cut out for us for the winter months… one of the highlights of the year for all of us was going to the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, where we had the chance to sit down with some of the speakers and farmers we met at the Expo and talk about the future of food and farming, the heirloom movement, and urban gardening and homesteading. (You can hear the interviews on our new web site, homesteadradiohour.com!)

I also spent some time this year working at the University of California Cooperative Extension, with our local Foothill Farming program. The Extension is an incredible resource for local farmers, and one that we have turned to again and again for advice and information, so it was a great experience to see it from the inside — and an office that regularly hosts mozzarella-making demos, visiting livestock dogs, baby chicks, and recipe-testing is my kind of place!

One of my projects at the Extension was to produce the first in a series of short films about local farmers and their work; we wanted to find a way to share with consumers the story of our food, the work and care that goes into producing it, the history of farming in our region, and the power of that direct connection between farmer and consumer. My assignment was to start with the farm I know best — the B H Ranch! Here’s the final product — enjoy this glimpse into What We Do… and keep an eye out for future “Farmer Stories” episodes this year!

And, last but not least, we’d like to send out a giant Thank You! to all the stores, markets, and restaurants that featured our fruit this year. From high school cafeteria to CSA to ice cream parlour, our pears get around!

Auburn Thai Garden, Auburn (fig curry!)
Carpe Vino, Auburn
Flour Garden Bakery, Grass Valley/Auburn
Gaia’s Basket, Auburn
Natural Selection, Grass Valley
Natural Trading Company (CSA), Newcastle
Newcastle Produce, Newcastle
Placer High School, Auburn
SPD Market, Nevada City (our longest-running customer — almost 20 years!)
Sunrise Natural Foods, Auburn
Treats Ice Cream, Nevada City (Pear-Ginger Sorbet!)

Thank you all for a spectacular and delicious 2013! Happy New Year!

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Filed under around the farm, history, Homestead Radio Hour, in the news, Winter

In The News: B-H Ranch in TUNZA, the United Nations Environment Programme Youth Magazine

tunzaphoto: Karen Eng

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!

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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

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Victory Gardens: Everything old is new again…

Have you noticed lately how many “new” gardening trends lately are really reflecting ideas that have been around for generations? Local food, home gardening, keeping chickens, foraging — our ancestors found these things to be second nature, but so many of these age-old skills were laid aside somewhere along the way in the steady march toward Progress and Modernization. If dinner can arrive neatly packaged in a box and be ready in minutes, who needs to cook? When the grocery store shelves are stocked with anything and everything we could possibly want to eat, why go to all the time and bother of growing our food from a handful of seeds?

I’ve been seeing more and more wonderful vintage posters and ephemera resurfacing from the heyday of “Victory Gardens” — the home plots that cropped up across Europe and America during the two World Wars to sustain families as food and resources were diverted toward the war efforts. Both supplies and the land to produce them were limited and precious, and so — in a remarkable effort toward encouraging what we would now call “sustainability” — governments began encouraging people to grow their own, and educating them in how to do it.

But it’s not just backyard plots that are an old idea turned new. Chicken-keeping, school gardens, canning — all these became patriotic pursuits in wartime. And now, once again, we’re rediscovering the value of producing and preserving our own food. The reasons may have changed, but the satisfaction and joy of harvesting your bounty never go out of date. And as we see our economic and food systems become increasingly unstable, it starts looking live a very good, and necessary, idea indeed.

Some of the posters issued to encourage home production are extraordinarily lovely — a tremendous variety of artists, from Harper’s Magazine illustrator Edward Penfield to French schoolchildren, contributed designs to the cause. I think they are just as inspiring today as ever — perhaps even more so because of the history and heritage they represent. Here is a sampling of those that I’ve collected… enjoy!

French WWI poster, 1916: “Let us look after the farmyard: I am a honest hen of war. I eat little and produce much.”

USDA ad, circa 1917: “Don’t sell the laying hen — all spring she will be turning insects, weeds, garbage, and waste into eggs for the Nation… it’s both patriotic and profitable”! Thankfully backyard birds across the country aren’t producing eggs to “win the war” today, but it may be just as important now to learn to produce our own food and be a little more self-sufficient. And as “urban farmers” discover the delights of fresh eggs and free fertilizer, the humble chicken reinstates herself as a part of the homestead, one backyard at a time!

A WWI-era poster by Edward Penfield for the United States School Garden Army. Its motto — “A garden for every child, every child in a garden” — sounds just as relevant today, as school and community gardens pop up across the nation. When the First Lady enlists a troupe of elementary school students to install a kitchen garden — the first since Eleanore Roosevelt’s Victory Garden — in the White House lawn, you know we’re headed in the right direction!

From this page about the United States School Garden Army: “At the advent of World War I, the Bureau of Education within the Department of the Interior, with funding from the War Department, created the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) to boost the concept as well as morale. This was the one of the first attempts by the BOE to establish a curriculum nationally.  It was also an attempt to help in the war effort by having the schools help grow food. To support this program a series of documents were written and distributed.  Among these were at least 15 USSGA Manuals and Guides, and 17 School Home-Garden Circulars. The target audience was urban and suburban boys and girls, ages 9 through 15, and their teachers. The subjects covered growing vegetables from seed, growing flowers, building hotbeds and coldframes, organic matter and soil health, regional guides and others.”

“ALONG THE EAST RIVER FRONT: Supervised by competent instructors the school children of New York City produced some excellent results in the gardens which they planted in various sections of the city. The very orderly one here shown, with a large number of children industriously engaged, is in Thomas Jefferson Park, 114th Street and East River.” I can’t decide which part of this image is the most extraordinary — children planting an eye-popping school garden in 1918? On a vacant lot in New York City? On the East River??? Wow.

This photograph is from the book The War Garden Victorious: Its War Time Need and Its Economic Value In Peace, published in 1919, documenting the US food gardening program during WWI. You can read it online here — be sure to check out the School Garden Army section. A quote from Woodrow Wilson really sums up the importance given to that program: “Every boy and girl who really sees what the home garden may mean will, I am sure, enter into the purpose with high spirits…. The movement to establish gardens, therefore, and to have the children work in them is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”

And if the comparisons to ships and cannon fire weren’t enough motivation for the kids, here’s this 1943 edition of World’s Finest Comics, showing everyone’s favourite superheroes getting down to business! Though I worry that Robin is courting a nasty sunburn… it does look like he’s already in the early phases of heatstroke. Maybe gardening without pants wasn’t such a super idea after all?

War Gardens appeared across both Europe and America as supplies were redirected toward the war effort. The British Ministry of Agriculture issued these monthly “Allotment and Garden Guides” in 1945 to give the populace practical advice on growing their own food. (According to this one, before the Romans started meddling in things, August was known in England as “Weodmonath” — Weed Month. Sounds good to me!)

“Every month we shall try to do three things : first, we shall remind you of the things that ought to have been done, but may not have been possible because of the weather or for some other reason; secondly, we shall deal with gardening operations for the month; thirdly, we shall look ahead a month or two and remind you of what you need to do in readiness.” The guides are all available online here; click on over to enjoy their charmingly down-to-earth advice!


Canning? Yep, we’ve been doing that for a while too! I think I’ll skip the peas, myself… but those frilly rickrack-trimmed aprons? Oh, yes please.

“Let us cultivate our kitchen garden”: A French poster from 1917, by Louisette Jaeger, part of a series designed by school children in support of the war effort.

Who doesn’t love vegetables with faces? And isn’t that an enviable sun hat? Really, though — part of what makes the history of wartime gardening so fascinating to me is the massive accompanying efforts to educate the non-farming public on how to “grow their own.” From England to France to the USA, pamphlets flew forth on planting crops, raising chickens, even replacing sugar with fruit. And, once again, we are seeing people in cities and the countryside alike pick up their hoes, roll up their sleeves, and get back to the dirt! We don’t need a war to sow the “Fruits of Peace”…

WWI poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918, for the National War Garden Commission.

Let’s sow the seeds of tradition and independence in our own backyards!
Happy Fourth!

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Filed under chickens, history, in the garden, summer

Foto Friday: Comice Pears

These Comice pears looked so lovely, lined up on an upturned lug box, catching the golden afternoon light, that I had to go fetch my camera before the sun sank an inch further. (Then they went promptly into a batch of pear bread pudding!)

The nice thing about pears is that there are so many varieties — we begin the season with Bartletts, bright and juicy, then wait for heirlooms like the breathtakingly beautiful Conseiller de la Cour, and finally harvest the late-season varieties like Comice and Winter Nellis. According to my grandfather, the winter pears used to be carefully packed for storage in wooden crates, nestled in straw. I just might try that this year with a few of the “Nellies” we picked yesterday…

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Into the 21st century, bit by bit…

Ooooh, boy. Things have been crazy around here lately! Excavation, heavy machinery, trenches and huge piles of dirt everywhere…

But, after 90-plus years, we’ve finally moved into Modern Times. Well, at least in the irrigation department. Sort of.

That’s the pond, where all our irrigation water comes from. Nothing’s changed there… just the rest of it! We’ve always watered the orchard with a system of open ditches that run down the rows of trees, which is quite lovely and picturesque when it works but a major problem when it doesn’t. Rusty pipes, gopher holes, twigs and grass blocking things up — it’s an all-day project, tending the ditches, cleaning them out and making sure the water is running where it’s supposed to. And every generation of kids to grow up here at the ranch has gotten in trouble for making a barefoot muddy mess of the ditches at least once a summer!

So, this revision has been a long time coming. A couple years back we started the grant-application process with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which funds projects like ours. The new irrigation system will be much more efficient and effective than the old one, but it’s something we probably wouldn’t have taken on without funding and resources.

Not to mention the help of our friends!

Trench-meister Dan!

Mr. D, concrete whiz!

And, finally, the trenches have been filled in, the dirt raked back into place, and it’s possible to walk across the orchard at night without risking life and limb. I did enjoy getting an under-the-ground look at the different types of soil we have here, though — thick red clay in one spot, brittle yellow rock in another, rich blue-gray soil down by the creek. There’s a blog post in the making from all the many, many dirt photos I snapped!

And the ducks just love the new micro-sprinklers in the orchard; apparently that pond water is quite delicious. I will miss the old ditches, though… I’m campaigning to run them at least once a summer, for tradition’s sake. It’s nice to have things back to normal around here, and to kick back and relax (a bit) after all that work — it won’t be long ’til it’s time to harvest honey, then fruit… ah, time for a nap!

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Around the Farm: a rainy day in the barn

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain….

– T.S Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922

* * *

In like a lion, out like a lamb, right? This March has been one of the strangest and soggiest, weather-wise, of recent memory — it has been raining for weeks on end, and everyone I know is getting a bit stir-crazy! We went by the farmer’s market this morning, and a good-sized crowd of tenacious farmers and customers were braving the weather for the sake of local food. I love how the rain is no obstacle for the Auburn Farmer’s Market — it has only closed once in its several decades of operation, and that was for a rare snowstorm earlier this year!

My favourite spot for a rainy day: our barn, with its rusty corrugated-tin roof that amplifies every sound of the storm. It was built on the foundations of the old homestead barn which stood here long before my great-grandfather bought the property; the hand-stacked rock wall at the back of the barn is more than a hundred years old. One side is open to the orchard’s gentle slope, making for the perfect spot to watch a storm blow through our little valley.

We’ve been taking turns lately reading David Mas Masumoto‘s wonderful book, Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm. He writes about his journey to resurrect his family’s Sun Crest peach orchard, incorporating sustainable techniques and resisting the growing pressures to grow the “modern” peach varieties that trade flavour for shipping and storage ability. The history of family and place, the risk of investment, the devotion and work; the struggle to sell old-fashioned varieties in a marketplace that prizes uniformity and durability, the satisfaction of biting into a perfect piece of fruit that you have grown — all these things are inextricably woven together, the beautiful with the frustrating. It’s a story that resonates with all of us: my grandfather told me, “That’s an important book.”

And it reminds me how lucky I am to have a lovely old barn to sit in, a barn built by my grandfather and great-grandfather, with a view of a ninety-year-old orchard in the rain.

A patchwork of wood and metal makes up the barn roof…

And sometimes, a few odds and ends will arrange themselves into a painterly tableau.

You’ve met Brenda, our barn cat — she tiptoes over piles of rusty junk without a sound, to perch on a rickety shelf. The girl knows how to pose!

The trusty field lugs are stacked behind the barn. These boxes date from our farm’s heyday in the 1960s, and we still use them to pick fruit every year.

A break in the rain, back out into the orchard — and a tiny reminder that, weather notwithstanding, it really is Spring after all.

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Filed under around the farm, history, orchard, spring, Winter

Spring Things: Horta, or Wild Greens, Greek-Style

Coco and Dot explore the cover-crop jungle

Well, hello there! It’s been a while since we’ve had any updates here from the farm… springtime is upon us, and that means busyness galore! But no worries, we’ll be getting back into the swing of things blog-wise as the days warm and grow longer.

Which brings us to Spring Thing Number One: Horta!


What’s that, you ask? Simply put, horta is any combination of wild greens, cooked together and drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice, and a bit of salt. It’s Greek village food, a product of getting through the lean times with what you have at hand and enjoying the bounty of the countryside at its best. After all, wild plants are just that — wild — which means they don’t need weeding, watering, or even planting. And they are far more delicious and nutritious than most “city folks” realize!


In Greek, horta (χόρτα) literally means “grasses;” that is, green wild-growing things. These are typically spring foods, enjoyed before the bounty of the summer garden arrives, and can be found in most little village tavernas as well as on every kitchen table. The greens are sometimes baked into pies and pites, but they are often eaten as a meal with just a piece of bread and a handful of olives.

In the Greek countryside, you will often see men, women, and children alike picking horta on the roadsides and in olive groves, gathering the greens into plastic bags, bushel baskets, or specially-designed large-pocketed aprons. On one visit to the ancient ruined city of Aptera, in Crete, we watched the site’s elderly caretaker gathering horta among the stones and piling them into the back seat of his (very) tiny car. Later in the day, we spotted him — and his car — in front of the village kafeneio, selling his harvest to the other locals.

Popular varieties of horta in most parts of Greece include amaranth (vlita), dandelion, chicories (stamnagathi), radicchio (radikia), sow thistle (achohi) and mustards, although each region will have its favorites. Because of our Mediterranean climate, most of those will grow quite happily here as weeds, and you probably know of a vacant lot or field in your neighborhood where at least one variety of wild green is already well-established. Of course the usual cautions about picking wild foods are in order: make sure you can positively identify your quarry, make sure it isn’t sprayed or growing in contaminated soil (such as a roadside), and, if you are new to foraging, take an experienced person with you if possible! That being said, most of these plants are very easy to identify, and you probably know how to spot several already.

Clockwise from top left: mustard, more mustard, radicchio, sow thistle (achohi)

I learned to pick horta from my Papu (that’s Greek for grandfather). I’d follow him around when I was little, watching as he snipped mustard and thistle sprouts with a little knife. It always amazed me how the toughest, prickliest, bitterest greens turn tender and delicious with a bit of know-how — and that’s really what horta is all about. It became a food by necessity, in times when Greece, particularly the island of Crete, was under invasion as so often happened (Ottomans, Venetians, Romans, et cetera…) Without the luxury of a grocery store, as we are now so used to, people had to grow or find their own food. And when turbulent times made farming difficult, unreliable, or impossible, you had to turn to the countryside to feed yourself and your family. That foraging culture, and self-sufficient mentality, has never left Greece, even in modern times.

And thank goodness for that! As a matter of fact, wild greens are a huge factor in the healthiness of the Mediterranean diet: the original studies that found that way of eating so beneficial took place in the 1950s in Crete, where horta plays a large part in the local diet. Wild foods, and greens in particular, are often far more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts, and are loaded with antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals. More on the Cretan diet here!

Wild greens, with a bit of Swiss chard from the garden

To pick horta, find yourself a sharp knife or scissor and a bucket or bag (unless you have already made yourself one of those neat horta-picking aprons!) The greens shrink down considerable when cooked; I usually fill a three-gallon bucket. Look for plants that have not yet started to flower, as those will be the most tender. Remember, the more mature the plant, the stronger the taste — if you aren’t accustomed to bitter flavors, you might want to start with the younger greens. Take leaves and young shoots, but be careful not to cut the plant back all the way to the ground or you won’t have any seeds for next year’s crop! If you cut carefully (think pruning), you should be able to get several harvests from each plant over the season.

After you have picked your horta, you’ll need to wash them. We pack them into a clean five-gallon bucket, fill the bucket with water, weight the greens with a plate, and soak them overnight to wash out all the dirt. If you prefer, you could wash them quickly as you would salad greens.

Papu cleaning the horta
The traditional way of cooking horta is to boil it in just enough water until the greens are tender, adding salt to taste before or after cooking. Serve warm or at room temperature, in bowls with plenty of the juice for dipping…


And don’t forget the olive oil, lemon, and some good crusty bread!

Kαλή όρεξη! Kalí órexi! Bon appetit!

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Filed under history, homestead how-to, recipes, spring, wild foods