Whirlwind Weekend Farm Tour
I am California born and raised, traveling the I-5 and Highway 99 more times than I can count. During the long drives I remember gazing at the quiet, calm farms and orchards we passed, never imagining how much was happening beyond my view.
My perspectives expanded when, as a food blogger, I began attending farm tours throughout the state with the California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC), a non-profit, educational organization that provides fact-based information on farm water issues to the public. (The “Food Grows Where Water Flows” banners seen along Highway 99 are posted by CFWC.) In August, I joined them for a packed weekend in the Modesto-Turlock area.
The Coalition takes food bloggers to see member farms and meet the farmers; afterward, we share our experiences on our blogs. Seeing firsthand how our farmers work tirelessly to produce the best foods as efficiently and effectively as they can, with the utmost care and attention to the smallest details, brings an increased appreciation for our food. Every tour is different; all are extraordinary.
We began in Modesto on a Friday afternoon at the Almond Board of California, which represents 6,800 almond growers (of whom 90 percent are multi-generational family farms), and 105 almond processors in the state. Their research involves production, environment, nutrition, almond quality, food safety, and Honey Bee health. Findings help to update and create best practices. We learned almond trees use about the same amount of water as many other California fruit and nut trees, while yielding not one but four products: the kernels we eat, hulls used for livestock feed, shells used for livestock bedding, and the tree itself, ultimately recycled to create alternative energy and improve soil quality.
Saturday morning brought us to Fiscalini Cheese Company, a dairy and small batch cheese producer since 1914. Laura Genasci and her brother Brian Fiscalini are the fourth generation working the farm with their father, John. The dairy operates “24-7-365”, with 1,500 cows milked three times each day. Care of their animals is top priority; a veterinarian, nutritionist and breeder are onsite to ensure their health and contentment.
Using their resources, rotating feed crops are grown on their 540 acres, with manure from the cows as fertilizer. Methane digesters convert manure into gas, creating energy to power the dairy and cheese facility; some of the energy is sold back to the power provider.
Artisan cheeses are made by hand and designated “Farmstead” (meaning they use milk from only their own cows to produce cheeses onsite). With Laura and cheese-maker, Mario, as our guides, we said hello to the cows, and saw where the cheeses are made, aged and packaged. In one room, 36,000 pounds of award-winning, bandage-wrapped cheddar wheels are turned by hand daily as they age. Satiated with samples of signature and specialty cheeses, we were on our way.
Our next stop found us in Wood Colony Nut Company’s shady walnut orchard with Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. The Wenger family has farmed their land since 1910, starting with dairy cows before switching to walnuts.
During the walnut harvest, mechanical shakers release the nuts from the trees, and windrows are created. A machine sweeps up the nuts, twigs and leaves, depositing the debris back on the ground, where it is rototilled back into the soil.
Just outside the orchard is the largest walnut tree in California. The first walnut tree planted in Stanislaus County in 1904, it measures 36 feet around the trunk; so large that we were challenged to fit the whole tree into our photos!
Sitting down to lunch in Turlock with Fred Souza, former mayor of Gustine, we learned about his life in the dairy industry, working almost 46 years in agricultural lending. He reinforced our observations that farming is a very emotional endeavor for the families committed to maintaining their farms. Farmers see raising animals and growing food for others to be a great privilege as well as a great responsibility and feel an obligation to do their best for their families and everyone who trusts and relies on them.
After lunch we met Herb Smart from the Turlock Irrigation District (TID) on the Roberts Ferry Bridge over the Tuolumne River. Founded in 1887, TID is one of four irrigation districts in the state providing both water and electricity to homes, farms and businesses.
Regional crops grown with water from TID include: almonds, walnuts, corn, peaches, sweet potatoes, and alfalfa and oats for dairy feed. One large project in process is the restoration of salmon spawning grounds and habitat along the river that will help native fish to recover their populations. The recovery and stabilized water supply will be a win for farmers, too.
Roberts Ferry Nut Co. was a perfect snack stop. Famous for their “awesome products from a real place you’ve never heard of”, almond butter milkshakes and handmade caramel corn top the list. The shop opened in 1983, an offshoot of a sixth-generation family farm up the road. Current owner, Stacy Humble, began her working career labeling bags of popcorn at the shop.
Sunday morning was all about sweet potatoes at Alvernaz Farms in Livingston. There we met fourth-generation farmer, Jim Alvernaz, whose family started farming with horses before electricity existed. He values the benefits today’s technology brings, but still uses his two-row John Deere planter to harvest almost 100 acres of potatoes annually.
Back to livestock at Chuck Ahlem Ranch in Hilmar, we toured the large-scale dairy producer for cheese making. Chuck is former California Undersecretary of Food and Agriculture, and manages the ranch with his family; his son, Mark, operates seven dairies from the ranch.
Here, too, animal welfare and efficient use of resources are priorities. Employees trained in all aspects of the ranch are certified in animal safety and handling, and supervised by experienced employees. A megawatt onsite solar field produces 80 percent of the ranch’s power. Byproducts from other industries that would otherwise be waste are used to make feeds mixed for cows’ specific nutritional needs. Manure water fertilizes their crops. Water from an onsite lagoon is continuously recycled, with solids filtered out for compost and filtered water returned back to it.
Our final stop brought us to Hilmar Cheese Company, one of the largest single-site cheese and whey processing facilities in the world. Twelve farming families (including the Ahlems) founded the company; 11 are active now (in their third and fourth generations). Education/Public Relations Director Denise Skidmore explained milk-delivery and processing, and showed us cheese curds being pressed into large boxes that yield blocks of cheese weighing 640 pounds (the only place in the world where you can see this!). Resource optimization includes water reclamation and methane digester (supplying water and energy to the plant and the community) and recycling (the plastic liners used in making the large blocks are remade into products like railroad ties).
Lunch at Hilmar Cheese Company’s restaurant was a delicious way to close our tour weekend. We headed to our respective homes tired but energized, with new knowledge and reinforced respect for the enthusiasm and innovation of the farming families we met. Their dedication to their craft and the community is unsurpassed. If you get an opportunity to tour a farm, my advice is to seize it! Hillmar is open to the public for tours, hosting 15,000 students and 300 tour buses throughout the year.