SAN BENITO COUNTY
A foodie frontier seeks its seat at the table
Phil Foster – Photo by Ted Holladay
BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
The sign on one of the many vacant storefronts in downtown Hollister read: “This space is not empty, it’s full of potential.” So Kathina Szeto—who had no previous retail experience—made what she calls a “giant leap of faith.” Last July, she opened a little shop named San Benito Bene, selling locally made olive oils, culinary products, crafts and cosmetics. On one of the walls, she hung a map of the county that shows where each product is from. “I wanted to be part of the solution to revitalizing downtown,” she says, “and raise awareness and pride about the amazing foods that we have here.”
After withstanding a decade of economic hardship, Szeto and a growing nucleus of other San Benito residents are rejecting the idea that progress means becoming part of the sprawling suburbs of Silicon Valley. Instead, they are embracing a new vision for the future based on local farming and ranching traditions. “Agriculture is a defining part of San Benito County. We have been growing crops for generations,” says Julie Morris, executive director of Vision of San Benito County, a community development project, and with her husband, Joe, owns Morris Grassfed Beef. “We have the largest organic lettuce producer here, world-class Blenheim apricots that don’t grow anywhere else, cattle and awardwinning wines.”
San Benito County is a land of wideopen skies, vast grazing lands that turn emerald green in the spring and miles of vegetable fields punctuated by heirloom orchards. It is home to a famous mission in San Juan Bautista, the craggy Pinnacles National Monument and a strong Western heritage in Hollister. But best of all, it enjoys a special climate that allows year-round growing and supports almost every kind of edible. About 35% of its agricultural acreage is farmed organically— compared to 30% organic in Santa Cruz County, just 6% in Monterey County and less than 1% nationwide.
Located at the southern tip of the Santa Clara Valley, residents say San Benito County reminds them of the way San Jose was back in the 1940s and ’50s. So it’s not surprising that most people expected the Bay Area to continue to grow southwards and eventually gobble up the countryside, making everyone rich in the process.
Clockwise from upper right: Beets, Grant Brians, Kathina Szeto,
Julie Morris, Jim and Mari Rossi, sign for San Benito Bene.
All photos by Ted Holladay except center left,
which is by John Lawn, and center right, which is by Deborah Luhrman.
BOOM AND BUST
A building boom started in Hollister in the 1980s and spread to rural areas, which were carved up into 5-acre parcels for development. Job growth did not keep pace, so many of the newcomers commuted to work outside the county, particularly in Silicon Valley about an hour away. New construction kept the economy humming until 2002, when the town’s sewer system reached capacity and a building moratorium torpedoed Hollister’s growth. The economy spiraled downward.
“We were in a recession before the recession happened,” says Mary Anne Hughes, executive director of the Community Food Bank of San Benito County. “Then the new sewer plant opened in 2008 and the week after the moratorium was lifted, the foreclosures started.”
Hughes, who this year will feed 10,000 to 12,000 hungry people (out of a total population of just 55,000) with Food Bank programs, knows how bad things got. “At one point San Benito County was the fourth most distressed county in the nation,” she says, citing the Associated Press Economic Stress Index that measures unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. Unemployment hit 24% at the height of the recession and is still well above the national average at 18%, according to the latest figures for March 2012. Predatory lending and foreclosures were so bad that approximately 400 homes remain uninhabited today.
About 60% of residents now commute to jobs outside of the county, leaving for work in the dark and coming home after dark. “There are so many social consequences of commuting. It’s very detrimental to the community,” says County Planning Director Gary Armstrong.
“You don’t have parents here taking care of their kids after school or becoming involved in community activities. They are spending their dollars outside of our community, which hurts our tax base and has a ripple effect on businesses,” he adds.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Faced with this grim scenario, the nonprofit Community Foundation decided it was time to do some soul-searching and help the county figure out where to go next. With a $75,000 grant from the Packard Foundation, the Vision San Benito County project collected ideas from 17 “listening sessions” held in 2010 and 2011. Some 800 residents contributed to the visioning project, which ended with a three-day summit last October. “The final report provides a blueprint for the direction of the county,” says Julie Morris, who headed the project. “Not to say that there are not conflicts, but we were looking for points of consensus.”
Top priorities were identified as job creation and better education, but participants also expressed a great desire to retain the rural feel of the county—and capitalize on its bounty of fine wines and agricultural products.
About 35% of its agricultural acreage is
farmed organically—compared to 30%
organic in Santa Cruz County,
just 6% in Monterey County
and less than 1% nationwide.
“I think food can actually be part of how we define ourselves, much like Marin or Sonoma Counties do, Morris says. “San Benito County isn’t as famous because we haven’t marketed ourselves as much, but you can find just as many good foods sourced here as in Marin County, and there’s a movement of people who are starting to recognize that,” she says.
The county is also looking south to Paso Robles for inspiration. There, the local food movement and wine industry have teamed up to revitalize the region, turning a once-sleepy cow town into a popular tourism destination. Results of the visioning project were fed into the new county General Plan for 2012- 2035, which is expected to go to the Planning Commission this summer and be completed by the end of the year. It already includes a wine and agritourism overlay zone; small-scale tourism projects like bed and breakfast inns have been promised fast-track approval. In effect, the community is making the most of an advantage created, ironically, by its recent hardships: Because the housing bubble burst, most of San Benito County’s rural, agricultural character and all of the potential that goes with it were preserved.
“Let’s hope we can keep it that way,” says Morris.
Phil Foster, owner of Pinnacle Organics, bought his first farm near San Juan Bautista in 1993 by cobbling together six of those 5-acre parcels previously slated for development and “preserving them for agriculture in perpetuity.” “I grew up in a suburban area near Bakersfield, so the ruralness of San Benito County really appealed to me,” he says. “I liked the climate, and I liked the little town of Hollister.”
Foster and his wife Katherine have successfully tapped into the growing locavore movement and expanded their operations by focusing on distribution to shops in Santa Cruz and Monterey, as well as at 10 regional farmers’ markets and Whole Foods. “People want to know where their food comes from and want to buy locally when they can,” he says. Nowadays, he farms 270 acres in San Juan Bautista and in the Santa Ana Valley east of Hollister, growing 70 different crops throughout the year, including apples and cherries.
Foster can be found most Saturday mornings at a farm stand on his original property, which operates year-round to provide just-picked organic produce to the local community at bargain prices. “There weren’t a lot of outlets for organic produce,” he says, “so this has been a good deal for people who are willing to drive here.” Foster says he enjoys having a relationship with his customers and finding out what products they would like to see him grow. In response, this summer he is experimenting with a Mexican herb called epazote and growing casaba melons for the first time.
San Benito County is home to some 34 organic growers, and their produce has become an acclaimed and important part of the larger Monterey Bay foodshed. Swank Farms’ vegetables, for example, are served at some of the best restaurants in other parts of the region, like Aubergine in Carmel, Bernardus and Carmel Valley Ranch in Carmel Valley, and 1833 in Monterey.
Other local organic farms include Catalan Family Farms, Coke Farm, Bonny Doon Vineyard’s new Popelouchum ranch and the biggest, Earthbound Farm, has 1,100 workers and is the largest employer in the county and the largest organic grower in the U.S. “The best way to preserve agricultural land is for it to remain profitable,” says Samantha Cabaluna, director of communications for Earthbound, which Drew and Myra Goodman founded in Carmel Valley more than 25 years ago, and moved to San Juan Bautista in 1996.
“We have been able to take really wonderful organic practices and scale them to a size that allows us to run a company that provides good benefits for its employees and puts good food on people’s tables.” Earthbound has about 4,000 acres in cultivation in San Benito County and a total of 40,000 acres on 200 different farms throughout our area, as well as in the Central Valley, Washington and Oregon. Scale is also important to Grant Brians, who farms the 100-acre Heirloom Organic Gardens started by his mother Janet in 1973. “Every time you take out another chunk of ag land, it makes it harder for the remaining farm land to stay profitable,” he says. “You need a certain amount of land to support things like equipment dealers and fertilizer suppliers. And if you are going to have a processed product, you need freezers and canneries.” The Brians’ farm was certified organic in 1976 and is the only remaining original member of the CCOF Central Coast chapter. Like his father, Grant worked as an engineer at several high-tech companies in Silicon Valley up until the dot-com crash.
“Commuting is something that sucks the life out of an individual, all those hours just getting from home to work and back. I know what I’m talking about,” he says.
On the other hand, farming gives him great pleasure.
“I’m addicted to farming. Ultimately, you end up with these amazing creations, and it’s just so astonishing that they could come from a tiny seed,” he says. “It never ceases to give me joy.”
Apricots, cherries, almonds and walnuts are the other traditional local crops. Gibson Farms Inc. grows them organically and sells at farmers’ markets, as does conventional grower B&R Farms.
“The Blenheim apricot loves the soil and climate of San Benito County,” says Mari Rossi, who runs family-owned B&R Farms with her husband Jim. “It is the best apricot in the world, but you can’t find them fresh in supermarkets because they have a very thin skin and can’t be shipped, so they are strictly a drying apricot.”
The Rossis have 100 acres of apricot orchards near Hollister. They sell dried apricots at farmers’ markets, along with a line of apricot preserves and gourmet sauces developed by Jim’s mother. They also have a small shop on their farm and those-in-the-know call ahead to order boxes of fresh fruit during apricot season at the end of June.
“We used to have 50 apricot growers here, but now we’re down to two,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost so much ag, but we still have a beautiful area.”
Taking advantage of the local produce, Hollister’s Marich Confectionery specializes in chocolate-covered dried fruit and nuts, while DeBrito Chocolate Factory is known for preparing 40 different kinds of candied apples. Both factories are open to the public. Organic eggs and chickens from Pasture Chick Ranch (See EMB,Winter 2011), freerange chickens from Hain Ranch Organics in Tres Pinos, grassfed beef from the Morris Ranch, Paicines Ranch and Douglas Ranch (See EMB, Spring 2012) and pasture-raised lamb, pork and beef from Your Family Farm are all adding to the critical mass of local products that makes up San Benito County’s emerging foodie movement.
In downtown Hollister, several new shops have opened on San Benito Street to showcase local foods. The Heavenly Bakery prepares apricot everything, from pies and turnovers to apricot bread pudding and even apricot smoothies. The Market & The Butcher Shop has started selling Morris grassfed beef alongside its homemade sausages, deli sandwiches and local wines.
But the best place to see and taste all the area has to offer is at the Hollister Farmers’ Market, held downtown on Wednesdays from 3–7pm from May through September. The festive atmosphere includes 23 farmers, live music and 40 other types of vendors like artisans, take-away food, nonprofit organizations and local merchants.
“It brings everyone out,” says Manager Tammy Jackson. “We’re such a bedroom community that this is the only time some people come downtown to see what we have here.” She has grown the market from 19 booths four years ago to full capacity today. In the process, it has become a focal point for the local food movement and an inspiration for a new direction for San Benito County— a place that is turning back to its roots to find a new road to the future.
I’m addicted to farming…
It never ceases to give me joy.
See below for a suggested itinerary for a delectable day trip to San Benito County. And for tourism information, contact the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce at 831.637.5315.
Early summer is the best time to visit San Benito County. Here is a plan for a delicious Saturday excursion—full of food and wine. Start out by stocking up on colorful vegetables from the Pinnacle Organics Farm Stand in San Juan Bautista (open 8am–1pm Saturdays). Drive over to Hollister, picking up some fresh apricots and cherries along the way. Stop for coffee and a pastry at Heavenly Bakery, stick your nose into San Benito Bene next door to buy locally made soaps or lotions, then get some picnic supplies at The Market. Head south up a winding road for about 20 minutes to the beautiful Cienega Valley—home to a largely unknown wine trail.
Cienega Valley is a long, narrow viticultural area in the Gabilan Mountains and runs right alongside the San Andreas Fault. There are beautiful oak-studded hills on the way up to the vineyards. Three wineries are currently open to the public on weekends.
DeRose Vineyards occupies a cavernous warehouse that once belonged to Almaden wine. Owner Pat DeRose, known for his big handlebar mustache, and his son Alphonse have been making wines from old vine grapes on the property since 1988. But it’s been a winery since 1851 and some of the Negrette and Zinfandel vines they tend are more than 150 years old—and all are dry farmed. Try the Hollywood Red, an old vine Zinfandel blend named for one of the vintage cars the family keeps in the winery. Their Car Museum is open from 11am–3pm on the first Saturday of each month.
About a mile down the road, stop and visit the stately, red-brick Pietra Santa Winery. Its Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are perennial medal winners in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. The 450-acre estate also grows olives and presses and sells three varieties of olive oil, which can be sampled in the tasting room. There are picnic tables next to the vineyards, so this might be a good place to break out the lunch.
There are more picnic tables with sweeping views of the mountains at the final stop, Calera winery, a high-end Pinot Noir specialist with an unpretentious feel. Owner Josh Jensen picked the remote spot, known for its limestone soils, for his winery after searching for a terroir that would produce wines like he had enjoyed in Burgundy. His 2007 Mt. Harlan Selleck Vineyard Pinot Noir graced the cover of Wine & Spirits Magazine last winter after coming in as the publication’s top-scoring wine with 96 points. That vintage is no longer available, but there are plenty of other fine pinots to taste before heading home. —DL