Olamae Combellack was four years old in 1924 when she arrived in Napa from Grand Prairie, Texas, with her mother and 10 siblings. The family pitched a tent along the banks of the Napa River, across from Chinatown, and picked prunes for 25 cents a box in Mackenzie’s orchard. Napa was synonymous with prunes, and prunes were everywhere, even in the heart of Napa city, on Jefferson Street, where the Grape Yard Shopping Center now sits, about halfway between Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.
I thought about Combellack over the course of the month that I roamed across Napa by car and on foot, met farmers and tasted local fruits and vegetables in fields and in restaurants. I ate at Homestead, which is owned by Long Meadow Ranch, and at Clif Family Bruschetteria—the nifty food truck whose vegetables come from Clif Family Farm—where chef Magnus Young, who is half-Swedish and half-Chinese, makes extraordinary salads, such as the one with kale, cabbage, apples and pecorino.
In Napa, where people either love grapes or hate them—and where vegetables are a part of an underground agricultural enterprise—I didn’t meet anyone like Green String Farm’s Bob Cannard, who has supplied Chez Panisse with produce since the 1970s. Nor did I meet anyone like Paul Wirtz at Paul’s Produce, who grows year-round a wide variety of vegetables that make their way, thanks to Tim Page and his distribution company, Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights, to restaurants across the Bay Area.
Napa doesn’t have superstar farmers, but it has young, savvy, impassioned farmers like Rachel Kohn Obut, who recently moved from Glen Ellen, where she grew vegetables at Flatbed Farm, to Napa, where she currently grows vegetables on leased land and sells them directly to members of her CSA (community supported agriculture). The owners of the land where she has carved out a garden made money in grapes and got out. Kohn Obut and her landlords are working on a lease agreement with the help of California FarmLink, the nonprofit organization that helps farmers lease and purchase land and access capital. “Since this is Napa,” says Kohn Obut, “the money that I will have to pay will be on the high side that farmers pay in Northern California.”
Like Obut, many of Napa’s young farmers have figured out how to grow lettuce, potatoes, corn, flowers and more in a place where investors insist that land is too expensive and wine way too lucrative to do anything except grow grapes and make wine.
In 2001, the year Combellack died, grapes were the No. 1 crop. Napa Valley Cabernet sold for $100 a bottle and more, and very few residents remembered the prune orchards and the Sunsweet processing plant on the corner of Jackson and Yajome. In 2018, Napa has far less agricultural diversity than it had in the 1920s, or even in the 1980s, which troubles Napa beekeeper Rob Keller, who says that “vineyards are a desert for bees,” and tells vineyard managers, “Give us some land back.”
Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Tracy Cleveland, who commutes to Napa from Vacaville, says she couldn’t imagine a day when grapes and wine would not dominate the valley. Still, the website for her agency insists that the “climate and the soils are capable of producing many types of exceptional agricultural products.” It’s just that the Napa Agricultural Commission and the Napa County Farm Bureau do little if anything to translate that capacity into a reality. They’re too busy helping the grape and wine industries, where money is to be made more reliably than on the volatile New York Stock Exchange.
When I email the Napa Farm Bureau—the voice of the wine and grape industry—and ask for help with a story about vegetables in Napa, Debby Zygielbaum, who sits on the board of directors, replies, “Contact CAFF/The Farmers Guild. They might have information for you.”
Cleveland took over the reins at the commission when the board of supervisors recently declined to renew the contract for Greg Clark, who had run the agency since 2014. Many citizens argued that the county needed a fresh outlook, given the loss of oak woodlands and watersheds and the growth of the monoculture.
“My passion is to create a healthy farming community and to diversify ag,” says Seth Chapin, founder of the Napa branch of the Farmers Guild, a small farmer advocacy and education organization. “Diversity can be a hedge against catastrophic collapse.”
Chapin thinks total collapse is unlikely, though Napa agriculture has collapsed and then rebirthed itself again and again over the past 100 years. Wheat gave way to walnuts and then to olives, oranges, apricots and, more recently, grapes as far as the eye can see, with little if any habitat for bees and birds.
Chapin grows flowers and makes floral arrangements that he sells for weddings and “private parties in the hills.” His garden is located in the Coombsville neighborhood, a short drive from the Soscol Avenue office of the agricultural commissioner. Mary “T” Beller, a feisty Alabama-born woman and Stanford grad, owns the three-and-a-half acres where Chapin grows over a hundred different kinds of flowers. Beller is famous for her “curated wine country tours” that take visitors “behind the scenes in Napa Valley”—which means she doesn’t lead them to wineries. She also cultivates vegetables, fruits and berries, and makes jams, pickles and preserves, much of which she gives to friends.
“Grapes are sexy, but vegetables are sexier,” says Beller one hot day during a walking tour of her gardens. She adds, “I will never put in grapes.”
Under the shade of a luxurious Indian blood peach tree, Beller laments the dominance of grapes. “When I got here in the 1980s, there were orchards, dairies, pastures and oak trees. I thought they would stay.”
Tourists who come for the wine and the food are hard-pressed to name the valley’s “exceptional agricultural products.” So are many Napa residents, though field workers like Jesus Pizano, who was born in Jalisco, Mexico, grow tomatoes, peppers, pears and nopal cactus in backyards and cook them in their own kitchens—a sort of farm-to-table movement for the rest of us.
Vicky Bartelt of Rusty Rake Farming Co., located in a suburban Napa neighborhood, has grown vegetables for much of her adult life. Not long ago, she pulled out her “hobby vineyard” and expanded the rows of garlic and potatoes, and the herbs that she uses to make teas.
“I originally started to grow vegetables out of necessity,” she says. “We were poor and broke, and I had to find a way to feed my family.”
Olamae Combellack would have understood.
“Rusty Rake is my little piece of heaven,” Bartelt says. “It got me through cancer. Growing vegetables is therapeutic.”
The produce department at the Napa Whole Foods Market in the Bel Aire Plaza boasts a large sign that reads, “We support local farmers,” but the store offers no fruits and vegetables from Napa Valley growers. Much of the produce, whether organic or not, comes from Mexico and California, though most of the signs don’t say where in the Golden State. On a recent summer morning, the table grapes were from Mexico and the strawberries from Washington. The label on the cauliflower read, “Distributed by Earth Bound,” and didn’t say where it was grown.
The Napa Farmers Market doesn’t have much local produce either, which disappoints Seth Chapin and his friends, though growers arrive from Stanislaus, Sacramento and Santa Cruz counties. Rebecca lives in St. Helena and works 60 hours a week, some of the time in fields planting and harvesting. She sells produce at the Saturday morning market.
“On the whole, people in Napa are growing fewer vegetables than they were in the past,” she says. “Land is so expensive; vineyards and wineries are pushing out farms.”
In fact, according to the 2017 Napa County Agricultural Crop Report, only 25 acres were given over to vegetables, including artichokes, fennel, rhubarb, tomatillos and turnips. That was down an acre from 2016, while red wine grape acreage increased slightly from the previous year.
From 2016 to 2017, the value of red grapes grown in Napa County rose from $624 million to $656 million. In 2017, the gross value of winegrape production was a record-setting $751 million up nearly 3 percent from 2016. Vegetable crops were valued at $249,000 in 2017, down from $294,900 the year before. It’s no wonder that farmers market maven Paula Downing, who has managed markets in Napa and Sonoma counties, and who helped to start markets in Cotati and Occidental, says, “If you make money in vegetables, you are a smart fucking cookie.”
Robert and Carine Hines live in Yolo County and sell their vegetables at the Saturday market in the parking lot of the South Napa Century Center. “It’s hard to find land that’s more expensive than in Napa,” Robert Hines says. “We own our own place. For us, farming isn’t primarily about money; it’s a lifestyle we’ve chosen. You can be outside and your own boss, and you can do something good for the world.”
Napa wines leave the county and travel around the world. The bulk of Napa fruits and vegetables stay in Napa where they’re consumed in restaurants like the French Laundry and Meadowwood, which have their own gardens. Napa vegetables are also devoured at by-invitation-only events where food and wine are paired. Then, too, they leave as pickled cucumbers, jams and dried persimmons and pears. As in Tuscany, the best that Napa has to offer in the way of food stays in Napa and is consumed by locals and by tourists who want the farm-to-table experience they’ve read about.
Eighty-five percent of the vegetables grown at Long Meadow Ranch go to Farmstead, its American restaurant in St. Helena, where as many as 900 meals are served a day. Fifteen percent of Long Meadow vegetables go to farmers markets. Jeff Russell, the farmer at Long Meadow, works closely with Farmstead chef Stephen Barber, who walks the fields on Friday mornings. Together, they talk about the crops in the ground and the food prepared in the kitchen.
“I wanted to be a farmer starting at the age of five,” Russell says. “I was in Luther Burbank’s greenhouse. He struck a chord with me.”
Russell, who commutes from Santa Rosa to St. Helena, plants cover crops, makes compost, aims for zero waste, keeps the crew working year-round, planting, cultivating and harvesting, and aims to get produce from the farm to the restaurant in 24 hours or less after it’s picked.
Degge Hays manages the gardens at Frog’s Leap, where the grapes are dry-farmed. Born in Illinois, and educated at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, he has a crew of able workers and help from Jeremy Benson, the winery’s products coordinator, who is also Napa’s poet laureate. Most of the vegetables that Hays grows year-round at Frog’s Leap, where he has worked for 17 years, go to the members of the wine club, the winery owners and to the workers themselves who take produce home at the end of the day.
“I came to Frog’s Leap in part because there was already an orchard here,” Hays says. “When I arrived, I planted an acre of fruit trees. Every July there’s a peach festival attended by hundreds of visitors.”
Tessa Henry worked at Frog’s Leap for 10 years and learned about farming from Hays. Now she grows vegetables and fruits in Napa’s Pope Valley at Clif Family Farm.
“My grandfather ran tractors through grape vines,” Henry says one Friday morning, offering a tour of the farm and talking about her family history. “I grew up hearing about prunes and walnuts, before the valley was just grapes, but I didn’t think I’d become a farmer.”
Now she cultivates cucumbers, zucchini, okra, Padrón peppers, melons, tomatoes, several kinds of basil and much more. Elementary school kids, students from the Culinary Institute of America and Clif Bar employees have visited and learned from Tessa about terroir, garden design and organic farming practices.
Most Napa vegetable farmers know one another. Most of them share the values expressed by Laddie Hall, a baby boomer from Texas, who bought Long Meadow Ranch with her husband, Ted, in 1989 and then brought it back to health after years of disrepair. Laddie doesn’t have to work at the St. Helena Farmers Market, but she does every Friday morning.
“There’s a sense of community here,” she says. “It’s a social event. Customers become friends.”
She lifts a box of freshly picked corn and stacks it in front of the stand. “There’s already too much of a monoculture in Napa. At Long Meadow, we’ve made a big commitment to diversify.”
The economics of grapes and wine will keep all other crops on the fringe of Napa Valley. Here’s hoping Napa’s hearty farmers will continue to thrive—but the valley will never again resemble the world where Olamae Combellack, the girl from Texas, grew up, came of age and learned to love the prunes, the oaks, the meadows and the grapes that pushed almost everything else out of the ground.
Jonah Raskin is the author of ‘Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.’