Tending the Family Trees: The Apple Farm's Next Generation Steps Up

Tending the Family Trees: The Apple Farm's Next Generation Steps Up

by Torrey Douglass

The Bates family are a creative bunch. Owners of 35 acres next to the Navarro River just outside of Philo, Tim and Karen Bates have raised four children on this gently rolling slice of paradise. Now grown, the combination of art and farming integral to their upbringing is evident in the kids’ various careers. Sofia is currently a livestock manager in Napa, keeping 150 head of cattle happy and healthy. Joe, also in Napa, runs his own fabrication business, producing beautiful steel and concrete counters and sinks. Polly lives in Oakland and, among other pursuits, teaches at a kids science camp and is curator, instructor, and stilt dancer at Daring Arts Movement, a performance art organization with a focus on diversity and social justice.

Then there’s Rita, the youngest daughter, who has opted to stay on the farm. Like her mom, she is relaxed and self-possessed, with an independent spirit and quick curiosity— qualities that make her well-suited to an operation as complex as the many-faceted Apple Farm, where the Bates grow apples, host cooking weekends, lodge guests, make juice and other apple-y items, manage a farm stand, wrangle newlyweds, and tend the gardens.

The Apple Farm has been in the Bates family since 1984 and is largely covered in orchards. Over 80 varieties of heirloom apple trees reach down into the rich river-bottom soil and up toward the generous sun. The sun and soil also sustain an array of gardens growing cooking herbs, vegetables, and a rainbow explosion of flowers used not only to encourage pollinators but also to beautify weddings and other events held at the farm.

Like her mom used to, Rita spends the bulk of her time working in the gardens. “I love turning what we grow into food,” she says. The gardens’ veggies appear on the plates of wedding guests, at the farm stand, on the menu at Table 128 in Boonville (run by Rita’s uncle), and in dishes served up by the local Bruxo Food Truck (run by her cousin).

The gardens also supply Stay & Cook weekends, the participatory farm experience that has sustained the farm and made it a popular destination for Bay Area food fans since 1995. (Think “Farm to Table” before that was a thing.) Throughout the weekend, a group of eight guests stays in the orchard cottages, tours the farm, and, best of all, gets to roll up their sleeves and prepare three farm-fresh meals under the creative instruction of their hosts. Folks go home with some new recipes, a taste for Anderson Valley wines, and an inspired sense of the good life.

Rita loves this part: sharing a slice of farm living with people new to it. “It’s so satisfying to take a guest into the garden, show them which herb to pick, then go make something with it. A lot of them have never done that.”

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When asked about her childhood on the farm, Rita describes it as “liberating … We had tons of space to run around and be kids! There were so many things to be interested in here, from growing things to cooking to building projects, and plenty of creative outlets that directly led to what I do now. It kept me busy …”

“… but not out of trouble,” quips her husband, Jerzy Skupny, with an affectionate smile. The two married in the spring of 2016 and have made the farm their home. Farms are traditionally multi-generational affairs, and Rita’s parents are happy to have them on board to help.

When asked how he feels about having the two living there, Rita’s dad, Tim, gives a small smile and simply says, “Fantastic. Just fantastic.” He recalls how, a few weeks after his farm internship began, Jerzy stopped by Tim and Karen’s house to tell them he was “sweet on Rita.” It’s not common these days for a young man to give parents a heads-up about his intentions, and the gesture was appreciated.

Jerzy attended College of the Atlantic in Maine, where he studied botany, managed its six-acre organic farm, and fell in love with New England’s apples. He also noted the rising popularity of hard cider, so when he began interning at the Apple Farm in 2013, he paid special attention to the cider production. Today the refreshing drink has improved in quality and consistency and is a popular item at the farm stand.

The key to good cider making, says Jerzy, is buying variety-specific apples. “It’s similar to grapes. Just as there are table grapes and wine grapes, there are eating apples and cider apples. The tannins that make a crisp, dry cider don’t necessarily make for good eating,” though he says that rule is far from hard and fast.

Hard and fast rules generally aren’t helpful to anyone working in close partnership with Nature. Jerzy and the Bates prefer a spirit of flexibility and experimentation to feed the farm’s evolution. There are always new projects afoot, new growing techniques to try. Besides keeping a close eye on the 10-barrel-a-year hard cider production, Jerzy has helped identify which of the jams and chutneys the family should keep in production, and which should be retired. Simplifying in one area makes room for trying things in another.

During our visit, Jerzy handed me a perfectly sweet, juicy peach, picked from a cluster of new peach trees they’ve planted. “They were grown here years ago, and we’re working on bringing them back,” he says. Working with trees is Jerzy’s passion. He spends his time on understory management and holistic orcharding, experimenting with effective microbes (EM) to create a probiotic spray that improves arboreal health. He stops himself before getting too technical—he knows I won’t follow—but the glint in his eye says he’d happily dive down that rabbit hole with someone who speaks Tree Geek.

These days the Apple Farm seems to be a place in balance. After 33 years of hard work, Karen and Tim have learned a lot of lessons, experience they’ve applied to streamlining their systems and keeping life in balance. They’ve also taken to heart the advice of writer and farmer, Gene Logsdon: Get smaller and smarter. “We used to do 35 [Stay & Cook] weekends a year. Now we do 12 or 15,” says Karen. “We don’t have to be full all the time. It’s kind of nice to have a weekend where the cottages are empty. It gives us a break.”

Occassional breaks aside, it’s still a lot of work. Overnight guests and cooking weekend attendees, wedding parties and farmstand visitors, animals, gardens, and orchards— all need attention and care. But with a new generation commiting their creativity, energy and ideas to life at The Apple Farm, it’s a safe bet those trees will continue to be tended for years to come.

The Apple Farm 18501 Greenwood Road, Philo
(707) 895-2333 | philoapplefarm.com