Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Chaffin Family Orchards is a rather unique and special place. The 2,000 acre farm has roots going back to UC Berkeley professors, who planted Mission olive trees here a century ago. A hundred years later, olive oil from our old growth orchards is still our cornerstone product. Del Chaffin was UC Berkeley’s first farm manager and bought the farm from the university during the depression and added land to it over time. He was an early environmentalist during a time when it wasn’t necessarily popular to be of that philosophy. He
nderstood that resources were limited and needed to be maintained wisely. The orchards were designed with incredible attention paid to micro-climates and air drafts. In the late 1930’s, Del constructed a lake in a bed of volcanic rock on top of Table Mountain, which fills naturally with rain water. He then constructed a moderately sized hydro-electric system to power the 3 original farm houses off the energy created from the irrigation water that moved from the lake to the orchards. Del’s vision was to start a family farm with the purpose of selling the highest quality products to local consumers all year round. Five generations later his dream continues.
You can see and feel the immense history of this farm anywhere you spend time here. You might notice how big and thick the tree trunks are in the orchards. The majority of the stonefruit and citrus trees are 50 years old or more. The orchards are still continuing to produce amazing fruit today; in fact, we notice the fruit gets better with deeper flavors every year. These older trees are varieties from an era when fruit was bred for taste, not their ability to be transported. You will find quite a few heirloom and Slow Food Ark of Taste varieties here; some that are extremely rare! This farm has never bought into the philosophy of the
mega-industrialized food system. We believe flavor comes first! That’s why our fruit is all handpicked just prior to sale. We sell the fruit at the peak of freshness, when it’s perfectly ripe and ready to eat. Because the fruit is so fragile, we only sell our fruits locally at farmers markets throughout our region. Hopefully in the near future though we’ll have dried fruit available on our website for national shipping.
We also take a different approach to farm management than most places. Not only are the trees all grown with all organic approved inputs, but we use the livestock to positively impact the land and create desirable changes. The cattle and sheep are utilized to mow and keep the orchard floors clean of tall grasses. The chickens work to keep bug populations in check and to deposit their high nitrogen manure throughout the farm. And the goats do light pruning, handle invasive weeds, maintain riparian areas, and clear firebreaks. We have now been farming this way for about 10 years. Utilizing these symbiotic relationships between the livestock and the orchards allows us to keep the tractors parked practically year round. We currently consume approximately 85% less fuel than we did before we started to employ the livestock’s various specialties in the orchards. It also means we get more crops per acre and have a wider variety of things to sell, both of which allows us a little bit of economic protection in an industry traditionally known for razor thin profit margins and shifting seasonal prices.
Our beef cattle are raised for their entire life on our open rangelands. For breeding we use small frame Black Angus bulls from a ranch that’s been selecting for grass finishing ability for the last 100 years. With our Mediterranean climate, we only harvest our beef in the springtime when the grass is the most nutritious and abundant. This allows us to build proper internal marbling into each cut and it maximizes external fat cover as well. We then dry age each carcass for a minimum of 21 days but usually 28 days if the butcher has room. This produces some of the most mild and tender grassfed beef you can find.
And to diversify our farm a step further we’ve started to work into the realm of agri-tourism. We give private tours of our farm, host school classes for 1 or 2 night campouts, and we put on week-long farm summer camps. This last month we’ve also added 4 farmstay cabins, where families can come vacation in our old growth olive orchards and learn about what it means to be a real farmer. Guests are invited to help with daily chores like feeding, collecting and washing eggs, milking, and picking fruit. They’re also free to explore the property, can rent bicycles, swim our lake, or drive to many locations in the nearby countryside.
The goal for Chaffin Orchards is to first and foremost continue to build strong lasting loyal relationships with our customers. And we’d like the farm to continue to be doing innovative things and stewarding the land well into the future. We’re always happy to share what piece of the puzzle we’ve figured out and eager to learn new things from others. The beauty of farming is that it’s never mundane and there’s always things we could be doing better as we continue to expand our horizons.