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Publication Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Jelich Ranch owners discover joys, hardships of orchard farming Jelich Ranch owners discover joys, hardships of orchard farming (August 13, 2003)

By Sharon Driscoll
Special to the Almanac

The simple farmhouse on Portola Road stands out against a backdrop of fruit trees leading up the mountain to Windy Hill. The old water tank and a tractor complete a picture from another time. Jelich Ranch looks much as it did over 100 years ago when the Croatian family settled in Portola Valley and planted the fruit orchard.

A bastion of rural Peninsula life, Jelich Ranch might have gone the way of other ranches when it was sold three years ago -- subdivided into multi-million dollar homesteads.

But fate threw a curve ball when an unlikely pair of orchard farmers stepped up to the plate. Cindie and Phillip White of Atherton were in the market for a second home, a large piece of rural land where their young children could run freely. And they fell in love with the place.

"It was providence that the ranch became available just when we were thinking about buying one," says Mrs. White, who was raised in Portola Valley and attended school just down the road from the orchard.

But become orchard farmers?

"No. That wasn't our intent. But it's a great way to make a little money out of a lot," says Mr. White, an entrepreneur who now spends more time than he planned managing the orchard's revitalization.

Three years on, the farming bug has bitten the Whites hard. Along with remodeling the old ranch buildings in an historically accurate way, they have been busy replanting the overgrown orchard and transforming the ranch into a going concern.

The Whites have formalized that commitment by putting 12 of their 14 acres under the Williamson Act, agricultural legislation that reduces taxes on farmland, but also prevents other development on the property for 12 years. Two acres have been set aside for a new family home, but with so much of their resources invested in the ranch, the Whites have put plans to build a new home on hold. The field where a new ranch house may one day be built is instead used for picnicking and playing.

They got much more than they bargained for when they purchased Jelich Ranch, they say. Since taking it on, they have become defenders of not only the landmark buildings, but also a way of life. The plight of the small farmer, organic farming methods, and traditional orchard practices and costs are now issues with which the Whites are intimately familiar. Their love of the landscape that led them to purchase the old ranch has grown into a passion for the soil itself, the trees, and the fruit they bear.

A ranch revitalized

The first order of business when they bought Jelich Ranch was clearing out the overgrown orchard. They tasted the fruit, checked for diseases, and cleared out sick trees. That gave way to replanting, and now there are 200 new trees growing alongside the century old heritage elders.

In addition to the apples famous with locals for their crisp sweetness, they're growing apricots, quince, peaches, cherries, nectarines, avocados, oranges, and lemons.

With the help of orchard manager Skip Parody, the ranch has been revitalized and the fruit is sold to local grocers and restaurants. Mr. White says he'd like to revive the Jelich fruit stand and get permission from the town to sell their fruit at the ranch.

Plans to renovate the ranch buildings are also progressing. Last year the old water tower was renovated, though Mrs. White is not happy with the off-white and green paint.

"It's too modern looking. I'd like it to be white again, though we need to discuss that with the town," she says, referring to Portola Valley's design guidelines on reflective colors.

Renovation of the barn and equipment shed is almost finished, and plans to remodel the farmhouse are underway. A new refrigerator has been installed in the fruit storeroom, and a new bridge crosses the small creek at the back of the property. Through all of this, the Whites have attempted to restore, rather than demolish, and maintain the historic integrity of the ranch buildings as much as possible.

Tradition's high cost

Unlike modern orchards where dwarf trees are planted so that fruit can be harvested mechanically, manual labor is required to make Jelich Ranch work. This is a traditional orchard, with trees too tall for mechanical harvesting, so ladders are still used to climb up and pick the ripest fruits. Laborers are brought in to hand prune each branch and flower on their 1,000 trees several times a year, and then to harvest the fruit.

The Whites have also committed to obtaining certification that their fruit is grown organically. But this, too, is a costly process.

"Skip has to report exactly what he's spraying, and they come to test the soil to verify that it's organic," says Mr. White. "Even the posts that hold the young trees up have to be approved. We're fortunate enough to be able to afford to do this."

Taking on Jelich Ranch has brought larger issues to the Whites' attention, such as centralized food growing and distribution in America -- where bigger might not be better.

"This has put me in touch with the plight of the local farmer," says Mrs. White. "It's labor intensive, time consuming, expensive. We're certainly not making any money. Local farmers are going out of business. It's important to farm locally, and support our small farmers. What would we do in a big emergency?"

A rich palette

While Mr. White runs the orchard, and they both oversee the buildings' renovation, Mrs. White concentrates on environmental research and education.

"It's my long-term goal to teach people about organic farming and the plight of the local farmer," she says.

Mrs. White leads small groups of children at Jelich Ranch in nature classes -- complete with simple games like tag in the field. The children learn about growing food, soil, and taking care of their surroundings, but the structure is kept loose, so the children can be free to be creative.

"At Camp Jelich it's my wish for children to connect with their primal instincts so they can develop an interactive dialogue with nature," she says.

She strives to teach an understanding and respect for the role of nature in life, she says. The children look at how composting waste makes rich soil that helps the trees grow, how encouraging blue birds and owls to inhabit the orchard naturally repels the insects and gophers that might harm the fruit, and how eating nutritious foods cooked from the garden is good for the earth and the body.

"Jelich Ranch has turned out to be both my palette and paints," says Mrs. White.


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