City-run apricot orchards serve as relics of a bygone era | November 17, 2023 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - November 17, 2023

City-run apricot orchards serve as relics of a bygone era

Santa Clara Valley was once a major producer of apricots

by Julia Gentin

My grandparents have lived in their house in the Los Altos Highlands neighborhood for over 50 years, built on an apricot orchard in what was then unincorporated Santa Clara County. My grandfather maintains various fruit trees, from pomegranate and grapefruit to plum. But his Blenheim apricot trees are the originals and most reminiscent of the Valley of Heart's Delight, what Silicon Valley was known as due to its fertile soil and plentiful orchards.

The orange- and pink-tinged fuzzy fruits are mostly sweet with a hint of sour. They are tangy and juicy, dripping down your arm after a ripe first bite. But the fruit, which must be handpicked, is also fragile. Its harvest season is short, lasting only a few weeks starting anywhere from late May to early July.

"You can't go into the store and buy what you eat right off the tree," said Matthew Sutton, founder of Orchard Keepers, an organization that installs and maintains home orchards, hobby orchards and edible gardens throughout Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. "Apricots that are bought in-store are picked early and their sugars haven't developed properly. Even if they soften on the counter at home, they're not going to have that same syrupy, sugary sweetness as a sun-ripened fruit at its peak. It's a treasure to be able to get a tree-ripened fruit at the right time."

From the 1850s to the 1970s, Santa Clara Valley was the center of apricot production, dominated by family-owned orchards. While Silicon Valley is no longer an agricultural epicenter, nearly 75% of the apricots grown in the United States still come from California, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. (Although the harvest was small this year due to a harsher winter that blew blossoms off the trees during their approximately two-week bloom.)

Today, the three city-owned heritage apricot orchards in Saratoga, Sunnyvale and Los Altos are remnants of a history that has been preserved despite challenges due to climate change and increased development in Silicon Valley.

A fruitful past

Robin Chapman, a journalist and author of three books, including "California Apricots: The Lost Apricots of Silicon Valley," grew up on the site of a former apricot orchard off Covington Road in Los Altos. Although she worked in broadcast journalism around the country, she "always felt like a Californian," returning to Los Altos in 2009 to take care of her parents. Following their deaths, she wrote about Silicon Valley history as a way to process her childhood and their deaths.

"I had new eyes and much love," Chapman said. "I was reconciling life as a child with adult life and the beauties of California."

Technology had passed agriculture in local impact in 1973, about when she left, Chapman said, a time when Ames Research Center and Lockheed Martin helped transform the area into Silicon Valley. In response to the changes and disappearance of most of the agriculture, Chapman's book sought to investigate how the orchards flourished in Santa Clara Valley in the first place.

Stone fruit originally came from Japan and China. It later reached the Mediterranean region, which was surrounded by sea and bay, just like Santa Clara Valley, Chapman said. When Junipero Serra and other missionaries came to California, they brought Mediterranean fruit trees with them as vestiges of the lives they left behind. With the aid of irrigation techniques developed by North African countries, Chapman said, missionaries cared for the apricot trees they had brought over, and 1792 was the first year of a significant apricot crop in California. And during the Gold Rush, the growing population noticed the good weather and success of fruit in the neglected mission gardens and accelerated the development of the orchards.

"Great weather and soil were ingredients for an (apricot) industry, just like in technology, when innovators, entrepreneurs and ideas were ingredients for an industry, even if it was a different medium," Chapman said.

The 1850s marked the start of 120 years of success for apricot orchards in Santa Clara Valley, spurred by smaller family-owned plots. As railroad production increased, orchardists were able to move produce quickly and establish the agricultural economy. Apricot production reached a peak of 160,000 tons annually from almost 24,000 farms and orchards in Santa Clara Valley, Chapman said. (By comparison, total U.S. apricot production was 41,740 tons in 2021.) In the 1920s, Santa Clara Valley grew 8 million fruit trees each spring.

Apricots grow on shallow-rooted trees in deep, sandy soil and require 850 hours a year at temperatures under 45 degrees, which is why the Central Valley is too hot for apricots, said Orchard Keepers founder Sutton. Blenheim apricots are ideal for drying but aren't easily shipped because of their fragility.

Dried apricots were used in World War I and II as soldiers began to appreciate the fruit in their diet, Chapman said. The fruit was often picked by children and their schools, aware of the labor, delayed fall start dates as a result.

"It was only when we grew up and moved away that we realized how exotic and how scarce these apricots were everywhere else we lived. How lucky we were to enjoy them in such abundance!" Chapman wrote in "California Apricots."

Los Altos Heritage Orchard

The Los Altos Heritage Orchard is located just off San Antonio Road, a busy street that runs parallel to downtown. The fruit trees surround a civic center, and the location features the city's library, city hall, history museum and historic house. In late July, the trees were barren following the harvest and the soil was brown and dry, but colorful ribbons adorning little trees swayed in the wind as part of a children's activity for the Apricot STEM Fair.

"We invited kids to look around and see how there are the healthy green trees, but there are also some trees that didn't make it through the winter. The wishing tree activity (where children write their wishes on ribbons and attach them to the tree) is something that comes to us from other cultures. It's part of our multigenerational, multicultural find ways for the harvest to be inclusive and equitable," said Jane Packard, a Los Altos Hills native and chair of the Los Altos History Museum's Orchard Commons Committee. Packard is also on the advisory board of Green Foothills, a member of Living Classroom and the "garden granny" for Gardner Bullis Elementary School in Los Altos Hills.

The Los Altos Heritage Orchard is the oldest city-owned heritage orchard left in the area. It was planted in 1901 by J. Gilbert Smith and sold to the newly incorporated city of Los Altos in 1954. In a 1970 contract between the city and San Jose farmer Don Speciale, the city declared the orchard a protected historical landmark. On track for its organic certification, no herbicides or pesticides are used in the orchard. The land is around 10 acres, and apricots are sold across the street at the DeMartini Orchard store, (the city makes no money from their sale.)

But the health of the orchard has declined following droughts, overpopulation of ground squirrels and the death of longtime orchardist Phil Doetsch in December 2022. Members of the community want to revive the orchard with native plants and various other trees to address the harm to the soil from having a monoculture, or only one type of tree, for 120 years, Packard said.

Previously, the orchard was tilled with a tractor, but Packard envisions a new chapter of no—till for the orchard, in addition to soil building, water conservation and pollinators through drip irrigation, mulch, native plants between trees to bring fertile soil, and pollinator plants. The goal is to reimagine the orchard as a hybrid orchard and garden through advisory councils and a community network, Packard said, creating multigenerational and multicultural programs to enhance the community's appreciation for the site.

Packard pointed out the parallels between her hopes for people of all ages to find beauty in the site and the variety of ages of the trees in the orchard itself, with the "grandmas" being about 50 to 60 years old in addition to the trees that were just planted in December, which will start to bear fruit three to five years later. It's the start of a "fully productive orchard," Packard said.

"That's particularly important to me because I'm doing this for the next generation," she said. "I had these beautiful experiences when I was a kid under the apricot tree, and I want to provide the opportunities for kids to find whatever it is that they love about the orchard."

Saratoga Heritage Orchard

Saratoga's 14-acre orchard is the largest remaining heritage orchard, and it grows apricots, prunes and cherries in a public park. None of its fruit is sold, according to city stipulation, but Saratoga residents can sign up for designated community harvest days, which currently happen around twice a week, or volunteer with Village Harvest to pick fruit that's donated to local food banks. The Blossom Festival is another community orchard tradition that started in 1900, celebrating the blossoming trees after the drought annually until World War II. In 2013, Saratoga brought the festival back.

The land was originally owned by the Marion family and later sold to Walter Seagrave, who kept it thriving for three generations before his death. The Seagrave family sold the property to the city in 1974 to build a larger library on-site. The orchard has since been protected as historical property and a Saratoga landmark.

"Sometimes when you see a nice orchard that has lots of land you think you might take just a few acres here and there and pretty soon it's gone," said Annette Stransky, president of the Saratoga Historical Society. "But we've been able to protect it so far."

Stransky moved to Saratoga in 1980 and worked in tech marketing after growing up on a peach orchard in Central California. She wanted to get involved in preserving the Saratoga orchard because "it's such a great symbol of our agricultural past. It's part of living history and it's really important to remember your roots, no pun intended."

Sutton's Orchard Keepers has been maintaining the orchard since early 2020 and has transitioned the land from a conventional agricultural system that is more industrial to a regenerative approach.

"We're treating the land and environment with equity," Sutton said. "We're only putting things in the orchard that will benefit its vitality. A regenerative approach is not just what we can take; it's also what we can give back."

Before Orchard Keepers began its maintenance, the soil was bare and non-organic materials like herbicides were used. Now, instead of bare soil, there is a year-round cover crop that feeds the soil, moisturizes it and prevents degradation due to the sun. Keeping the soil fertile is one of four pillars Sutton described in his care of the orchard, in addition to trees (making sure they are healthy, vital and grown); pest and disease (creating organic controls, especially for the prevalent gophers and oak root fungus); and fruit (supporting a high-quality crop that the community can enjoy). This year, thousands of pounds of fruit were harvested, but Sutton said that is only a tenth of the orchard's potential for 40,000 pounds of fruit after the 500 young trees planted in 2020 mature and bear fruit.

"The fruit trees grow really well here, and the quality can't be beaten," Sutton said. "It's been so cool to watch all of these families come through during community harvests and see the kids eat a fresh, perfectly ripe apricot right off the tree. Their faces light up because it's unlike anything you'd ever get from a store."

Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard

About 880 Blenheim apricot trees make up the 10-acre Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard, located next to the Heritage Park Museum. Before entering the orchard, the Orchard Heritage Park interpretive exhibit displays its history in colorful panels from 1875 to 1975 in a barn-like structure. Fruit, including the dried variety, is available at the orchard fruit stand just a few steps away.

Originally owned by the Vidovich family, the orchard is a reminder of the apricot industry's zenith as the economic lifeblood of Santa Clara Valley, according to the exhibit. The orchard was then maintained by the Pavlina family until the 1970s, when the city purchased it to build a community center.

Farmer Charlie Olson, 88, has maintained the orchard's fruit trees since 1977 through an agreement with the city of Sunnyvale, but the vote to preserve the orchard wasn't until 1992, an initiative that began when current museum founder and director Laura Babcock was reminiscing about the valley and fast-disappearing orchards with friends. Babcock has a home orchard herself, with apricots, citrus, apples, plums and peaches that she maintains.

"It was a unique history that I wanted to become involved in," said Babcock, who moved to a Sunnyvale with strawberry fields and flower farms growing big carnations in 1979. "Sunnyvale is a very well-run, caring city. We have multiplied the number of residents dramatically over the last 40-plus years with all of the high-tech companies and developments...It's changed, but then most every place in America has."

Olson maintains the orchard, which is zoned as a city park, using more old-fashioned techniques, Babcock said, which includes the use of pesticides and sprays and sprinklers that are on all day, with water provided by the city, for the soil. Noting the harm to the soil caused by only having one type of tree, Babcock hopes to diversify the range of trees to include plums, cherries, walnuts and pears, other bounties the area was known for.

The Heritage Park Museum also invites a couple of thousand third graders annually for a free two and a half hour field trip to live as it were the turn of the century, learning how to prime the pump for water, wash clothes on the washboard, hang it up to dry and play with homemade toys available at that time. But the students do not physically enter the orchard or learn as much about the trees' processes.

"I hope in the long run, the orchard becomes a teaching tool where we're able to have walking paths through it, historical artwork or benches so people can actually sit in the serene ambiance of an orchard," Babcock said.

Where to find the orchards

In addition to the three city-owned heritage orchards, other privately owned apricot orchards are located around Silicon Valley, including Novakovich Orchard, Packard Foundation Orchard and Alta Mesa Memorial Park. Here is a list of remaining apricot orchards we've compiled:

Los Altos Heritage Orchard: The Los Altos Heritage Orchard is run by the city and historically preserved. They are in the process of hiring a new orchardist. The fruit is sold at DeMartini Orchard store across the street.

Address: 1 N. San Antonio Road, Los Altos.

Saratoga Heritage Orchard: The Saratoga Heritage Orchard is run by the city, maintained by Orchard Keepers and historically preserved. The apricots are not sold, but Saratoga residents can come to Community Harvest Days or volunteer to pick fruit to be donated with Village Harvest.

Address: 13650 Saratoga Ave., Saratoga.

Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard: The Sunnyvale Heritage Orchard is run by the city and historically preserved. It is maintained by 88-year-old Charlie Olson, who is a third-generation orchardist. The fruit is sold at a barn next to the orchard.

Address: 560 E. Remington Drive, Sunnyvale.

Novakovich Orchard: Family-owned Novakovich Orchard sells fruit on-site, and the family used to also maintain the Saratoga Heritage Orchard down the street.

Address: 14251 Fruitvale Ave., Saratoga.

Packard Orchard: The Packard Foundation Orchard is a privately owned 60-acre orchard in Los Altos Hills operated by the Lucile and David Packard foundation.

Address: 26580 Taaffe Road, Los Altos Hills.

Alta Mesa Memorial Park: Apricot trees surround the Alta Mesa Cemetery, where Steve Jobs, a famous apricot fan, is buried.

Address: 695 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto. n


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