Looking Forward with Hunter Orchards

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
July 12, 2013

When John Tannaci and Kirsten Olson of Hunter Orchards were invited to join the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in 1994, they weren’t sure whether it would be worth the 300-mile drive from their home in Grenada. But 19 years later, the couple has still makes a much-anticipated limited appearance each summer with their famous Klamath River Rocambole garlic, jams, and stone fruit.

The couple has earned a beloved place in customers’ hearts, both in the Bay Area and back home. By popular vote, they were recently honored with a Local Hero award for farming through Edible Shasta Butte—and for good reason. Their path as farmers has been a winding one, from home gardeners to pillars of their local foodshed, but their commitment to sustainability and community has guided them along the way.

Accidental Farmers

John and Kirsten got their first taste of farming in the early 1980s, when they began homesteading in the woods near Happy Camp, in the Siskiyou Mountains. As their garden grew, they started selling excess broccoli out of the back of their truck at their local post office. They discovered a hunger for locally grown, organic produce in their community at a time when there were no farmers markets in the area.

“Of course we were going to grow organically because, for us, that was the only way to go,” Kirsten says. In 1985, the couple helped found the Siskiyou-Humboldt chapter of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) with several other growers, and a few years later, they decided to take the leap to full-fledged farming, purchasing a 20-acre farm in Grenada.

At 3,000 foot elevation, farming in the cool-weather environs of Mount Shasta was a challenge from the get-go, but the couple has found strength in diversity, growing peaches, cherries, raspberries, plums, apples, pears, squash, and other field crops. “Because of where we are, one crop doesn’t do it,” explains John. “We grow cool-weather crops and hot-weather crops, not knowing what’s going to work each year.”

Ferry Plaza shoppers know them best for their flavorful Rocambole garlic, a hardneck variety that is flecked with purple stripes and blessed with a thin, easy-to-peel skin. Starting from their early days of gardening in Happy Camp, the Rocambole has become their signature product. Their first seed was given to them in 1981 by a neighbor, who said it was passed down from a French miner on the Klamath River, and the couple has been growing it ever since. Because it was hardy and could be dried, the garlic made an ideal crop for transporting long distances on winding mountainous roads.

“There was some impromptu in it,” John says of the garlic’s success. When John and Kirsten took a risk and brought some fresh (uncured) bulbs to market, they found that Ferry Plaza shoppers were undaunted and snapped them up. “Customers said, ‘This is how they do it in Paris.’ We looked each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve stumbled on something again!’”

Nourishing Community

Over the years, Kirsten and John have been active in connecting farmers and eaters and growing infrastructure for distributing local food in Siskiyou and Shasta Counties. “We’re kind of social activists in our own tiny way,” says Kirsten.

As the customers who frequented their local popup farm stand began to request tomatoes and other products, the two decided to reach out to other farmers, and in 1988, they founded the Mount Shasta Farmers Market, the first in their area. Fifteen years later, the market is going strong with 14 vendors (“perfectly sized for our community,” says Kirsten). To extend local food access in the winter months, when farmers markets are closed for the snowy season, the couple helped to create community food cooperatives known as Grub Clubs in Mount Shasta and Yreka.

To encourage young people to take an interest in their local foodshed, Hunter Orchards opens their pumpkin patch up to local schools for field trips each fall. Kirsten, who once considered becoming a teacher, sees this as a way to educate the next generation of eaters and potential farmers. “We understand that without more people growing food, we’re going to be in bad shape,” she says.

Seeds for the Future

As the majority of farmers in the U.S. approach retirement (the average age is 57), John and Kirsten recognize the need to think about the future of their farm. “We’ve known about the graying of the American farmer for decades—and now that’s us,” laughs Kirsten wistfully.

Now in their sixties and with their four children all grown up, a desire to slow down and spend more time with grandchildren has come to the fore, and Kirsten and John turn their efforts to finding a successor. “Our region is not like the Bay Area and Central Valley,” says Kirstin. “We’re at high elevation—grain and cattle country. The farm is fragile and if it were lost, it would have to be rebuilt from zero.”

John worries that a farm as diverse as theirs and in a remote and difficult growing region might be a tough proposition for many new farmers. “There are a lot of plates spinning at the current Hunter Orchards,” he admits. “That could be intimidating for someone to step into.” Their hope is that members of the community will come forward to maintain Hunter Orchards as a working farm and educational resource.

Beyond the logistics of succession planning, the bigger challenge for this passionate and hardworking couple might be letting go. For John, the thrill of sharing and enjoying the food they have grown remains as strong as it was when they started selling their homegrown produce nearly 30 years ago. “The things that keep me going are the ride home from market, and sitting down at our own table to eat our own food,” he says. “We can’t get that anywhere else.”

“Farming is still in our hearts,” says Kirsten. “It’s what started us, and we’re still in love with it—just like we’re in love with each other after 40 years.”

Hunter Orchards can be found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market tomorrow for their last day of this season. Visit their new website.

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