Old Dog Ranch: New Branches on the Family Tree

Reilly O’Neal, CUESA Volunteer
April 24, 2015

Growing up on a fifth-generation farm, Mollie Sitkin never had to go far to find the freshest flavors of the season. “As a little kid, I always enjoyed going out to the orchards and experimenting with what I’d picked,” she recalls. “That hasn’t changed.”

Today, Mollie infuses farm-fresh flavors into Old Dog Ranch’s walnut snacks, walnut butters, and hot pepper sauces, now available at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Weathering Change

Old Dog Ranch, named for the Sitkin family’s two long-lived canine companions (Mollie Dog and Poppy), is located in Linden in the San Joaquin Valley. The land has seen many transformations since Mollie’s great-great grandfather purchased it in 1912.

“It was originally a sheep ranch,” Mollie says. “Then when my dad first started farming, he grew apples, blueberries, and a lot of annual crops like bell peppers, kidney beans, and ornamental kale.”

Apple trees gave way to walnut orchards, which thrived in the area’s deep, well-drained soil and low winter temperatures. “Historically, walnuts have grown really well here,” says Mollie. “Plenty of walnut trees in our area are still producing at 100 years old.”

Mollie’s father, Roger Sitkin, grows Chandler walnuts, a cultivar prized for its flavor, golden color, and abundant yield. The trees are highly disease resistant, requiring less pest management.

One of the Sitkins’ three walnut orchards will be certified organic in September and another is currently transitioning to organic. “We’ve always farmed sustainably,” says Mollie, noting that the Calaveras River runs through the ranch and borders two of the family’s orchards. “We’re careful about how we farm, being so close to that water source.”

The Calaveras supplies some water for the farm, but Old Dog Ranch is feeling the effects of California’s drought. Drip irrigation reduces water use in the ranch’s orchards, Mollie explains, but this year the family will be restricted to watering only in the first week of each month. “We’ll cross our fingers and hope the trees can withstand the other three weeks a month without water.”

Old Dog, New Tricks

Mollie was born the same year her family planted their first stand of walnut trees, three decades ago. That 10-acre orchard today supplies all the nuts for the Old Dog Ranch line of seasoned walnuts and walnut butters, made by Mollie in her commercial kitchen in Pacifica. She launched the farm’s product line in 2013, putting her degree from Dominican University’s Green MBA program to good use. (Previously, she also co-founded a kombucha business.)

Selling directly to customers at local farmers markets allows Mollie to experiment with new flavors, such as whiskey-spiced walnuts and maple walnut butter. “If people at the markets are begging for one of our seasonal products after we’ve discontinued it, then we know it should probably stick around!”

For Old Dog’s smoked paprika and garlic walnuts, the peppers are grown on site and smoked with walnut prunings. Honey for walnut butters comes from a Bay Area beekeeper, and the ranch will soon have its own hives. “Part of our five-year plan is to grow as much as possible on our ranch,” says Mollie.

In 2012, she started growing specialty peppers to diversify the farm’s offerings. Old Dog Ranch also offers farm-fermented hot sauces, made from 30 varieties of peppers Mollie planted last year. 

For ingredients not grown on the farm, Mollie supports other local food producers. She sources organic rosemary from a first-generation farmer near Sacramento and buys cocoa from the family-owned Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame.

Cracking into the Farmers Market

At Old Dog Ranch’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market stand, you can expect to find raw walnuts—in the shell or ready to eat—plus just-sweet-enough treats like cinnamon-laced Mexican hot chocolate walnuts and savory nuts toasted with rosemary and black pepper.

Mollie recommends topping fresh spring salads and soups with walnuts for a gluten-free alternative to croutons. Old Dog Ranch’s walnut butter with raw honey and sea salt pairs beautifully with seasonal fruit, she adds. “My favorite snack is walnut butter on sliced apples or fresh apricots. It’s like eating cobbler, but with no guilt.”

Old Dog’s Chandler walnuts are also used by fellow Ferry Plaza vendor Three Babes Bakeshop, where they star in the Babes’ signature Salty Honey Walnut pie. Baker Anna Derivi-Castellanos went to preschool with Mollie, and their parents were close friends, so she’s enjoyed being able to support the farm from one generation to the next. “We are so connected to our roots in the Central Valley and that agricultural tradition there,” says Anna. “That’s why our Salty Honey Walnut exists.”

CUESA’s mission of sustainable agriculture education makes the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market a perfect match for Old Dog Ranch, with its long history of farming lightly on the land. “Being part of this market is one of the most exciting things that’s happened for us,” Mollie says. “We must be doing something right.”

Look for Old Dog Ranch on Saturdays in the back plaza.

Dog and orchard photos courtesy of Old Dog Ranch.