Frog Hollow Farm Strives to Fulfill Promise of Brentwood, CA Terroir and Raise New Crop of Organic Farmers
November 10, 2011 | Kelly Hatton
When Al Courchesne started farming on 13 acres in Brentwood, CA, he didn’t have a business plan; he had a shovel. So he dug holes and planted trees on the land he’d purchased with business partner Sarah Coddington.
“I was young and optimistic and strong,” said Courchesne. “I could work long hours. I was willing to do whatever I had to do to plant orchards.”
That was in 1976, and in the 35 years since, Frog Hollow Farm has grown from 13 acres to 133.
The farm produces enough fruit to feed both wholesale and retail markets in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has expanded its product line to include conserves and pastries. Customers can experience Frog Hollow’s bounty at its cafe in San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, or across the country, thanks to the farm’s online store and shipping service.
The heart of the farm still hangs (until its perfectly ripe) from its trees. Stone fruits, apples, pears and citrus are all grown at Frog Hollow, and the farm’s list of fruit varieties is enough to fill out the alphabet, from Apache Apricots to Zee Lady Peaches. According to Courchesne, you won’t find better tasting fruit than at Frog Hollow. It’s organic, it’s tree-ripened, but it also has what Courchesne calls the “Brentwood terroir.”
Brentwood, locate 50 miles east of San Francisco, is prime agricultural land. The soil is rich, water is abundant, and the mild climate facilitates a long growing season. It’s an ideal spot for new, organic farmers. In its next phase of development, Frog Hollow hopes to create a 10-acre model farm to inspire and teach young, organic farmers in Brentwood.
“My vision is to create a farm using investments to serve as a project that other farms could emulate,” explained Courchesne.
Much of the Brentwood’s agricultural land is divided into 10-acre parcels, which are currently leased out to conventional farmers in large blocks, and seeded with monocultures. Courchesne’s vision is that these small parcels could be leased to aspiring organic farmers to carve out their own niche, be it fruit, row crops or livestock farming. He wants to start at Frog Hollow by demonstrating how a small parcel of leased land can be managed organically, and profitably.
“We can make agriculture in Brentwood more diverse, viable and intensive,” he said.
Courchesne’s farming experience is a valuable resource for the slew of young people interested in getting back to the land. His advice to young farmers: get a good mentor.
And he is in a position to be just that.
“When you’ve done something as long as I’ve been doing this, you can always look back and see what you could have done differently,” he said.
Frog Hollow Farm’s evolution followed a path of taking on new opportunities and available land, and letting the needs of the farm and its customer base steer growth and development.
In 1989, the farm transitioned from conventional management to organic. When customers expressed a preference for organic fruit, Courchesne started investigating the feasibility of organics by talking with other farmers and UC Berkeley extension. His conclusion was that organic farming was a viable, and preferable, model for Frog Hollow.
“Using unhealthy products to grow food seemed at odds with the mission of growing quality, highly nutritious food,” he said. “We moved from trying to manage nature with inputs and began to pursue a long range strategy of soil building.”
Frog Hollow’s orchards are fed with organic compost, and seeded with cover crops to increase organic matter in the soil. Rather than tilling up weeds, orchard rows are mowed to conserve soil fertility and prevent erosion. Healthy soil means healthy trees, and with good management practices, like pruning, trees stay healthy and resistant to pest and disease.
Frog Hollow began to acquire more acreage as it became available in Brentwood. The farm, which initially sold all its produce through a u-pick and farm stand, expanded to new markets in San Francisco. In 2000 Courchesne’s wife, Chef Becky Courchesne, began developing a line of conserves and pastries with the farm’s fruit.
“When you’re growing fruit, not 100% of what you produce is going to be salable,” explained Courchesne. “So what do you do with the culls? Well, first of all, you realize it still tastes good and has the same nutrition. You need to find a way to capture the value of that.”
The value of Frog Hollow Fruit is now captured through a range of markets. The majority of farm products are sold through wholesale markets, including Bay Area grocery stores. The farm also operates a 400 member CSA, sells at area farmers market and ships fruit-to-order for customers nationwide.
Despite a tough economy, business hasn’t slowed for Frog Hollow.
“We’re in an economic downturn while the world demand for food has skyrocketed,” said Courchesne. “I think there’s going to be a lot more interest from investors who see the opportunity to make a return on their investments in agriculture.”
He hopes to harness some of that interest in his own community. “At Frog Hollow, we’re in a position to help young farmers accomplish their goals, and to help Brentwood fulfill the promise of its soil and the Brentwood terroir,” he said.