Several diverse crops have historically been grown in the fertile soils of the Napa Valley. However, over the last few decades, as prices have risen, more and more land has been shifted toward grapes and structures.
For landowners, this is often considered the “highest and best” use of the land, primarily because it brings in the greatest revenue per acre. One consequence of this shift has been the loss of small farms, many of which used to supply local restaurants. But a few renegades have bucked the trend and continue to produce food from the valley’s soil. Douglas Hayes is one of them.
Just south of Calistoga, Hayes and his small team of like-minded enthusiasts have nurtured a few acres of land along Highway 29, coddling the soil without chemicals to produce some of the most coveted food crops produced in the valley.
“Good food excludes no one and provides a way to connect with the world around us,” Hayes said. “When people eat food that is good, they know it — it’s our body’s wisdom to know when something was grown well and treated humanely.”
For years, Hayes has been searching out original heirloom seed sources for his garden that lies within a near-impenetrable ring of towering Douglas fir, thick-branched oak and clumps of twisting manzanita. With the help of friends and a few team members he has methodically established an infrastructure of a greenhouse, rows of vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, flowers, a collection of beehives and coops for his beloved heritage Buckeye chickens.
“We live in a region that is capable of producing some of the finest-quality food on the planet, but too much of our valley is covered with grapes and treated with chemical poisons. It doesn’t have to be that way — and there are many people out there who agree.”
One of those who agrees is Tyler Schoonover, who joined the team six years ago.
“We’re able to grow high-quality food because we take care of our soil,” Schoonover said. “Flavor comes from soil, sun and water.”
He said they grow cover crops in the winter to improve soil fertility and use high-quality compost, much of it made on site, adding that Hayes’ approach is to focus on soil health as the key driver of quality and taste.
“Healthy soil provides habitat for earthworms and allows for a balanced soil-food web,” he said. “This practice creates healthy vegetables that have both high nutrient content and also resist pests and diseases. Our attention to detail and hand-tending crops is essential. While it takes a lot of labor and time, doing so allows us to sell food at a higher price because of its higher quality and improved taste.”
Even so, having a food farm in the Napa Valley is a challenging endeavor, especially for young people who are just starting out.
“My hope is that our generation can continue these important traditions, but it’s tough — it’s expensive to live, farm or even lease space in the valley,” said Napa Valley Chef Sarah Heller (owner of Yountville’s Radish Leaf Cuisine). “The money made from a small farm is probably not enough to sustain it without doing something on the side or owning the land outright. So it will take even more hard work. But it’s critically important.”
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Heller’s words resonate with Schoonover, who will be leaving the Napa Valley in December, heading first to train under another gardening guru, Evan Chender, at his farm in Asheville, North Carolina. He then plans to operate his own farm but not in the Napa Valley.
“My goal in life is to have my own farm or cooperatively run a successful, profitable farm,” he said. “The goal would be to provide an income and lifestyle for me and my family to live a comfortable life and live in an enriched environment. I’m excited to join his (Chender’s) team. He’s a young and highly talented farmer who is carving out his own niche in the culinary world.”
Schoonover said he is leaving because of his and his wife’s extended family living in the Midwest, but also to the high cost of living in the Napa Valley.
“It’s a beautiful place, but I don’t think we could ever buy a house here or afford to have our own piece of land to farm,” he said. “But I do think that farming can be a sustainable model and profitable business, even here. Developing close relationships with local chefs, growing niche crops and custom-growing for restaurants can be a path to success.”
Hayes’ Calistoga farm goes by many names — Honest Heirlooms, Azalea Springs Farms and Douglas Hayes Consulting, LLC. Their produce can occasionally be found at grocery stores such as Sunshine Market and Oxbow’s Hudson Greens and Goods. The few chefs with access to their specialty items are not unhappy about the almost secretive nature of the operation.
“My menu is a huge representation of what Douglas Hayes and his team have available each week,” said Ciccio’s executive chef, Bryant Minuche. “I have a schedule with Azalea Springs Farms to get produce two or three times a week. Their approach starts with doing the right thing and doing it with love. He doesn’t mess around with nature and does not rush any of his produce. Using high-quality soils, seeds and people who truly care about the tradition of his farming style are why we end up with such high-quality produce.”
The relationship is such that Minuche can create a list of what he’d like them to grow and then write his menu based on what comes in that week.
“I constantly keep in touch with him over the phone about produce coming up or small quantities of specialty vegetables for the week,” Minuche said.
Hayes’ parents purchased the property that he farms in the mid-20th century, and since taking over the property in the 1990s he has worked to create a sustainable farm.
“Many of the companies growing grapes in the valley don’t know the importance of soil health,” he said. “They pour on chemicals and kill off everything they consider harmful to their bottom line. It’s a tragedy because growing food (or grapes) with love and respect can produce something wholly different — something sustainable; something to cherish.”
In the distance, the heritage Buckeye chickens have begun to roost, flapping loudly to their indoor perches for the night. The setting sun filters gold through the pine boughs and the aromas of thyme and fresh basil are thick in the air.
“I don’t quote the Bible very often, but what’s the third sentence,” he asks rhetorically. “Oh yes, ‘It was good.’”