It has not been an easy harvest season for California apples.
When temperatures shot up into the 100s in August and September, sparking wildfires across the state and harming numerous agricultural commodities, apples were one of the hardest-hit crops. The fruit is susceptible to high heat, especially when it lasts for more than a couple of days.
“It’s basically like putting the apples into a convection oven—they literally bake right off the trees,” said Karell Reader, owner of Luz de Valle Farms in Corralitos. “If they’re not protected by enough leaf cover, they just turn brown and fall onto the ground.”
Reader estimates that about one-quarter of their apple crops were lost this season due to the scorching temperatures.
“Really, all we could do was stand by and watch,” she said. “It’s kind of a helpless feeling … but that’s farming. There’s always some sort of pestilence or foul thing from Mother Nature that wants to come get you.”
Reader’s family has owned Luz de Valle Farm since 1880, when her great-grandfather, who was part of the Silva family, settled in what is now Pleasant Valley. After her uncle used the orchard as a retail outlet, it was eventually leased out—leading to it falling into disrepair.
That is until Reader and her husband, Phil Reader took it over in 2012.
“When we inherited [the farm], it was kind of a disaster,” she said. “It hadn’t been maintained … the barn roof was collapsing, the shop was falling apart. We started tossing around ideas about how to renovate and bring it back.”
Luz de Valle now covers about 17 acres of land off of Hames Road in Corralitos and boasts more than 26 varieties of apples, including many rare heirloom varieties. They grow standards such as Fuji and Gala, as well as Newton Pippins, which they mainly sell to Martinelli’s and Santa Cruz Cider Company.
Reader said that they inherited the farm “amongst a multitude of disasters,” from labor shortage issues to high water costs due to the drought. They were also dealing with low soil fertility due to neglect, and switching from conventional to organic farming.
“The orchard had been let go for so long that a lot of the bigger trees were tapped out,” she said. “We’ve had to rip some older trees out, go back in and plant.”
When ash began to fall over Santa Cruz County in August due to the CZU Lightning Complex fire, Reader said she was reminding customers to wash the fruit as much as possible. While ash does not harm the apples, it can affect the taste.
Luz de Valle became a temporary evacuation site for friends of the Readers who had evacuated from the fires, setting up an outdoor kitchen and tents on the property.
“They were here for almost a month,” Reader said. “It was a crazy time … but absolutely the right thing to do.”
Reader said that the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled the farm to focus on its community U-Pick days, which had families coming to the farm for apple-picking and to learn more about the crop.
“People have been looking for positive, constructive things to do,” she said. “We really enjoy meeting and educating people … helping deepen their understanding about their food.”
The 2020 apple season will soon be coming to an end. By the end of October, most apples at Luz de Valle will be harvested, and the Readers will take a short break before jumping into plans for next year.
“Right before Halloween, we take a deep breath,” she said. “We kind of have to force ourselves to take a day off …. The work never really ends on a farm. But we really love what we do.”