Going direct pays off

Photos by Susan Cohen Byrne.
“It’s a unique valley,” Alice says. “The Capay Valley produces some of the most outstanding produce and fruit.”

Fred Manas learned about the drawbacks of marketing fruit by observing his parents when he was growing up. They grew 100 acres of apricots, which were the first California apricots shipped to the eastern market every season.

“They did all the selling through a broker,” he says. “It almost broke my folks.” So, in the early 1980s, when he and his wife, Alice, planted their first peach orchard, they sold the fruit on their patio. Last year, they grew 130 tons and sold 98 percent of it directly to their customers.

Manas also learned about growing from his grandfather, who, along with Fred’s grandmother, had been an indentured servant with C&H Sugar in Hawaii before moving to California. They began by leasing land, and through the years bought three ranches where they raised cattle and grew apricots, peaches and plums. In 1979, the Manases bought 12.5 acres of open ground for their first orchard, and they weren’t sure what to plant. Most growers in the area were replacing their peach trees with walnut and prune trees.

“My grandfather said, ‘When people start pulling trees out, you plant them. By the time you’re into production, they’ll be out,’” Manas says. They followed that advice, even though lenders would only approve loans for walnut and prune orchards.

The couple also raises grain-fed Angus cattle on their Double-Bar-O Angus Ranch. They sell beef directly to the consumer.

The orchards

Manas Ranch lies near the foothills of the Capay Valley in Yolo County, partway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

“It’s a unique valley,” Alice says. “The Capay Valley produces some of the most outstanding produce and fruit.”

The weather is usually hot and dry in the summer and relatively mild and wet in the winter, with an average of about 30 inches of rain per year. The soils are mostly Yolo loam. Some are heavy clay, and some are salty and used mostly for rice.

Manas peaches sorted by hand.

The year after they planted their first orchard, they bought another 12.5 acres and leased 10 more. They put in more peaches, as well as cherries and apricots, which gave them a solid three-month harvest window. Their Sierra Gem peaches, Royal Blenheim apricots and Lapin cherries usually begin ripening mid-June. Red Top peaches begin ripening at the end of June, and Elegant Lady and Cassie peaches ripen in mid-July. O’Henry and August Flame peaches ripen in August and finish around Labor Day.

Three years ago, they bought 30 additional acres, where they planted two other varieties of peaches, more cherries and apricots, and expanded into fall and winter-ripening fruit, such as Fuji and Pink Lady apples, and on less than 1 acre, 200 semidwarf citrus trees, including tangerines, navels, grapefruit, lemons and blood oranges. They hope these crops will extend the harvest season to Christmas.

Manas ships its peaches to people across the country, including Hawaii.

Manas works in the orchards and on the cattle ranch. Two full-time employees work year-round, one full-time in the orchards and another who spends two-thirds of his time in the orchards and the rest on the cattle ranch. They use conventional fertilizers and fungicides, but keep the orchards pesticide-free by using lacewings, ladybugs, miniature wasps and Bt spray against caterpillars and mites.

All the irrigation is done with micro-sprinklers from their own well water. Although Cache Creek provides water for irrigation, Manas had the creek tested when they planted their first orchard and found it was high in boron, so he does not use it on his orchards. Excessive boron shows up in surface water, and causes browning and dead spots along the midrib of peach leaves and can reduce plant growth and yield. The creek is also high in mercury, largely from abandoned mines in the upper watershed.

Although winters are usually mild, nights can get cold. When frost is predicted, they turn the micro-sprinklers on in the citrus orchards to keep the soil warm. It might not save the fruit, he says, but it protects the trees.

Before they begin harvesting, he uses a Brix test to measure the amount of sugar in the fruit. Once the sugar is above 14 Brix, they start picking. As the season goes on, the sugar can measure as high as 26 Brix.

Fred and Alice Manas.

They hire three to four workers to harvest the fruit. Since the different varieties ripen over a three-month period, they’re usually picking 5 to 8 acres at a time. They return to each tree three or four times, picking only the ripest fruit each time. They can pick as many as 400 50-pound boxes of fruit a day, Manas says. They also hire high school students to help pack and sort the fruit, and to work in the store.

None of the fruit is wasted on the ranch. They donate unsold produce to the Yolo County Food Bank and the Monroe Detention Center in Yolo County. They feed the 2 to 5 percent of unpackable produce to their cows and a neighbor’s pigs.

Marketing

The Manases have been marketing their own fruit for more than 20 years. “Everything we do is direct-marketed,” Alice says. All but a small fraction, which they sell at the Esparto Farmers’ Market, is sold on the farm itself.

They’re members of Capay Valley Grown, a partnership of 23 local farmers and ranchers who use sustainable growing methods. The group focuses on marketing by promoting valley-grown products and developing agritourism in the valley. Members also share their experiences and resources and promote the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” logo.

The Manases sell their fruit to the nearby Cache Creek Casino, which is owned by the Wintun Indians. The nearly 75,000-square-foot casino buys about 20 to 30 boxes of fruit every other day, Manas says.

They ship first-quality peaches to people across the country, including Hawaii. Most are sent by customers as gifts. It’s only a small part of their business, however, since shipping is expensive, says Alice. She usually sells by the lug, a standard-size, 22-pound box, but they hold more fruit than many people want, so she also ships in 5 and 10-pound packages.

Alice sends out about 5,000 postcards to customers every year, letting them know when the store is open and which fruit is being harvested. She sends three or four cards a year to each customer as different fruits ripen. Although most of their customers come from northern California, others are from out of state. Some plan their vacation based on when a certain variety will be ripe. Last year, three tour buses stopped by.

The store is open seven days a week during the harvest season. Every day, some 800 to 1,000 pounds of peaches are sold through the store in 5, 10 and 20-pound boxes. Customers can watch through a window as peaches are sorted, graded and packed. They can buy all three grades: first and second quality, and soft, which are too soft to pack, but perfect for cooking and making jam.

The store sells produce, nuts and honey from other farmers who are members of Capay Grown, as well as cookbooks devoted to peach recipes, T-shirts, tote bags and hats, and jams. Although she has help preparing the fruit, Alice makes the jams herself—close to 2,000 jars of apricot, peach, triple berry and peach pie jam. This year, she bought a commercial mobile kitchen to work in on the ranch.

The couple has worked hard to maintain the quality of the fruit through the years, Alice says. “Sad as it is, I can go to our local grocery store at the peak of the season and the peaches have absolutely no flavor. People want the flavor.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.