The Last of His Kind Farming Fruit in the Silicon Valley
And then there was one. When Andy Mariani’s only neighboring fruit grower in Morgan Hill, CA, just south of San Jose, pulled out his last 80 acres of apricots and cherries last year, Andy’s Orchard stood alone. It’s not really that surprising when you consider the Santa Clara Valley — better known as Silicon Valley, the world’s technology epicenter — has some of the most desired real estate on the planet.
Mariani’s parents originally farmed in another part of the valley, in Cupertino, across the street from where Apple is now headquartered. “We sold it for $9,000 an acre (in 1958) and thought we got rich,” Mariani says, chuckling. “Now it probably sells for $9,000 a square foot.”
The family moved the farm to its current location 60 years ago where, at the time, there were about 30 family farms in the area. Soaring real estate prices led many to sell out, while old age claimed many of the rest.
“Most of my contemporaries are retired,” the 73-year-old Mariani shrugs, “but I just keep on going.”
Taste is King
For Mariani, being the only fruit grower in the area means he’s going to have to shoulder more of the burden of educating the kids about farming. Simply spraying crops to keep them healthy and happy is alien to many urbanites, so he knows he’s always going to have his work to do on that front. But as far as educating them about the fruit?
“No,” he says, smiling, “you just have to them taste it.”
Ah, taste, that is what drives Mariani. He seeks out the most flavorful fruits he can find, then he tries to figure out how to get the necessary trees and how to grow them. Admittedly, his task is easier than some. Many believe the Santa Clara Valley to be the best place in the world to grow fruit — not just semiconductors.
But while a sweet experience, people pay dearly for the education, for Mariani treats fruit tasting just as the region’s vintners treat wine tasting. Except he charges more.
The first tasting of the year will begin this month, on Father’s Day, when cherries naturally dominate the menu. Adults are charged $18, and kids age 10 and under are free. People can taste as much as they want, but hard to believe, they can be disappointed by the selection anyway, having learned about fruit in the grocery store.
“We still get people asking us,” he says, “‘Why don’t you have cherries year-round?’”
But people do learn. Mariani gets about 400 people or so for each of the five tastings each year, which go from cherries to apricots to plums, peaches and nectarines, concluding in mid-August.
Besides tasting the fresh fruit, there is a wide selection of dried fruit available for tasting too, which they sell at their farm stand. Dried apricots and prunes were what Mariani’s parents, like many growers in the region, focused on. But instead of these commodity fruits, he vowed to emphasize tree-ripened fruit that can command higher prices.
In addition, there is education. At the tastings, guests lecture on the history of fruit growing in the valley. There will be classes on baking fruit pies and making jam. They’ve even got their own version of a petting zoo — a cross-section of a beehive.
“We’re trying to do something that’s more educational than your usual agritainment,” he says. “We’re trying to do something a little more sophisticated because it’s Silicon Valley.”
Tours are provided by the many fruit enthusiasts that can be found in the area, many of them professionals such as engineers, geologists, doctors, attorneys, history professors — you name it. The area’s extensive fruit history has been discovered by many of its residents, including Mariani himself.
“Our farm was owned by the nephew of the man who brought the French prune to the U.S.,” he says proudly. “And one of the first fruit dehydrators ever built was built on this land.”
But the main attraction, as long as Mariani is around, will be the fruit. Many of the fruit enthusiasts are members of an organization called California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG), and that’s where in 1985 Mariani met fellow Santa Clara Valley resident Todd Kennedy.
Setting Himself Apart
Years before, Kennedy, at the behest of his father, had begun collecting rare fruit trees. And because of university budget cuts, public collections waned over time, and the compendium of 600 mostly stone fruit varieties became even more valuable.
“Much of the material was gone — gone except for my Dad’s backyard,” says Kennedy. “Ten years ago, most of the named stone fruit varieties in national collections came from me.”
That’s when Kennedy started a business called The Arboreum Company, which sells trees — propagated by Burchell Nursery — mail-order. They have 800-plus varieties, offering about 200 selections in any one year.
Both Kennedy and Mariani are lifetime members of CRFG, where Kennedy hit upon an idea that has been a real boon to fruit fanatics — scion exchanges. By trading plant material, members can gain access to varieties that previously hadn’t been possible, a tremendous boon to Andy’s Orchard.
“The scion exchanges helped me get material both from Todd and others in CRFG,” says Mariani. “But while Todd is a collector, I look for each variety’s commercial potential. My focus has always been on flavor; I want to differentiate my fruit in the marketplace.”
Differentiation also allows him to compete in marketplaces that were formerly unavailable, such as the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Many years ago, a man who used to write about farmer’s markets for the Los Angeles Times, David Karp, wrote about Mariani in Gourmet magazine. The two men hit it off, joined forces, and planted orchards together. Then about a half-dozen years ago,
Karp was able to secure a spot at the market for Andy’s Orchard, which Mariani says is “like getting a full house on every deal.”
Not just consumers shop at the prestigious market, but chefs, candy makers, bakers, brewers — all of whom seemingly want fruit from Andy’s Orchard. In fact, Mariani says his name can be found not only on menus at various Los Angeles Michelin-starred restaurants, but the labels of premium fruit-infused beers.
It’s the only farmers’ market where Mariani sells fruit. He says most other such markets, at least in California, want growers to occupy their spots practically year-round, which makes little sense for a fruit grower. The whole point of Andy’s Orchard is selling premium, tree-ripened stone fruit, which obviously isn’t available most of the year.
Other than his own market, Mariani does sell to some expensive restaurants, but most of his sales in this area aren’t direct, but to distributors of gourmet foods. These distributors turn around and sell the fruit to high-end restaurants, purveyors of gift baskets, and the like. Mariani prefers to sell direct, but any buyer who’s willing to meet his premium price is welcome.
The Organic Question
At AndysOrchard.com, under the “About Us” tab, you will find a button at the bottom of the page labeled “ORGANIC?” Mariani, who is big on educating consumers anyway, thought it was necessary to answer the question that looms so large for many consumers today. It’s a long, thoughtful essay, but in sum, Mariani says he thought it was necessary to inform consumers that the organic movement today is largely profit driven.
“The assumption is the organic program is always safer, but it’s not always safer,” he says. “The spirit of organics is great, but they’ve locked themselves into some chemicals that may be more toxic than some I use.”
For example, he notes that a lot of organic growers use copper for brown rot. But he notes that copper can build up in the soil and is moderately toxic. Mariani uses new-generation fungicides like Luna Sensation, which has the active ingredient fluopyram, which he says is actually organic, but the compound, a Bayer product, is man-made.
“It’s designed to take care of the pathogen quickly and then break down into the environment just like that; whereas copper persists,” he says. “If you’re just thinking about food and a safe environment, my integrated approach, which includes many certified organic methods, may be as good or better than a strictly organic approach to growing fruit.”