Features & Columns
Love Apple Farms
Cynthia Sandberg was just a tomato farmer. Well, not just a tomato farmer.
Sandberg, a former attorney, had taken gardening classes in the early 1990s, and when she tried her hand at tomato growing she discovered she had a green thumb—and an excess of nearly 300 tomato seedlings one spring. As the story goes, she put the little plants up for sale in her driveway with a sign and an honor system money jar. The seedlings sold quickly and Sandberg had a new business: Love Apple Farms.
As her skills as a tomato grower increased, so did her notoriety. Love Apple Farms became a celebrated purveyor of heirloom tomato varietals, a nice little side business. Then she met David Kinch, chef and owner of Manresa in Los Gatos, and things got interesting.
Kinch had already made a name for himself with his one-of-a-kind, modernist brand of cuisine, but he was looking for a way to further distinguish Manresa. Most Bay Area chefs get their vegetables from the same vendors and markets and so end up cooking with the same stuff as each other. Kinch didn't want to cook with the same stuff. After buying her tomatos, he approached Sandberg about a grander partnership: would she grow produce exclusively for Manresa, and would she do it biodynamically?
Yes and yes.
The arrangement with Manresa would add a predictable revenue stream for Sandberg and the attention that comes with being associated with a two-Michelin star restaurant. And Sandberg had already been interested in biodynamic agriculture, a method developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s that goes beyond organic and utilizes a series of witch's brew "preparations" to enhance soil and plant vitality.
The potager, or kitchen garden, was a relatively new concept on the American restaurant scene when Kinch and Sandberg began their partnership in 2006, but it has since grown in popularity. While a number of chefs have embraced the farm-to-table movement, few have integrated their cooking with a single farm as deeply as Kinch has. And few farmers are as responsive to the needs of a chef as Sandberg and her crew.
Sandberg, a tall woman with long, light brown hair and a suffer-no-fools gaze, harvests crops like tomatos, eggplant and carrots for Kinch, but also flowers, seedpods and roots, parts of plants not commercially available. She looks for rare and esoteric vegetables Kinch might like such as orach, a spinach-like plant; Cape gooseberry and chrysanthemum greens, a rare carrot-tasting leaf from East Asia.
"I'm always finding weirdo stuff," she said as she watered plants in the greenhouse on a blistering hot day last week.
Sandberg has given herself fully to her partnership with Kinch, going so far as to cover her swimming pool with vegetable beds. "That was a level of commitment I wasn't expecting," says Kinch.
After three years in the Santa Cruz mountain town of Ben Lomond, Love Apple Farms moved across Highway 17 two and a half years ago to a sunnier, 22-acre property that was formerly the Smothers Brothers winery. This spring Sandberg and her business partner, Los Gatos resident Daniel Maxfield, leased an adjacent 58-acre parcel where they raise livestock and have erected a trailer park-like encampment for apprentices. Meanwhile, Manresa recently completed a remodel of its own.
"We're growing together," says Kinch.
Love Apple Farms is also constructing a charcuterie locker where Kinch will make cured meats from the farm's rare breed Gloucester Old Spot pigs, all of whom forage about the farm for acorns and grubs, and eat spent grain from Santa Cruz's Uncommon Brewers. It's like a little community in the woods all geared toward the production of high-quality food.
But Sandberg's Love Apple Farm has grown into something more than the source for Manresa's vegetables. It is a culinary and gardening education center that attracts more than 1,000 students each year for classes in cheesemaking, pickling and gopher control. Her spring tomato seedling sale has become the largest of its kind in America.
Pim Techamuanvivit, celebrity food blogger behind Chez Pim and Kinch's longtime partner, teaches an ongoing series of classes. The farm also hosts a rotating crew of college student apprentices who learn every aspect of farming, cooking and marketing.
"We're training the next generation of farmers," Sandberg says proudly.
Love Apple Farms' stunning setting on 80 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains off Vine Hill Road also attracts a growing number of big name chefs like San Francisco's Dominique Crenn and Los Angeles' Ludo Lefebvre. They come to support what Love Apple Farms is doing and catch a little of Kinch and Sandberg's magic dust. There is nothing quite like it in America.
"They're really gracious to us because they appreciate our mission," she says.
Sandberg and Maxfield's dream is to one day create a "farm university" on the farm, a two-year program where students can immerse themselves in food production.
"I didn't even imagine Love Apple Farms 20 years ago," says Sandberg. "It has just grown organically."