Patti Bess
Special to The Union


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July 24, 2013
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Test of time

For 15 years, I listened to Robyn Martin on KVMR’s Garden Forum from 1 to 2 p.m. the fourth Friday of every month. I’ve used her salves, recipes, and lotions for everything from relieving itches to soothing tummies. At Olala Farm, Robyn specializes in the wildcrafting of organic flowers, herbs, fruits, barks and other everyday ingredients and continues to sell her products locally. She’s a walking encyclopedia of information on healthy eating and natural healing.

When Robyn and husband Arlo Acton bought their 200-acre farm in 1976, there were only six houses along Robinson Road on the San Juan Ridge. Today, there are 80. As I drove along the road through groves of red madrones reflecting the late afternoon sun, I was excited to visit the legendary Olala Farm. Arlo and Robyn were/are the advance guard of today’s enthusiastic farming movement. In the mid-’70s, they, along with various other free thinking pioneers from around the country, moved to the Ridge to farm organically and live independently. Their journey and success has been an inspiration to many. They recently won a citizens award from the North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center.

Both Robyn and Arlo have master’s degrees in art. I think it must have taken a couple of art degrees to raise four kids using only a gravity feed water source and no power until 1991. They met at the San Francisco Museum of Art “Eat Show” in the early ’70s and have been eating together ever since. While Arlo was a student in North Beach, he did quite well selling his abstract impressionist sculptures and owned a janitorial company. He tells some pretty wild stories of the places and people he met in that San Francisco neighborhood. Arlo even cleaned an office for Melvin Belli and his family. Bay Area transplants will remember that name.

Robyn and Arlo moved to Olala Farm shortly after the ridge fire the summer of 1976. Luckily, it took trees on the peripheral part of the land, but the ancient oaks and beautiful diversity of trees near where their current house sits were left behind. The property has 23 natural springs, three ponds, warm valleys for vegetable growing and lots of southern exposure. Right away, Arlo planted 200 fruit trees. Their organic chestnut crop continues to be one of the most lucrative, as it is purchased every year by Veritable Vegetable, a wholesale distributing company.

“In the beginning, we sold anything we could grow,” Arlo said. “We worked the street markets in Nevada City and Grass Valley in the early ’80s with another longtime local farmer, Rodger Rawlings.”

That night, listening to stories of what they planted and re-planted, built, fixed and fenced made me tired just thinking of the work involved. Two sides of their 200-acre property are adjacent to Ananda Spiritual Community, and over the years, Ananda has been more than interested in buying it, but Robyn and Arlo intend to maintain and protect this land for their family as long as possible.

Historically, Nevada County has been more of an agricultural region than most people realize. During the Gold Rush, farms on the San Juan Ridge grew food for the mining community in town. A part of the land where the Ananda Spiritual Community is currently located was originally Sylvester’s pig farm. Cattle ranching and dairies were also prevalent. During the depression, the previous owner of Robyn and Arlo’s property ran sheep on his farm. Once they moved to the land, they soon realized the environmental impact on the property — in some places the erosion was 40 feet deep, causing slumps of land that exacerbated the problem. Arlo tried to work with the Nevada County Department of Conservation to solve the problem, but their solution was financially exorbitant for the young family. He began planting trees to break the wind and re-build the soil. It took several years but worked beautifully.

The farm also has a great archeological value. In the past, University of California, Berkeley, excavated several sites where it found numerous Indian relics. Because of the rich source of water, wealth of natural resources and warm gullies for home sites; Arlo believes it was most likely a fall and spring place of habitation for a large number of native peoples. From the many artifacts found, they conclude that it was the pre-historic Indians from the Martis Valley who lived there, not the more recent Maidus.

The afternoon I visited, Arlo happily occupied a seat with a view — the sun sinking below a lovely pond surrounded by heavily laden fruit trees. Unlike some farm families, Arlo and Robyn are retired from most of the hard labor of the past years. Both are spending more time in their studios with projects. Daughter Anna Acton and her partner, Jeremy Dunlop, have taken over the farming. Currently, the couple is investigating additional markets to sell their products and continue the family tradition.

After all these years, Robyn is as enthusiastic about food as a 10-year-old with a new bike. Dinner at Olala that evening grew from four to 10 people in a matter of minutes. Rodger Rawlings and his partner, Bill, also longtime Nevada County farmers, joined in after picking buckets of blackberries that grow here. Chairs were pulled in, and dinner was on the table. Fermented foods have become one of Robyn’s more recent passions, and we sampled fermented kohlrabi, carrots, beets and rutabagas.

These recipes are adapted from “Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods,” by Sandor Katz. This is a variation on sauerkraut theme. You could start out making a half batch of these beets to try it out. Robyn didn’t grate these foods. She created fun spirals with a hand grinder called the Benriner Cook’s Helper Slicer.

Sour Beets

Time Frame – 1 to 4 weeks

Ingredients (for a half gallon)

5 pounds beets

3 tablespoon sea salt

1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Grate or slice the beets as you prefer. Sprinkle the grated beets with salt as you go. The process works with more or less salt, so salt to taste.

As with sauerkraut, add any other vegetables, herbs or spices you like. Or just enjoy the unadulterated flavor of the beets. (This recipe could be used for turnips, rutabagas or kohlrabi as well)

Fill a glass jar with the beets pushing the material down firmly. Cover the jar with a plate and use something to weight it down such as a clean rock or a large can of refried beans etc. The juice expressed by beets when salted is dark and thick, like blood. As it ferments, evaporation may cause the brine to reduce. Be sure to keep the brine level above the plate. If necessary add some brine, salted with about one tablespoon salt per cup of water.

Sour beets can be enjoyed raw or used to make borscht. The brine will be expressed creating the water to cover. If that is not enough to cover the beets, add a small amount of water.

Beet Borscht

This tasty Eastern European culinary tradition of Borscht is enhanced by preparing it with sour (fermented) beets.

2 to 3 onions, chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 carrots, chopped

2 cups diced potatoes

2 cups soured beets

6 cups water

1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Chop onions, and sauté in vegetable oil in a large soup pot until browned. Add the carrots, potatoes, soured beets, and water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one half hour.

Roast the caraway seeds in a dry skillet for just a few moments, then grind them in a food processor and add to the soup the last few minutes of cooking.

The longer this soup sits, the more thoroughly its flavors blend. Prepare it in the morning or the day before you want to serve it.

Reheat borscht and serve with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt. Makes six to eight servings.

Patti Bess is a freelance writer and gardener from Grass Valley. Contact her for questions or comments at: bess.pattia@gmail.com


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The Union Updated Jul 24, 2013 12:22AM Published Jul 24, 2013 12:22AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.