This time of year, it’s difficult to get Chris Bierwagen to sit still longer than five minutes.
“October is a nutty time. We’re planting cover crops and running the pumpkin patch at the same time,” he said as he hunted for a missing elbow for an irrigation line.
Chris Bierwagen is a fourth-generation farmer, working the same land in the community of Chicago Park that his great-grandfather, Ludwig Bierwagen, first developed in 1902. For more than two decades, the Bierwagen family has offered a pumpkin patch and the chance to come out to the farm for a real, no-frills rural agricultural experience good for the whole family.
It started with two hay bales and a bin full of pumpkins in front of the family’s restaurant, “Happy Apple Kitchen,” located on the other side of the Colfax Highway. But after a few years of screeching tires and traffic jams, the Bierwagens decided for safety’s sake it was best to move the patch onto the farm.
“It’s really turned more into an agritourism event down here,” said Debbie Bierwagen, Chris’ sister-in-law, who has witnessed an increasing number of folks in recent years who come to the farm with the intent of getting to know where their food comes from.
Five days a week throughout the month of October, busloads of school kids arrive at the farm. Debbie Bierwagen leads the youngsters out to the apple orchard where they learn the how-tos of picking an apple. They visit the packing area to learn how apples arrive out of the field and, from there, venture to meet farm animals: turkeys, chickens, two heifers and a longhorn steer named “Leroy.” After running wild in the pumpkin patch, they conclude with a glass of fresh apple juice under the sprawling walnut tree.
Farm to School programs in the area seem to be making an impact on young people’s understanding of how food gets to the dinner table, the Bierwagens say.
“Our kids in Nevada County are extremely knowledgeable about food and farming,” Debbie Bierwagen said.
On the weekends, many people from out of the area are drawn to the pumpkin patch, too.
Anabelle Williams, 2, proudly cradled a pumpkin in her arms and set it into a wagon. She was visiting the Bierwagen Farm for the first time with her family from Auburn.
Her dad, who works in the town of Colfax, spotted the pumpkin patch signs en route back and forth to Grass Valley.
“It’s great. It’s mellow. The kids had a good time,” said Carey Williams.
In addition to pumpkins and other seasonal squash, the farm’s Harvest Festival, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, offers a museum, fresh pressed cider and juice, apples and other local foods like Calolea Olive Oil, McClaughry honey and Snow’s mandarin salad dressings. The snack shack is open only on weekends and offers lunch items, including the popular apple fritter nuggets.
Families can enter their favorite photos in the annual Family Pumpkin Photo Contest on the Bierwagen’s Facebook page. The photo with the most likes will win a half of a bushel of apples.
October’s pumpkin patch is an important aspect of the Bierwagen farm’s economic sustainability, representing about 20 percent of the overall revenue stream. Even with what appears to be a robust turnout on weekends, the farm has struggled in recent years.
“We all have a day job now,” said Chris Bierwagen, who prunes trees in winter and helps run the farm’s market stand in summer months. He was a full-time farmer up until three years ago when changes to the climate adversely impacted his peach crops.
Family members, local youth and interns work the farm to keep employee costs down.
For seven to eight years in the 1990s, Chris Bierwagen farmed during the “pinnacle of peach time,” regularly shipping his highly sought-after peaches to San Francisco and Monterey.
Alice Waters featured the fruit in dishes at her internationally known Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse.
In 1998, the weather changed, and the Bierwagens began losing crops. The farm hasn’t shipped outside the area since 2009.
Peach growing has dropped off, but apples remain strong, and the introductory year of boysenberries was “awesome.”
Chris Bierwagen grows a diverse array of vegetables from his organic “truck garden” for sale at the family’s farmer’s market, next to the Happy Apple Kitchen during the warmer months.
The Bierwagens grow food on about 20 acres of the family’s 125-acre farm.
Despite the ups and downs of farming, Chris Bierwagen’s love for his trade remains steadfast. His eyes light up when he talks about the beauty of eggplants and the natural wonders of nitrogen-fixing cover crops. He has a particular affinity for harvesting tomatoes. Though he has farmed the family land much of his life, it wasn’t until he turned 40 that his passion and romance for farming bloomed.
“When you see buckets of peaches, it’s all worth it,” he said.
To learn more, visit https://www.facebook.com/bierwagensfarm or call 530-477-5992
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.