A peek at country life At Bierwagen’s Harvest Fest, farming is celebrated | TheUnion.com

A peek at country life At Bierwagen’s Harvest Fest, farming is celebrated

LAURA BROWN

A string of geese fly low over fields of freshly turned soil. Orange globes dot the pumpkin patch soon to be swarming with busloads of school children. It’s autumn, and hundreds of people will come to this century-old family farm to catch a glimpse of life in the country.

For some members of the Bierwagen family, farming is the only life that makes sense. These fields have been worked since their great-grandparents, Russian immigrants, arrived here in 1902. Each generation has experienced the ups and downs that come with the territory. When the leaves turn and begin to fall, their farm, Donner Trail Fruit, opens its gates to the public to celebrate the changing seasons with school tours and a Harvest Festival. This year, the farm sold a record-breaking number of pumpkins for its first week in October.

“I think the change in the weather helped a lot. It feels like fall,” said Debbie Bierwagen.

Every weekend the harvest fest offers a pumpkin patch, horse-drawn wagon rides, fresh produce, craft vendors and close-up encounters with farm animals such as turkeys, chickens, goats and cows.

Adults can select a 20- to 30-pound pumpkin to carve into jack-o-lanterns while children can choose smaller and lighter varieties. Near the gift shop, a whole spectrum of unusual ornamental pumpkins, squash and gourds await such as: Red Warty Thing, Turban, Cinderella, Swan or Snake, Caveman Club, Blue Hubbard or the ghostly Lumina. After filling a wagon, head to the picnic area, where a snack shack offers hamburgers, hot dogs and fresh pressed apple cider.

Throughout October, area schools blend their harvest-based curriculum with the farm’s rich hands-on learning environment. “It’s really popular for families right now to see where produce comes from. Pumpkins don’t grow on hay bales in front of Safeway,” said Debbie Bierwagen.

Besides the pumpkins, children will get an introduction in bee pollination, take a walk to the apple orchard then get an apple juice sample. Older children can tour the family museum, check out the wagon wheel ruts still visible from emigrant passage along the Donner Trail or view a section of the Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The children’s experiences on the farm vary according to each one’s interest. Local wildlife such as Sand hill Cranes and bluebirds are identified and if Chris Bierwagen happens to ride by on his tractor he can’t help but give some awe-struck kids a lift. Same goes with the chicken coop, says Debbie, where egg gathering is a fought over chore. For some little ones, farm fun is as simple as jumping off the bus and running in a wide-open place.

“It’s things we take for granted that other folks don’t get a chance to do,” said Debbie Bierwagen.

Everyone in the family has a job that starts in February and doesn’t stop until the last apple is picked in November. Chris Bierwagen owns and manages the 30-acre farm while his two sisters, Anna and Teresa, run the Happy Apple Kitchen a half mile down the road. Mary keeps track of the bookwork and brother Jim and wife Debbie plus all the Bierwagen children lend a hand where needed. Chris Bierwagen says he tried other occupations but nothing satisfies his soul like good honest work on the land watching things grow.

While the pumpkin patch gets a lot of attention this time of year, Chris Bierwagen’s passion is for peaches. “We never get tired of pruning peach trees,” said Bierwagen, who marvels at the beauty of a well cared for tree. The family switched over to organic in 1988 after 40 years of depending on commercial fertilizers. They noticed the fertility of the soil improve along with the flavor of the fruit. That switch paid off and gained Bierwagen peaches recognition from top restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and a food editor from Vogue magazine in 2002.

This year the peach crop took a devastating blow when late spring frosts wiped out all 15 acres. Even the pumpkin harvest was temperamental, for reasons still a mystery, yielding a much lower crop then expected. Imports might be needed to keep the patch running through October.

These kinds of losses are nothing new, in fact, it’s part of a farmer’s reality, says Bierwagen. Over the years, Chris witnessed once flourishing Nevada County poultry farms vanish after the 1960s. Competition from bigger farms elsewhere threatened to drive out the smaller growers. But today county farmers have evolved by finding a niche in the market. Diversity is the key now with specialization in hydroponics, organic and Christmas tree farms and grass-fed beef.

Walking through the field of pumpkins, boots crunching dry vines and leaves, Chris Bierwagen bends down and finds his idea of the perfect pumpkin. “I’m a traditionalist,” he saws. Symmetrical with deep grooves in its surface this pumpkin looks like a spare noggin for the headless horseman. Some people prefer the misshapen or tall skinny ones to the traditional round while others study the stems for nose quality or choose pumpkins immature and goblin green.

“Perfect is in the eye of the beholder,” said Chris Bierwagen. Debbie Bierwagen.

Besides the pumpkins, children will get an introduction in bee pollination, take a walk to the apple orchard then get an apple juice sample. Older children can tour the family museum, check out the wagon wheel ruts still visible from emigrant passage along the Donner Trail or view a section of the Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The children’s experiences on the farm vary according to each one’s interest. Local wildlife such as Sand hill Cranes and bluebirds are identified and if Chris Bierwagen happens to ride by on his tractor he can’t help but give some awe-struck kids a lift. Same goes with the chicken coop, says Debbie, where egg gathering is a fought over chore. For some little ones, farm fun is as simple as jumping off the bus and running in a wide-open place.

“It’s things we take for granted that other folks don’t get a chance to do,” said Debbie Bierwagen.

Everyone in the family has a job that starts in February and doesn’t stop until the last apple is picked in November. Chris Bierwagen owns and manages the 30-acre farm while his two sisters, Anna and Teresa, run the Happy Apple Kitchen a half mile down the road. Mary keeps track of the bookwork and brother Jim and wife Debbie plus all the Bierwagen children lend a hand where needed. Chris Bierwagen says he tried other occupations but nothing satisfies his soul like good honest work on the land watching things grow.

While the pumpkin patch gets a lot of attention this time of year, Chris Bierwagen’s passion is for peaches. “We never get tired of pruning peach trees,” said Bierwagen, who marvels at the beauty of a well cared for tree. The family switched over to organic in 1988 after 40 years of depending on commercial fertilizers. They noticed the fertility of the soil improve along with the flavor of the fruit. That switch paid off and gained Bierwagen peaches recognition from top restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and a food editor from Vogue magazine in 2002.

This year the peach crop took a devastating blow when late spring frosts wiped out all 15 acres. Even the pumpkin harvest was temperamental, for reasons still a mystery, yielding a much lower crop then expected. Imports might be needed to keep the patch running through October.

These kinds of losses are nothing new, in fact, it’s part of a farmer’s reality, says Bierwagen. Over the years, Chris witnessed once flourishing Nevada County poultry farms vanish after the 1960s. Competition from bigger farms elsewhere threatened to drive out the smaller growers. But today county farmers have evolved by finding a niche in the market. Diversity is the key now with specialization in hydroponics, organic and Christmas tree farms and grass-fed beef.

Walking through the field of pumpkins, boots crunching dry vines and leaves, Chris Bierwagen bends down and finds his idea of the perfect pumpkin. “I’m a traditionalist,” he saws. Symmetrical with deep grooves in its surface this pumpkin looks like a spare noggin for the headless horseman. Some people prefer the misshapen or tall skinny ones to the traditional round while others study the stems for nose quality or choose pumpkins immature and goblin green.

“Perfect is in the eye of the beholder,” said Chris Bierwagen.

What you need to know

Harvest Festival is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

It is located along Highway 174, 10 miles outside of Grass Valley in the community of Chicago Park. Look for the signs on the right across from the Happy Apple Kitchen, which serves up homemade pies and other baked goods.

For more information call 477-5992.


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