Jammin’ and Yammin’
on the Fruit Bat Express
By Steve Sprinkel and Olivia Chase
(the Farmer and the Cook)
The bats still swoop and dive up and down the coast, foraging here and there for field-run grapefruit, apricots, apples and dates. Not as many fruit bats as there were once, before commerce started to crush the soul out of the deal. Bats been flittin’ and dippin’ for probably longer than Boshi’s owned a VW bus. Jobbers they be, fruit brokers of a midnight cast, as they do go by a sense of smell, seeking the abandoned property of the semidesperate, the off-grade fire sale. And the notion of “field run” may warrant a double-word score. Warn’t nobody was gonna pick them hailed-on pluots anyway!
In the parlance of the harvest, “field-run” normally means packed as picked: Whatever came to hand went in the box. The sensitive handler will pitch the junk on the orchard floor as he or she goes, culling for the sake of sanity. Yet the fruit bats may not always be so keen on quality since their game is weight by volume. Caveat Emptor is what the frame on their license plate reads, I do believe.
I recently drove a mile in their lane, as in days of yore, climbing the Tejon in the proverbial Volks camper, with $400 of rockbottom wholesale cherries, apricots and peaches in the way-back and Lord knows how many hundred fresh-pulled sweet potato slips, livin’ the life of Murcielago Max, upgraded Ojai style with my pad and my phone and two laptops full of tunes, rockin’ the Beck, the Neil and the Bobs. Nothing like hauling ripe treasure home back from a road trip!
I always been a 99er. That I-5 is just one thick asphalt eraser. But the 99’s as full of flash and as tawdry now as was any cursed pasture got slashed and thrashed by franchisers. Didn’t quite recognize Manteca; it’s busted out so with lube, convenience and fries. They say folks commute into the Bay Area from there and even farther south. Once they went to homogenizing the forested paradise into the “Bay Area” you could tell it was about as wonderfully descriptive and therefore unique as the “L.A. Basin.” Pardon my Pacoima, but did you say “Rancho” Cucamonga?
We hauled down from the north, after tourist explorations and family feasts. Ms. Chase was navigating a route that would lead us to cherries. She’s had a fancy for jam going on. We ate quite a few pounds on the way up to Klamath Falls to look at John Dey’s garlic. We heard from the folks about how all the late rain had challenged their fruit. Rain broke open most of the Bings two days before they were ripe and then the hail put black dents on the Rainiers. The sprayers were out twice a week killing fungus, but there will be a lot of losses in any case. We chanced to go back as far south as Linden for cherries, though we had heard from many organic growers north that they were done with cherries. Mrs. Ferrari thought so too but that we should call her son Jeff at the packinghouse.
We took three boxes of number one Lapins, good sized, and told the packing crew to put all the culls into boxes and charge us what was due. Total was 12 cases. The packer’s quality control was admirable and you finicky consumers can be well pleased that the pristine fruit you eat for $3.90 or $8.90 a pound rides on a tide of fairly good fruit we are all afraid to try and sell you. When the city scoundrels offer Jeff Ferrari half a dollar for his certified organic white peaches he likes to holler good-naturedly: “Bring on the bulldozers!”
We were not done yet because I had never been so close to honest-to-God sweet potato production since I left Texas in the last century. We had called Extension! We had scoured the Internet! And we discovered that this yam deal is the purest doit-yourself going. It all begins and ends in Merced. I broke off the 99 and drove around dusty Delhi and Atwater, looking for a farmer, and when I saw one getting out of a truck I stopped him. Joaquin said if there was any sweet potato “slips” (starter plants) his boss might have some. I called Nathan Mininger and he said OK! It was a good thing I found him because that morning he had asked his brother to roll over to the sweet potato nursery and mow it all down. Nathan (AKA “Yambo”) was going to let a friend dig up the nursery potatoes for his dairy cattle in Kern County.
It was quite a wild ride through the sandy roads of Merced. I was educated anew. I saw a 40-acre block of beautiful basil. Then a raspberry forest. Then I saw another block of basil that they had mowed down for dry basil. Tucked it into a semi and off to the dehydrator, I guess. Then we stopped in the nursery, which was about 30 acres of sweet potato vines thick as a lawn.
Nathan Mininger had already planted over 1,000 acres with those slips so he let us gather what we wanted. He had nine varieties, half of which were exotic and experimental Japanese cultivars: Kotobuki and Murasaki, then O’Henry and Diana. I thought I had gotten hauled off into a Kurt Vonnegut novel by the time he drove away because only appointed fate could have led me to talk to Joaquin down at the corner of Bloss and Merced Avenue. I had a good case of the heebie-jeebie déjà vu. I have never met a more gracious and generous man than Nathan. He seemed to enjoy sharing, and with 1,000 acres to my ½ acre, no need to be secretive. It was merely beyond a dream come true. Yambo taught us crucial facts about Ipomoea batatas that he had learned over 30 years and when I got home I did just as I had been shown. Eight lines 400 feet long. Hilled the soil up for two rows per bed, just as had Nathan done, and jammed ’em in the sandiest land I could find, up on top, near the tomatillos. We laid irrigation tubing on ’em and, despite my initial doubts, with a week of 95° days on them, the crop thrived. So did the weeds, but Jose Calderon took care of those. The sweet potatoes are getting ready to harvest soon, once the chill smacks a bit of sugar into them.
When the L.A. paper made a big to-do last week about sweet potatoes—in the Business Section, no less—I was happy of course but not surprised. That Ms. Chase, she’s been a genius before.
Just remember one thing: You can call them yams or sweet potatoes. The confusion has won out. Though the real yam is no relation to the South American and Polynesian staple, the misnomer sheds every effort at clarification. You will never buy a real yam unless you are in Nigeria, so eat your sweet potatoes. They are unrivaled for nutrition and energy.
Steve Sprinkel, a native Los Angeleno, has farmed in Texas, Hawaii and in many localities throughout California including five sites in Ojai, where he also operates The Farmer and the Cook market and restaurant with his wife, Olivia Chase. From 1997 to 2007 he was an associate editor for ACRES, USA, the national alternative agriculture monthly published in Austin, Texas.
Olivia Chase has been making food for others since she sold bread to her neighbors as a teenager in Ventura. She fell in love with Ojai’s beauty and moved back to the area after college.