Going from a backyard garden to an apple farm is a big step, but it was enthusiastically taken by Dan Lehrer and Joanne Krueger.
“Neither one of us grew up on a farm,” Daniel relates. “We met as students at the University of California Berkeley, and we lived in Berkeley for 10 years following graduation. I had a regular corporate job, briefcase, BART commute, the works. Joanne was a magazine editor.”
Then the magazine where Joanne worked folded. “We had a backyard garden at our house in Berkeley. Joanne began doing it full time, and I helped on weekends. We opened a plant nursery and started selling at the Ferry Building Farmers Market in San Francisco in 1995.”
In 1997 they decided to move to the country and go into the plant nursery business fulltime. “For a year we looked at property in 5 counties. We saw beautiful places in Sonoma County and loved the area, but it was so expensive,” Dan remembers. “During one of many drives around the county, we glimpsed a house way down a dirt road in an apple orchard. We told our real estate agent, ‘That’s the house we want.’ When we had just about given up, our agent called to say that property on Tilton Road had just come on the market, and she wanted us to see it right away.”
That little house on a big piece of property was perfect, but only for people with vision and commitment. “It had been farmworker housing and then abandoned. It was truly a wreck in every way.”
The property owner, who lived across the street, had planted the apple orchard in 1973 as a retirement hobby. When she met Dan and Joanne, they discovered that one of the owner’s daughters-in-law had been their farmers market customer. The owner liked them immediately and accepted their offer. “She was glad that we were going to keep the apple orchard. Apples had been a major agricultural crop around Sebastopol in Sonoma County, but the processors had been closing and the apple industry had dried up.”
“We didn’t know the first thing about living in the country,” Dan confesses. “We just had to learn on the fly.” One important lesson? “Deer will eat anything.”
“The property itself is beautiful. We fixed up the house and made it super cute. We built green houses and started selling plants in the spring and summer and then harvesting apples for sale in the fall. Since everyone in Sonoma County has an apple tree in their back yard, our customers are mainly in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, both for the nursery plants and the apples.”
Dan and Joanne made their living as farmers until 2009, when they first pressed their juice for vinegar. The screw press was meant for hobbyists, so pressing 20 gallons of juice was very slow. They used the Orleans method, which involves first fermenting the juice to hard cider, then racking it off, and adding the vinegar “mother.” The yeast in the mother converts the alcohol to acetic acid.
After their first batch of vinegar had aged for about 6 months, they tried it. “It was so bad I was going to throw it out, but we were so busy that spring and summer, that I forgot. Over a year later I tried it again, and it was delicious. We discovered that the longer the vinegar sits, the better it gets. We now age the vinegars for 2 years in neutral white wine barrels, port and whiskey barrels.”
Since then Joanne has been coming up with new ideas for their apples. Dan proudly says, “She has the food background. She went to culinary school before Berkeley and she’s an amazing chef and baker. When she has an idea, I just say okay.”
In 2013 she began making granola with their dried apples. They bought a commercial dehydrator, but the peeling and slicing was done by hand. Ten pounds of fresh apples yields only 1 pound of dried.
Then in 2014 Joanne tried her hand at apple cider caramels. “The intermediate steps are what make them unique. We start with fresh apples. 100 pounds of apples makes only 1 gallon of syrup. The caramels were so good that her second batch won a Good Food Award!”
2015 was the year they launched their shrubs. “We use our own fruit and also the fruit of farmers that we’ve met over the more than 20 years we’ve been doing the Ferry Building Farmers Market.”
At this point, they decided they need to build their own commercial kitchen. After going through many bureaucratic hoops, and with the advocacy of County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and her assistant Susan, they finally were ready with all their permits. The day they were to submit the paperwork was one Sonoma County residents won’t forget. The “Wine Country Fires” had started the night before.
“We were finally able to build our absolutely beautiful kitchen. It completes our vision. We live on a gorgeous property, surrounded by incredible views of redwoods, Cooper’s Hawks. We’re making products we’re proud of and we’re doing it here. How did we get so lucky?”