West of Sebastopol is a seven and a half acre piece of property on a very steep slope. But the crop growing on the hillside of an old quarry isn’t what you’d expect.
Jennifer York and her husband, Joe Ruffatto, are growing bamboo.
The business started in the late 70’s when York’s father, Gerald Bol, started collecting bamboo plants as a hobby. Bol’s wife was working for the county as a main provider for the family, but after being diagnosed with breast cancer, the farm, Bamboo Sourcery, became the main source of income for the family.
A few years later, Bol was diagnosed with brain cancer. After both of her parents passed away, York was faced with the decision of keeping the family business running.
“It just fell into my lap,” said York, “My two brothers were occupied with other things, and I was not, so I decided to take it on. I had never taken an interest previously, but once I got into it, I was like ‘oh, this is kind of cool!’”
In May 1996, York bought out her two brothers and began managing Bamboo Sourcery. She married Joe Ruffatto, a contractor, in 2001.
While Ruffatto was the family’s Mr. Mom and contracting on the side, York primarily ran the family business a source of income for her family. But, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she took a step back and Ruffatto stepped forward to run the business.
York said it was a role reversal for their family, and she described her husband as a hero. The couple has a 14 year old daughter, Zoë.
As Jennifer approaches 20 years of owning Bamboo Sourcery, she said the business made it possible for her to have a family and is now the sole source of income for them.
Bamboo Sourcery is a nursery first and a garden second. Their customers are primarily landscapers and individuals from the greater Bay Area looking to plant bamboo in their yard. More specifically, their primary market is customers looking to use bamboo as a privacy screen.
“The nice thing about bamboo is you can get a pretty tall plant in a really small space. Along a property line you can get a plant that’s 20 or 30 feet tall,” said Ruffatto.
York and Ruffatto estimate that they have approximately 300 species of bamboo on the property. They sell a couple hundred of those commercially, although they have 50 to 60 species that are their best sellers. Most of their species are temperate bamboo as the tropical type are less likely to grow in Sonoma County’s climate.
They estimate that they have one of the largest collections of bamboo in the country, and are one of the only places you can find mature chusquea groves in the country.
The chusquea is a species of bamboo native to South America. Bol brought the species to the U.S. when he was collecting bamboo, although York emphasizes that it is not easy to bring a new species into the country. The species must spend one to two years in quarantine, a process through which most plants die.
Bamboo Sourcery currently has 12 different types of chusquea for sale.
In addition to their primary retail business, Bamboo Sourcery is also a garden with much of the bamboo permanently planted on the property. York recalls that when her father purchased the property it was barren, but now, full of bamboo plants, the land is far from empty.
“We have demonstration gardens with fully grown plants, which is really rare,” said Ruffatto. “You can go to a nursery and buy a little pot, but you can’t necessarily see what that little pot is going to be in 20 years.”
Ruffatto and York encourage people to come out and visit their bamboo gardens. Ruffatto said the kids always love it and one of his favorite things is showing people the bamboo.
In addition to showing their property and having visitors experience the “wow factor” of seven and a half acres of bamboo, they are also committed to educating the public about bamboo.
“What’s always been a big focus for us is educating the public,” said York. “Letting them know bamboo can be your friend.”
The couple said bamboo is easy to grow, but at the same time, there are certain things people planting it need to know. They are committed to educating their customers and helping them take home the right bamboo, ensuring everyone has the best experience.
“One thing we struggle against is that people think bamboo will take everything over. Which it can, if you don’t know what you’re doing,” said York. “So we really take the time to educate all our customers on how to be successful.
“There are running types and clumping types and the runners you want to contain. We show people how to do that, or we go out and do it. Clumping types are non-invasive; new shoots come up right next to existing ones so it’s just a slow growth in the same area instead of coming up all over the place.”
Ruffatto said that the key is having the right bamboo in the right place and doing the maintenance. If bamboo is ignored, even if it’s in containers, the customer will have a problem at some point. He said it’s both a blessing and a curse that bamboo grows so fast.
“Overall, it’s pretty easy to grow,” said Ruffatto. “I always say it’s easier to make bamboo look bad than kill it.”
The couple said, like any farmers, they are always looking for ways to diversify their business. They have worked with local livestock farmers who have fed the bamboo to cattle, goats and sheep. They said bamboo’s protein content is around 15-20%, making it a good source for feed. However, they recognize it’s not fed on a widespread basis and there must be reasons for this.
York, who describes herself as having always been a farmer at heart, also raises chickens and rabbits. She has fed bamboo to her rabbits and said while they won’t touch some species, other species they “gobble up”.
Other ideas they have seen bamboo successfully used for include biochar, where it is slowly burned and turned into a soil amendment, and erosion control. They said it’s also good for bioremediation, or soaking up excess nutrients. For example, York said if you have a lot of nitrogen coming off the field and you plant a row of bamboo, the bamboo will soak it up so it doesn’t run into the creek.
Although Bamboo Sourcery’s primary use of the plant is horticultural, they acknowledge there are a lot of other options out there for the product’s future.
Ruffato encouraged people to come out and see their property, even if they aren’t looking to buy bamboo. “It’s the most bamboo you can see outside of Hawaii. It’s a cheap vacation. I just like showing people the bamboo. There’s definitely a wow factor.”
For more information visit bamboosourcery.com.