Vestiges of West County’s agricultural past can be found scattered across Sonoma County’s rolling hills. Retired hop kilns repurposed as storage barns and apple sorting barns turned remodeled artist studios are mainstays along the Bohemian Highway going out toward the coast. What about the lesser-noticed reminders of the past such as the leaning fruit trees that can be found scattered across the landscape? They too are remnants of our agricultural past and perhaps also indicators of our future.
Doug Michael, Joan, and Dan Smith, and Jim and Anne Dierke bought a 100-acre apple ranch in Sebastopol, and used the first letters of their last names, DMS, to form the name for their new business 34 years ago.
Unfortunately, the former owner had gone into bankruptcy as the market for apples dried up when large new apple orchard acreage came into production in the late 1970s in Oregon and Washington.
By the mid-1980s, DMS Ranch became one of the first organic apple farms in the area as all production was moved to organic practices. However, as the years went by and apple trees died of old age, the partners began thinking of other options for their property. Surprisingly, Dan and Doug found inspiration to grow citrus from two reminders of Sebastopol’s citrus-growing history on the property adjacent to theirs.
While others were converting their apple orchards to vineyards, Dan Smith said he noticed that two lemon trees continued to produce an abundant crop of delicious lemons despite the years of neglect they had faced.
“These two trees were never watered, never fertilized, never sprayed, and never pruned yet every year, they produced a wonderful crop of lemons,” Dan said. “Over time, the lemons had become quite small from lack of water and fertilizer but there were always buckets of them. I realized that these trees had gone through hard freezes, long droughts, and not only survived but graced the environment with beautiful fruit the entire time.”
Dan spent the next two years researching the area and finding others who grew Meyer Lemons in their yards.
“I would ask people about their tree and uniformly I would hear that they really gave the trees no care but were always able to have lemons year-round.”
Satisfied with his research, Dan committed to planting a portion of the original apple orchard acreage with Meyer Lemons. Total, DMS Ranch planted 12,000 semi-dwarf Meyer Lemon trees on their gently sloping hillside property. Committed to organic farming methods, today, DMS ranch is the sole producer of Organic Meyer Lemons in Sonoma County.
Now, if you drive by DMS Ranch, you will see groves of abundant lemon trees, laden with fragrant fruit. Dan said that if you drive up to the ranch, you don’t even need to roll your car window down to catch the bright scent of lemon blossoms.
Although there is little citrus still grown in Sonoma County today, Sonoma County was once home to a successful citrus industry. Cloverdale, especially, has a ripe history of citrus cultivation.
According to a Press Democrat article from 1905, which declared Cloverdale as “the citrus center of Sonoma County,” the lemon, the orange, the citron, and the pomelo grew successfully in many parts of Sonoma County, but especially in Sonoma Valley and Cloverdale. The area between Sebastopol and Occidental, too, has a long history of producing citrus.
According to the same Press Democrat article, which reported the promise of good development of the citrus-fruit industry, in 1905, there were about “11,000 orange trees and something over a thousand lemon trees,” in Sonoma County.
Many early agriculturists quickly learned of the incredible growing conditions that the Sebastopol area had to offer and incorporated a plethora of other crops such as potatoes planted by Irish settlers, cherries (think: Cherry Ridge Road), apples (think: Gravenstein Highway), hop flowers, plums, and wine grapes into the agricultural landscape.
Even the historic Barlow Ranch, which was located a few miles west of the town of Sebastopol was planted to various fruits such as raspberries and blackberries, peaches, and apples.
A July 1899 Press Democrat article called for farm workers to come to Sebastopol for harvest. “The yield will be about forty tons, and tire market price will be $4O a ton. The berries are
shipped to the canneries in San Francisco. Mr. Barlow states that there will be only about five percent of a normal crop of prunes in the Gold Ridge country, as that locality is called. The yield of peaches, however, will be far above the average. Apples, also, will be a very full crop.”
Not only did Sebastopol produce citrus of great quality, but also of exceptional size. In 1915, the Press Democrat reported “Exceptionally large lemons were brought to the Exposition commissioner’s headquarters by Mrs. Albijah Woodworth of Sebastopol. The fruit is of the Ponderosa variety. Some of them are 16 and 17 inches in circumference. They will be entered in the Sonoma county exhibit.”
Overall, the West County region has had a long history of producing high quality and abundant yields of fruit. Today, throughout the Sebastopol-Occidental area, remnants of these diverse crops can be found. Often, established fruit trees such as citrus can continue to produce abundantly—like the one that inspired DMS Ranch to bring citrus production back to the Sebastopol-Occidental region.
Despite the region’s rich citrus-growing history, Dan Smith said that he knew that there would be many challenges to establishing a successful citrus orchard.
“There were risks from frost in the area but what we had found was that once the trees were larger, most frosts would not damage them.”
He said smaller trees suffered from temperatures below 28 degrees and some were lost from early plantings.
“We had to replant quite a few and have learned a lot in the experience but at this point, many have gotten large enough to withstand most frosts,” Dan said.
Inspired by J.I. Rodale’s organic gardening books, Dan was convinced that Meyer Lemons could be grown without any sprays, even organic ones, and would respond well to beneficial
insect control and organic fertilizers.
“We have a lot of ladybugs in the area from when we imported them into the apple orchards and they love aphids and scale, which are two of the insects that infect citrus regularly,” Dan
said. “We had one year with a lot of citrus leaf miners but the next year the ladybugs and the parasitic wasps ate them all, I couldn’t find a single one.”
Thankfully, Dan added, DMS Ranch is sheltered between an organic Pinot Noir vineyard, redwood groves, and an abandoned apple orchard, which makes for a great growing environment.
J. I. Rodale, who was a prominent figure in the world of organic farming, was a proponent of using natural manure for soil conditioning but Dan said that this can present problems in larger farming operations. Therefore, DMS uses liquid organic fertilizers pumped into the drip irrigation system.
“This gives us the timeliest way to fertilize because the fertilizer goes directly into the root zone and is available to the trees immediately,” Dan said. These mixes are sterilized so there is no risk of harmful bacteria from them.”
This application of fertilizer is called fertigation because it is incorporated into regular irrigation. Dan said they fertilize once a month during the growing season with small amounts, so the trees get an even growth pattern.
With trees now starting production, DMS Ranch anticipates seeing a rapidly growing crop in the coming years.
“Meyer’s mature at about 7 years but will continue to grow to 10 years,” Doug said. “They will live longer than us, and we hope that their next owners will care for them as much as we do.”
Although citrus in West County may not live up to the lore of Cloverdale’s historic citrus abundance, there is much to say about the hearty and ever-dependable lone trees that continue to produce for families in backyards across the County. From allowing children to earn their first dollar at a roadside lemonade stand to inspiring farmers to plant 12,000 trees, the citrus trees of West County continue to be an integral part of the identity of this agricultural region.
As for the future of citrus in West County, DMS Ranch partner, Doug Michael, said that he does not suspect that citrus to be “the next prominent crop for the area”, however, Organic Meyer Lemons will continue to be the pride and joy of the property. Thanks to DMS Ranch, citrus will remain a small part of West County’s agricultural profile. In fact, the