Longtime Farming Couple Enriches Sonoma County Agriculture

Written By: Linda Peterson
Published: December 1, 2011

On a national level, the average age of farmers and ranchers is 57 and rising. We need to encourage our youth – the next generation, to take over the reins, plows, discs and all other farm implements to grow our food. I can’t think of a better couple to showcase when it comes to longevity, perseverance, and pluck than Terry and Carolyn Harrison, who have been a staple of Sonoma county agriculture since they began farming in 1974.

When the Harrisons met in 1968, they were living the urban life in Berkeley. Their first connection to farming came through the only winery in Albany at the time – Davis Bynum’s, where Terry used to stop on his way home to buy wine. Over time they became good friends, and he most likely influenced their future plans.

Carolyn explained, “It was the ‘romance of the vine’ that drew us to Sonoma County.” And, once their kids were old enough, they began to search for property. After mapping out an area within reach of aging family members, they sent their criteria to 50 realtors. One of the properties they saw is where they’ve made their home all these years on Westside Road in Healdsburg.  Terry said he can still remember when they turned a corner on the dirt road and caught a glimpse of the little canyon, small house on the hill with smoke rising from the chimney, and a field of barley below – he was enchanted. They bought the property, a total of 62 acres with another couple (joint tenancy) in 1973.

A new life
The Harrisons had a five-year plan for the move, and it worked. In 1974, they planted a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard on six and half acres of bottomland, after checking with Bynum on what grape varieties he would want to purchase (by this time, his winery had relocated to Westside Road). They thought it made sense to grow something they liked – “It’s a lot easier to sell something you like yourself”, said Terry. Boning up, they took a few short courses on grape growing & winemaking. Their vineyard was the second one to be certified organic in the bay area.

As happens with most beginning farmers and ranchers, they needed off-farm jobs. From 1978 to 1984, Terry worked for Bynum in numerous roles, learning a lot about the wine industry, while Carolyn managed their home vineyard. Terry also became a CCOF certifier. He was the only one with any knowledge of wine and grape growing.

There was another almost acre of bottomland to be planted, which meant more research. After learning about Hermann Suter, a nurseryman in Napa specializing in heritage apple trees, and tasting some delicious apple varieties like Yellow Bellflower and Spitzenberg at their friends’ the Gowans (Mendocino apple growers), they decided to grow their own.

It turns out Suter was thinking of getting out of the nursery business. Carolyn called and asked him to teach her how to graft rootstock. He was reluctant, and suggested she read a grafting book and experiment on whatever wood she had, which was willow, and that he would then help refine her technique. It turns out willow is one of the hardest woods to work on (which he knew), so once she mastered that, grafting apple wood was a breeze.

The Harrisons attended a couple of grafting and t-budding workshops to complete their training. Carolyn’s take on it was, “Its really not that hard!”

Help from their community
They joined the California Rare Fruit Growers, a huge resource, and met a resourceful retired tree surgeon, with 300 dwarf apple varieties in his small backyard.

Once word got out about their venture, local ag was generous. Bassignani Nursery donated 100 trees, and Wally Winkler (Winkler Nursery) planted them with his digging machine. Terry and Paul Bernier eventually built their own beefier digging machine that better suited their needs.

The Launch
The Harrison’s new business, the Sonoma Antique Apple Nursery, launched in 1980 with a catalog mailing (two mimeographed pages) to all their friends. They joined Farm Trails, and though costly, placed an ad in Sunset Magazine, as it seemed their target audience. Customers began to call.

Ever the researchers, they tried many varieties, working with other local apple growers, like Dave Hale, who shared some of his family’s 100 year old varieties (– Arkansas Black, Spitzenberg, and more. Terry asked Carolyn the name of a drying apple they had tried. She chuckled and said, “the Hoover! Yeah, that was a loser!” Not all were a success.

In 1983, realizing their soil wasn’t the best for growing rootstock, the Harrisons found 22 acres to lease close by, and worked out a crop sharing agreement. That continued until their mail order business grew and they needed a central location for customers to pick up their trees. Customers were from all over the country, though the bulk of sales were in California.

What to do with gifts from customers
People often sent the Harrisons scion wood. Sometimes they made custom trees for them, budding three trees to be sure they got one good one. It seemed best not to rely on what people said their scions were, so they let the tree fruit to be sure of the variety. Carolyn spoke of a tree they were told was a Jonathan – her favorite. She waited for it to turn red. It never did because it was actually a Newton Pippin.  The two of them tossed out names like Cox Orange Pippin and Api Etoile with an uncanny memory of where each came from. Their catalog offered 150 apple varieties and 35 varieties of pears.

The Harrisons focused on maximizing their profit per acre, and planted pumpkins – 50,000 lbs., and supplied two u-pick farms.

They also sold their pumpkins and other squash to Monterey Foods in Berkeley, as well as selling at Healdsburg, Sebastopol and San Francisco farmers markets. San Francisco worked because they had chestnuts growing on the leased land, which the Asians and Italians swooped up with delight, savoring their freshness versus those shipped from overseas. That was a good crop until Phytophthora decimated with the flooding of the Russian River.

They tried flower seeds for a while too, which they sold to Seeds of Change at $100/lb. Yield was not quite as good as the pumpkins…

Challenges & love of a nursery
When asked what aspect they enjoyed the most, it was clearly their nursery, in spite of its challenges. It did all right particularly toward the end when they could live off the farm income, though for years, it was ‘not so good’. It was difficult to make accurate decisions due to the need to order rootstock a year ahead, then wait two years before they could sell it.

The Harrisons had a planned progression based on the first few years, but then, as is the life of a farmer, something would happen. One year when selling from their farm, it rained every Saturday, and no one came. Droughts hurt sales too; people saved water by not planting trees. “The sweet smell of burning apple wood was common around here during that time”, said Terry. They donated excess trees every year to schools, as long as the schools covered shipping.

Another idea that intrigued them was partnering with two fellows growing espaliered apple trees. They were buying from the Harrison’s nursery, then growing and espaliering the trees for two years before selling. The Harrisons thought it a nice value-added concept: an $18 tree is espaliered and then sold for $125 two years later. As they got to know them a bit, the Harrisons suggested they could grow out their trees at the nursery. An agreement was struck and all shared in caring for the trees, with the two men doing most of the marketing. That worked for a while. Terry said, chuckling, “Do we want the complete story?” Carolyn and Terry said they all had a wonderful time and enjoyed working together. He was keeping good records on their costs. Then he dug a little deeper, separating out the espaliers from the rest of their operation, and found they weren’t making money. He told their partners, saying he and Carolyn would need a bigger share of the profits. The partners had no idea if they were making money either, and asked if he could determine that for them. He ran the numbers, and said, “It turns out nobody was making any money!”  Carolyn chimed in, “Much to sadness of the four people involved!”  Terry continued, laughing, “Everyone was really mad at me for spoiling all the fun!”

In 2002, they tore out the vineyard that was dying from Pierce’s disease. Their lease was up on the 22 acres and they turned their nursery over to Neil and Danielle Collins, the young couple who had worked for them for several years.Neil and Danielle re-named it “Trees of Antiquity”. Their website speaks highly of the Harrisons’ contribution, and the young couple come by for cuttings, tea and conversation on occasion.

The next year, California FarmLink helped connect aspiring farmer Tamara Scalera with Harrison’s. They wanted someone to make use of the acreage that had been in grapes, and Tamara needed more space for her tomatoes, which she sells mostly to high-end restaurants.

The pears
They’ve come to really appreciate their 170 pears, which do well in their particular microclimate.  This year brought a bumper crop, with 40% of their total sales from the pears. Forty-four 20lb. boxes of French Butter pears went to Santa Rosa City Schools, Oliver’s Market, Shelton’s Market, and the Healdsburg farmers market.

Time to move on
After Terry’s successful fight to conquer kidney disease, (thanks to Carolyn who donated one of her kidneys), they’ve been able to continue farming until deciding it’s time to sell the farm and move into town.

They’ve listed their 31-acre property with the Wine Country Group. Since it is a joint tenancy arrangement, selling half of the property is more challenging, as it can be more difficult for a buyer to get a loan. There is some discussion about the possibility of the other couple agreeing to sell their share as well, while keeping a life estate on their home. They hope to resolve that soon.

An asset to their community
The Harrisons came from non- agricultural backgrounds to become experts in their field.  They have been and continue to be very involved in their local community – volunteering hundreds of hours to ensure the viability of farming in this region – serving on the state board of Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF), member of The Water Coalition, President of North Coast Chapter of CAFF, and more.

(Editor’s Note: Linda Peterson has been with California FarmLink for more than five years, managing outreach and media. FarmLink is a statwide non-profit organization that helps beginning farmers with access to land and capital, technical assistance, value added production and mentoring. CFL also works to help families transition their farming/ranching operations to the next generation.  She can be reached at linda@cafarmlink.org)

Related Articles

Premium Members

To represent, protect and advance the social, economic and educational interests of the farmers and ranchers of Sonoma County.