November 18, 2014 – Turning off a bend on Lockhart Gulch Road in Scotts Valley and gazing down at the fertile bowl of land that has become Bee Fruitful Farm, it is very hard to imagine that anything else ever existed here. However, in the 1960s it was a trout hatchery and then gradually, as natural spaces will, evolved into a tangle of overgrowth and wilderness. That all changed in 2002 when Lee and Sue Draper purchased the 7-acres with a hunch that this spot held some diamond-in-the-rough magic.
According to Mandy Draper, Sue’s daughter-in-law, Lee “was like an artist, he could see the potential in properties.” The family’s background in real estate didn’t hurt either. So four years later, after tireless work and a whole lot of vision, the couple had cleared, carved and refurbished the space enough to start thinking about what their next step was. They had always dreamed of growing their own food and there was plenty of space for a big garden. But sometimes plans have to hold up for real life and in 2009 Lee passed away after a long battle with cancer.
With a final wish to never sell, Sue and the rest of the Draper clan (daughter Kelsey, son Matt and his wife Mandy) held firm to Lee’s goals. For the next four years, Matt worked non-stop, showing up nights and weekends to keep it up, which in a way kept him close to the spirit of what Lee had started. Meanwhile, Sue was holding up her end of the bargain too. Another of Lee’s final wishes was for her to attend the Oprah Winfrey Show. At the live taping she ended up winning a $25,000 drawing. With cash in hand and a clear message from fate, the Drapers set forth on phase two for their homestead.
“The blessing of this property and the burden of having to maintain it ultimately led to our vision of having a farm and educational center,” says Mandy. Realizing that a home garden would not suffice, they began taking field trips to other organizations that were in line with their ideology. Camp Joy in Boulder Creek, Meder Street Farm in Santa Cruz, Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, Life Lab and the UCSC Farm, all were studied and ideas were culled. It was during this time of market research that Sue stumbled upon an article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel about a young man named Thomas Herzog and his small urban farm off Capitola Avenue in Soquel. She was in the process of contacting him to set up a visit, intrigued by his project, when a “Looking for Land!” post on his blog appeared. Apparently, selling produce to the public from his little farm stand was not sanctioned by the powers that be and he got shut down.
Land is what the Draper’s had, farming experience was what they did not, so the solution seemed obvious. Sue got in touch with Thomas and suggested the idea of collaboration and the rest is history. Thomas moved his Stone Meal Farm to the property, bringing with him a shared sense of purpose and the Natural Process farming methods he adheres to since completing an internship at Greenstring Farm in Petaluma with farmer legend Bob Cannard. The method is all about mimicking flood planes by using a special compost tea to build up the soil. Graduating from San Jose State with a degree in Electrical Engineering, Herzog veered off that career path almost immediately to pursue his farming dream. It seems to have been a good decision now that he is confident people will get to eat his produce.
Generally, landing a coveted spot at any of the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets can be a lengthy process, but director Nesh Dhillon was very happy with the new Stone Meal site upon inspection (every farm gets inspected even before the application process begins for entry). Not only is it the closest farm to the Scotts Valley market, a mere 1.3 miles away, the 8-foot cold storage fridge and triple bin commercial wash sink they salvaged from a Stanford University co-op left “the Farmers’ Market really impressed,” says Matt Draper. So in addition to the little Corralitos market and the Saturday Scotts Valley farmers’ market, Thomas will also start appearing at the Felton market next season.
It is funny that this collaborative model of business seems unique. It is actually not a new concept by any means, but one which can tend to carry a tainted image…ever heard of sharecropping? Mandy reflects that, “It is really an old idea to cooperate, but because our society has gotten so focused on ownership, on the ego, it has become somewhat extinct.” The two brands are hoping to test that modern tendency, propping each other up in a very supportive way. “When something that you’re doing is such a win-win for everyone involved, it really just blossoms,” she says.
And with two parties brainstorming together, a lot can be envisioned. The ultimate master plan for the Draper’s Bee Fruitful Farm site is to continue hosting Thomas’s farm production, which will serve as his bread and butter. It will also be utilized as an educational tool for local school kids to come learn in a direct, hands-on way. In addition, they plan to have regular classes focusing on all sorts of things, from growing food and preserving it to raising bees, chickens and goats (animals are set to appear this spring, but they are still looking for beekeepers and chicken and goat herders to work with). Farm to table events are also in the works, serving as fundraisers so they can pay for a full time Education Coordinator who can implement and manage all of the programming, including the garden-based curriculum that they hope to provide on a no-charge basis for local schools. In a nutshell, explains Mandy, “It’s a family property and a family that works together and a family that wants to better ourselves and be a resource for our community so we can all be happier and healthier people.”
With so much divine intervention, providing this cooperative union to come together so gracefully, it is no wonder that “we basically achieved our three-year goal in the first season, so we hit the ground running,” says Mandy. They plan to make up for any growing pains this winter when they finish converting the barn into a classroom and launch a real website. The first farm to table event is already on the calendar, so save the date to bring mom to their inaugural Bee Fruitful Mother’s Day Brunch in May. In the meantime, you can find them on Facebook and enjoy their themed posts most days of the week, from Wellness Wednesday to the “farm-to-cocktail” Thirsty Thursdays to Supper Sundays with recipes.
Amber Turpin is a food writer and baker who homesteads in Ben Lomond.