ON THE FARM
Love garden: Cynthia Sandberg in a rare moment at rest.
Cynthia Sandberg’s Love Apple Farms
BY CAMERON COX
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JORGE NOVOA
It’s a crisp autumn evening in the Santa Cruz mountains. Birds are chirping and cawing in the surrounding redwoods that point faithfully toward a deepening blue sky. Hordes of commuters are corkscrewing their way home along nearby Highway 17 in anticipation of a well-earned dinner or cocktail in front of their favorite TV show or, better yet, with friends or family.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Sandberg is scooping cow manure out of cow horns and stirring it into buckets of well water with a broomstick. Later, she and six apprentices will use paintbrushes and cornhusks to flick this solution onto thousands of plants before the sun completely disappears and darkness takes over.
This image may seem ritualistic, even creepy to some. But it’s just another day here at Love Apple Farms, a 20-acre, terraced property with sweeping views of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which serves as an educational center and the exclusive biodynamic kitchen garden for chef David Kinch and his two-Michelin-star Los Gatos restaurant, Manresa.
As the light begins to fade, farmer-proprietor Sandberg gathers her apprentices and farm partner, Daniel Maxfield, and begins to explain the idea behind Preparation 500, one of the many methods used in biodynamic farming.
“The land is breathing in as we go into winter,” Sandberg says between scoops, “and this preparation from the cow horn has taken into it the earthly forces from being buried and also through the manure from the cow.”
All of these forces are infused into the well water, creating a potent homeopathic substance that will help fertilize the plants and protect them through the cold months, encouraging growth and vitality. The mixture is meant to be stirred by a human arm, wooden stick or some other natural material for one hour in one direction, creating a vortex, with random pauses “to create chaos.” Then it is stirred in the opposite direction to further enhance the forces already present. Seems a bit witchy, but reasonable.
“The final piece that is added to this elixir is our own thoughts,” Sandberg continues rather sternly, “so while we’re stirring we try to infuse our good thoughts and hopes and dreams for the garden into the winter. And it’s a very thoughtful process, so there’s no talking during it.”
I am flummoxed. A photographer and I have just arrived after at wo-hour, traffic-choked, white-knuckled drive from San Francisco to interview Sandberg and then be on our merry way home, and here we are, summoned to stay very still and very quiet for one hour before getting a word in. This is not the introduction I had anticipated. Soon we would learn that on this land, humans can wait; plant life takes precedence. Farming insists you surrender to something much greater than yourself, your sense of time, your expectations or your preoccupations. It’s quite freeing, really.
We settle into the process, which proved to be entirely meditative and calming. Everyone takes turns stirring the preparation while others look out onto the now-dusky garden, or walk quietly over to milk the goats. Any residual stress or irritation we had carried with us from our drive is gone, and we are fully present, grateful and positive. By the end of the hour I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there witchcraft involved in biodynamic farming?
Sandberg motions for me to follow her quickly through the garden so she can continue the day’s duties, and there are many. If you ever visit the farm, bring athletic shoes. You will move. There is always something to do.
In between weed pulling and watering, Sandberg helps illuminate some of the concepts behind biodynamics.
“One of the key tenets is that you are trying to create a closedloop system, wherein you create as much of your own fertility as possible,” she begins. This entails keeping animals such as goats, pigs and chickens and composting the animal manure as well as weeds from the garden. Any of the produce that isn’t used by Manresa goes to the animals for food, and moves on to the compost pile as manure. This limits the need for bringing in outside goods, and solidifies the garden as a self-contained, self-sustaining unit.
Mere organics, on the other hand, do not require that you maintain your own animals or produce your own fertility, allowing a farmer to rely on outside sources for seed, manure and compost but potentially creating a much larger carbon footprint.
At this point biodynamics is looking less to me like voodoo magic and more like an impressive, practical and viable model for sustainable agriculture.
But Sandberg admits that she, too, was a bit skeptical when she first heard of biodynamics. A trip to the garden at Copia in Napa changed her mind.
“I saw tomato plants in their prime with more vigor than I’d ever seen. So I asked the gardener how he got his tomato plants to look like that in October and he said ‘biodynamics.’ He was clearly sick of explaining it to people, so he just said ‘look it up.’”
Sandberg did her homework, and her research turned up talk of the moon and stars and cow horns and skulls stuffed with chamomile and manure.
If it wasn’t for that trip to Copia, she would have dismissed it all as “a bunch of phooey,” she says. “But I had seen the tomato plants, and the proof was in the pudding.”
The proof is here as well. Love Apple Farms—whose name stems from France’s adoration of the tomato or La Pomme D’Amour, literally “Love Apple” in French—is thriving on its biodynamic practices and provides the restaurant Manresa with 80% of its produce, up from 30% just a few years ago.
When asked if she ever thought she’d be farming for a restaurant kitchen, Sandberg was quick to reply: “Never. I was just a gal with a nice garden, selling her tomato plants to her neighbors.” In fact, before the majestic 20-acre farm and before the apprentices and partnership with Kinch or the magazine profiles, Sandberg was a civil attorney and novice gardener just struggling to keep her plants alive.
Frustrated, she took a few horticulture classes at Cabrillo College and began gardening in earnest, focusing mainly on heirloom tomatoes. Her efforts paid off.
“I had too many tomatoes one year and decided to have a sale. I didn’t have any time to interact with my customers and tend to the garden so I had a money or honor jar—which I still have.” It all started with more tomato seedlings than Sandberg was able to plant, and later, the fruit of her vines. She began holding the sales every year, and they were wildly successful.
Sandberg also let customers come onto the property and take tours of her vegetable garden, and even began teaching gardening classes, which she still does today and proclaims her “second love.” Soon Sandberg was known as the “Tomato Lady,” quit her law job and became, as she puts it, “totally tomatoes.” The tomato plant sale still continues—and will run this year from March 10 through June.
Eventually word of Sandberg’s tomatoes reached Kinch. At first, he asked Sanberg to provide the restaurant with tomatoes and in 2006 they formed a partnership wherein Love Apple Farms would provide much more than tomatoes. Sandberg then purchased the farm’s expansive current location, and moved in. She now shares the property—once home to Smothers Brothers’ Smothers Winery— with her apprentices and upwards of 90 hens, some goats, worms, dogs, a pig and a mildly obese cat named Sergio.
Love Apple Farms, which is undergoing Demeter certification for biodynamics, now boasts more than 100 varieties of tomatoes as well as about 200 other cultivars, the likes of which you just won’t see in your average garden: red ribbon sorrel, ficoide glaciale, litchi tomato, salad burnet, piment d’espellete and purslane, just to name a few. “I’m always trying to find something new and different, from all over the globe,” Sandberg says. “I’m always trying to expand the repertoire for [Kinch]. He’s a trailblazer in his cuisine and of course that ups my game because then I feel like I have to help him always differentiate himself. That’s why he has this garden.”
Kinch, a long-time Santa Cruz resident, is entirely hands-on. He is often seen in the garden tasting cultivars, foraging even outside the garden’s perimeter for unusual edibles, brainstorming ideas for that day’s dish.
“What we have is a working farm and a working restaurant,” Kinch says. “We’ve made it a viable partnership, and that makes it unique. Every decision we make is based on the quality of what we can do and controlling the quality of the ingredients we offer our guests. “This partnership creates a closed circle between the guests, the farm and the kitchen and allows us the ability to serve guests food that fully imparts a sense of place of the California Coast.”
Before each season, Kinch and Sandberg sit down with Sarah Lieber, Love Apple’s garden manager (and very first apprentice), to review the crop list so that he can choose more or less of a cultivar. When Kinch is not in the garden or the restaurant, he’s researching new cultivars.
“He attends seminars and goes on trips all over the world and to nurseries and gardens and talks to chefs and gardeners to try to find what’s endemic in that area and then brings me back the seeds,” Sandberg says. “We’re very esoteric.”
Love Apple Farms has to constantly rotate these unique cultivars for the restaurant so that they are available throughout the entire year. It’s a challenge, to say the least.
Sandberg explains: “Most farmers would put in a field of carrots, harvest the field of carrots 60 or 90 days later, then sell them at market. But we have to provide mature carrots for him two or three harvests a week for 52 weeks, so that’s very different—and we’re doing it times 300 different cultivars.”
In order to achieve this, Sandberg plants smaller quantities of many different cultivars in the same bed, keeping in mind the varying needs and growth rates of each plant.
“Also, we harvest crops in different stages of their development, as the chef often takes them in younger or older versions of the plant than what most people would think.”
Timing, attention to detail and constant communication between the chef and grower are key.
Add to this the management of over 100 on-site animals, two classrooms hosting a myriad of courses, farm tours, the live-in apprentices, on-site weddings and special events, and an extensive and successful online presence and you scratch your head wondering how Sandberg is still standing.
Maxfield, the farm partner who has been working with Sandberg for three years, describes the amount of work to be done as “stunning.”
When asked when and how she relaxes or unwinds, Sanberg simply replies, “I don’t. I’m still figuring out how to do that.” Thankfully the apprentices, as well as Maxfield, help lighten the load.
The apprentices live on the farm for three months and learn all aspects of the garden as well as animal husbandry and assist with classes. They are required to take at least one horticulture class at Cabrillo College to supplement their learning experience.
Many of the apprentices, Sanberg says, come from culinary backgrounds and are later recruited by fine-dining restaurants from around the country that are interested in starting their own kitchen gardens. Sandberg motions for us to leave the garden. We’re losing light rapidly. The apprentices have successfully doused all of the farm’s plants with Preparation 500 and said blessings upon the garden, which is now awash in cobalt blue. The day is done and it is time for the photographer and me to be on our way home.
As we walk back from the top terrace to the driveway above, Sandberg scoops up her cat, Sergio, to bring him indoors where he will be safe from night predators. She has hours of computer work ahead of her. One of the apprentices brings us a jar of fresh goat’s milk for the road.
We feel present, grateful and positive. We thank Sandberg for her time, which is clearly precious.
I later asked Sandberg what good thoughts, hopes and dreams she infused into the preparation that evening: “That the garden would be wonderfully abundant and fruitful,” she says.
Cameron Cox is a general food enthusiast and divides her time between making and eating soup, chasing down the next best hot sauce and pretending cheese consumption is a viable substitute for cardiovascular activity. She was born and raised in Carmel and writes to you from Oakland.
As the “farm to fork” movement gains momentum, more and more people are looking to cultivate a deeper connection to the food they eat through cooking, gardening and urban homesteading classes. Love Apple Farms offers all of these, and more. If you were ever curious how to keep bees, chickens or worms; adopt biodynamic principles into your garden or just start a garden; install a drip irrigation system; make cheese, butter, beer or soap; or pickle and preserve the things you grow, this is your place.
Sandberg, Kinch, and Kinch’s partner, Foodie Handbook author and Chez Pim blogger Pim Techamuanvivit, are among the instructors.
All classes are held at 2317 Vine Hill Road, Santa Cruz 95065. To see a full listing of courses and to register online visit loveapplefarms.com