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Agriculture is thriving in El Dorado County

By: Ken Larson Telegraph Publisher
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Beginning today in the El Dorado Hills Telegraph I will write a column based on my observations and meetings in an around the area. As a few of you know I joined the Telegraph staff a couple months ago transferring from sister publications, the Desert Entertainer and Mobile Home News in Palm Springs. However, I feel much more at home in El Dorado Hills than Palm Springs having grown up in Montana and Oregon and coming from a rural background. It feels good to come back home to rolling hills and a laid-back lifestyle. A couple weeks ago I had the great fortune of attending the 47th annual Agricultural Tour in El Dorado County, sponsored by the Agricultural Council of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, Apple Hill Growers Association, El Dorado County Farm Trails Association and the El Dorado Farm Bureau, UC Cooperative Extension. About 50 people participated and spent the better part of a day traveling to various ranches, wineries and growers in the Placerville and Apple Hill areas. Dave Bolster welcomed the group explaining that the theme, “Family Friendly Farming” Sustainable Farming in El Dorado County, was fitting. He talked about stewardship, economic viability of the area, and the social aspects of family farming in the community. The tour provided a slice of the agriculture picture today but the stories from the farmers and growers who shared their experiences really showed the passion and country style of generations of El Dorado County farmers. The first stop was the Smokey Ridge Ranch where we learned from Kirk Taylor that this parcel of land was once the hunting ground of the Miwok Native Americans. When the Gold Rush came to California, a mining camp was set up here called Dirty Shirt Flat. The Carson Trail brought many emigrants over the Sierra and directly through what is today Smokey Ridge Ranch. The Pony Express Trail also passed through this parcel of land during its short but important history in 1860-1861. In the 1920s, Leo and George Ench, sons of Frank Ench, a wealthy gold and silver miner, acquired the land. Leo and his wife Hazel Sommer, one of the first women to graduate from UC Berkeley, lived in a tent on the ranch for the first year while they built a house on the south side of Carson Road with wood salvaged from an old hospital. They planted pears until the pear blight in the 1950s. In 1979 the ranch was passed on to Bill Ench. Bill started the farm stand in the early ’80s and continued to run the ranch until his death in 2006. He named the property Smokey Ridge Ranch after an infamously stubborn donkey named Smokey. Bill left the ranch to his nephew Kirk Taylor, Hazel and George Taylor’s youngest son. In 1996 Kirk Taylor moved back to California from the D.C. area where he was working as a chemist. Kirk started off planting several acres of Sangiovese, Syrah and Zinfandel wine grapes, and a new apple orchard, moving the old farm stand into the road side barn on Carson Road and remodeling the farm house. He received a grant to masticate a large portion of the property creating a sustainably managed park-like setting for the sheep and donkeys and most importantly a defensible space for wildfire protection. As a PhD chemist working for the El Dorado Irrigation District from 2005-2010, Kirk modernized our irrigation system, greatly improving the efficiency of our water use. Despite such great accomplishments in such a short time, Kirk realized that in order to take the farm to the next level he would need help. In 2009 he invited his oldest nephew Zach Taylor and his wife Kara to come to Smokey Ridge to further improve the property. The next stop on the tour was Larsen Apple Barn, which is the oldest continuously family owned and operated farm in the area, featuring a dozen varieties apples as well as pears, peaches, and nectarines seasonally, along with fresh apple cider, honey, and pumpkins. Six generations of Larsens, dating back to 1860, have worked the ranch. Their Bake Shop is “home of the original apple turnover on the hill” specializing in the Cream Cheese Apple Pie, cookies, apple butter, jellies and other delights. Gene Larsen, our guide, talked about the large picnic area which features three acres of lawn where for years people have enjoyed relaxation with picnic tables, a waterfall, waterwheel and the oldest apple tree in El Dorado County. I was particularly interested in the Larsen Pioneer Farm Museum with generations of family and local history on display with a log cabin, covered wagon, antique farm equipment, and doll houses. Two other stops included Madrona Winery on High Hill Road and McGee’s Christmas Tree Farm on Carson Road. Madrona’s exceptional mountain elevation vineyards offer perfect growing conditions for the wide range of Rhone and Bordeaux varieties they grow. Well-drained soil and mild temperatures throughout the year produce grapes with mild acidity and optimal maturity. This distinctive fruit creates the perfect foundation for the unique family of estate grown and bottled wines. McGee Christmas Tree Farm has been growing premium quality trees since 1952. Also located in the Apple Hill area, their 20-acre plantation offers the largest selection in the county. Eco-friendly harvesting known as “stump culturing” allows a new tree to grow from the same base that guests have cut their tree from. Branches left on the stump are nurtured all year long, turning upward to form new trees. The tour ended with lunch at Boeger Winery followed with the keynote address by John Acquirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Reach Telegraph Publisher Ken Larson at kenl@goldcountrymedia.com.