Farm Trails member since 1990 | 2179 Yoakim Bridge, Healdsburg | drycreekpeach.com
It’s one of the iconic rituals of summer in Sonoma County. No, not floating the Russian River. But refreshing the Dry Creek Peach Facebook page for the announcement of the first harvest of the season, and then lining up early to get the prized peaches before they sell out. Because they will sell out. Since purchasing the Healdsburg farm in 2000, owners Gayle and Brian Sullivan have taken an unassuming peach orchard set in a sea of vineyards and transformed it into a nationally lauded institution, beloved by top chefs and locals alike. In this Member Spotlight, we chat with Brian to discover the inspiration for leaving the city behind, the keys to their success, and their hopes for the future.
How did you get interested in farming?
We bought the farm in 2000 because we liked the property in the Dry Creek Valley of Healdsburg and we were interested in the business. We had no farming experience at all but we knew we wanted to work with land. This was shortly after our son was born, and we were living in the city. We wanted him to experience life outside the city, the four seasons, and the real hard work that goes into growing the food we eat. Gayle had grown up in the South Bay Area, Almaden, walking to school amidst apricot orchards, none of which exist now. If we could work with land, and help preserve the history of a place, we wanted to do it. When we bought Dry Creek Peach, it was an existing peach orchard and was certified organic. There was also an asparagus field that was conventional.
What do you grow?
We are a dedicated and certified organic peach orchard, growing 30 varieties of white and yellow peaches, with a few nectarine, plum, and cherries as well. We are fortunate to be located in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley, a beautiful place to grow. Our season typically runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. On the farm, we also grow organic produce, which we sell at our farm stand. We harvest everything by hand — picking, sorting, packing — which is unusual in this business. It enables us to pick our fruit firm-ripe, so there is optimal flavor. We also harvest each individual peach tree four or five times, because peaches on a tree do not ripen evenly. Peaches do not ripen off the tree, so if picked early, it is set from there. We are close to a no-waste operation too. We sell all the fruit we grow to customers, restaurants/bakeries, and some retailers if we have volume. For the ugliest fruit, we make jam, a limited amount of bellini mix, and some is even turned into beer. The fallen fruit is turned into brandy. We use our peach wood and Gayle is looking into working with the peach pits.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
What is most rewarding are the smiles we see when our peaches are available and the support we have gotten since day one from the community and our customers. We have established a brand that people trust and understand. Our customers are very patient with us and get that our season is cyclical and sometimes inconsistent; there are factors out of our control like the weather. They know we do everything we can to create the healthiest environment to grow the best-tasting fruit. It was very rewarding when The New York Times asked restauranter Alice Waters what she would have for her last supper, and her reply was, “I would have a Last Chance peach, in late August or September.” Yes, it was from us. And on a personal note, there is nothing better than enjoying a peach-filled meal, with local wines, out in the orchard in the summer, with some great music, too. That is a bit of heaven and we feel fortunate.
What do you value about being a member of Farm Trails?
We like Farm Trails because you do a great job of supporting and promoting local small businesses and farms like us. You are a perfect fit for our operation. We started working with Bruce Goetz [founding member and first president of Farm Trails] shortly after we bought the farm, and he was wonderful to work with. He also made jam for us and was a true partner. We have been supporters of Farm Trails ever since, and love the way it has grown. Go Farm Trails!
What are your hopes for the future of your business and/or Sonoma County ag?
We hope to be able to continue our business beyond our, and our main worker’s (the real farmer) ability to physically do the work. We hope to inspire others to enter and/or support agriculture, as it is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding businesses that we have ever been involved with. We love Dry Creek Peach and all the people we get to work with and the experiences we have because of it.
What advice would you give to a new farmer?
Treat your workers well. Pay them as much as the business can afford. And manage your business and all parts of it. Don’t forget marketing. You can grow or create the best product, but people have to know about it.
Photos by Lisa Rose