Noah Gizdich, a fourth-generation South County farmer, climbs out of his truck and walks toward a gently sloping field where young olallieberries are being trellised. From a distance, the neat rows and woven vines could be mistaken for a vineyard, until you get close enough to see the spiky leaves and fine, soft thorns.
The olallieberries’ brief season has come and gone, and there are no dark, sweet berries to be picked on these tender vines. This year, there were far, far fewer than expected.
Gizdich reaches into the trellis and pulls out a dried, rust-colored branch, at the end of which clings a single gray, desiccated berry. This, he says, is what became of more than 50 percent of his crop this year, when a powdery mildew struck the berries just as they were ready to be picked, drying them on the vine and rendering them inedible.
That this as-yet-unidentified mildew would strike olallieberries is unprecedented—no such blight has ever hit cane fruit in the area before. No one could tell what it was at first, and within a few days, there was nothing they could do.
“We weren’t able to fight it off,” says Vincent Gizdich, Noah’s father. Vincent’s grandfather established Gizdich Ranch outside of Watsonville in 1937, and his family has been growing olallieberries since they became commercially available in the 1950s. Earlier this spring, a similar plague and several other factors led Swanton Berry Farm to remove all of their plants, making Gizdich Ranch the last major commercial grower of olallieberries in Santa Cruz County. After years of market decline, drought and ever-weakening plants, a part of Santa Cruz’s agricultural heritage is fading away.
The mildew was brought on by an unusually warm winter, followed by rain during the critical bloom time in late April and early May. Usually, says Gizdich, farmers are worried about frost striking the berries at this critical point, but last winter was unseasonably warm.
“It’s a bad thing to have a warm winter. When it’s time to bloom, you’ll have a lethargic bloom, and the plants have a hard time pollinating because the flowers aren’t blooming at the same time, which leads to staggered fruit size and ripeness,” he explains.
Cane fruit like olallieberries need a cold winter, which kills wintering insect eggs, makes for a hardier plant and puts the bush into a more dormant state. Instead, consecutive drought years and rising temperatures have weakened crops and exposed them to new, unprecedented dangers.
“You have to be optimistic,” says Gizdich, his voice matter-of-fact. “That’s farmers. Most farmers are hoping our weather will return to a more normal pattern with colder winters. We want to see the water in the dog bowl frozen in the morning. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”
Olallieberries, whose name simply means “berry” in Chinook, are a cross between loganberries, which were first cultivated in Santa Cruz County at the turn of the last century, and youngberries. Originally bred to grow in Oregon, ironically they’ve never done well there, but have flourished in California—especially on the coast, where chilly, moist winters and warm days allow their distinct flavor to develop.
Olallieberries were grown widely in Santa Cruz County for most of the second half of the 20th century, and have established themselves as part of our local identity. Vincent Gizdich’s father and uncle grew more than 50 acres of olallieberries in the 1960s, one of the largest cultivations in the area, and could hardly keep their olallieberry pies, preserves and desserts on the shelves. It’s still their most beloved product.
“When we make olallieberry pie, people really go for it, and olallieberry is the best-selling jam. We don’t have to say it’s the best selling. They buy it and come back. It’s that good,” says Vincent Gizdich. At one point, he says, the berries were so plentiful they were harvested mechanically. “You had to operate the machines at night, when the berry’s connection to the cane became more brittle. During the day, the vibrating fingers didn’t have as much effect on the pliable stem,” he explains. Local packers and freezers processed the berries and transported them to farther locales. They became the herald of summer, arriving before blackberries and lasting throughout the season in the form of pies, preserves and baked goods.
After a high point in the ’80s and early ’90s, production of olallieberries began to decline as raspberries and blackberries became the preferred local cane fruit cultivars. Although they were arguably more delicious, olallieberries had one harvest in the spring; blackberries and raspberries had a second in the fall. Also, the delicate berries couldn’t be shipped fresh. As Gizdich puts it, “You could hardly truck them across town to the market without them bruising.” Because they’re difficult to transport, the vast majority of olallieberries are processed by either freezing or incorporating them into another product. But farmers can make considerably more money by selling fresh berries, and one by one they replaced their olallie bushes with something that was better suited to end up in a plastic clamshell.
BEGINNING OF THE END
In addition, the blackberry season in Mexico overlapped with the olallieberry season and local proprietary breeding programs began pushing olallieberries out of the market. As a result, nurseries stopped the crucial practice of producing new, healthy plant stock, or “refreshing the line.” That, according to Mark Bolda, the Strawberry and Caneberry Farm Advisor for Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, was the real beginning of the end for the olallieberry.
Bolda explains that plants, like all living things, have a lifespan, and as they get older they’re more susceptible to diseases. With cane fruit, it’s a common practice for farmers to tear out the older plants every few years and replant with young, disease-free starts. These starts are created at nurseries through a meristem culture, which involves taking a single, defect-free cell and growing a new plant.
However, with lower demand from farmers for olallieberry starts, the market became too small for nurseries to make a return on the costly meristem process. They stopped hitting the refresh button, and farmers started noticing their plants weren’t as robust as they used to be, and were producing smaller fruit—as low as four to five grams instead of 12 to 15.
As a result, claims Bolda, “If you’d had strong, vigorous plants, this mildew wouldn’t have been half as serious an issue. And that’s not a knock on the farmers. They know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing it a long time.”
Nesh Dhillon, Operations Manager for the Santa Cruz County Farmers Markets, says he’s sorry to see olallieberries fading from Santa Cruz fields.
“It’s not something that you see a lot of places, and it has just a unique, sweet/tart flavor,” says Dhillon. “It was a significant crop for the people who grew it. It takes a special touch.”
Berries are the most substantial agricultural commodity in Santa Cruz County by far. According to the Santa Cruz County 2015 Crop Report, production of strawberries, raspberries and other berries brought in $404,665,000 last year, making up more than 65 percent of the local ag industry. The coastal fog creates the perfect environment for berries—not too hot and not too cold—and has allowed them to flourish here for more than a century.
But the last two winters have been significantly warmer than usual, with temperatures into the 80s and 90s in February and March when they should be in the 40s and 50s. The increased temperatures confuse olallieberries into thinking there wasn’t a winter at all, disrupting their normal rhythms. Like a student who pulls an all-nighter before a big test, without a resting period, olallieberries underperform. And for a crop that has a single, brief harvest in a competitive market, every berry counts.
“Most farmers are hoping our weather will return to a more normal pattern with colder winters. We want to see the water in the dog bowl frozen in the morning. We haven’t seen that in a long time.” — Vincent Gizdich
Olallieberries aren’t the only crop that has been negatively affected by changing weather patterns. Apple production has fallen by almost half since 2013, from $11.9 million to $6.3 million, in part because the trees require a certain number of “chill hours” to store up energy and produce fruit. The drought has also deprived their deep roots from getting enough water. In 2014 and 2015, the plants barely registered a winter season.
“Climate change is real,” states Noah Gizdich as he looks out at the new olallieberries. “You just have to hope this isn’t the new normal.”
According to Gary Griggs, distinguished professor of earth sciences at UCSC and co-author of the 2011 City of Santa Cruz Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, it’s difficult to determine if farmers can expect more of the same in terms of weather, but he doubts it.
“It’s very difficult to take one year, two years, or even five years and come to a sound scientific conclusion, at least on a local scale,” says Griggs. “Certainly the farmers and water purveyors feel and notice the effects before most people, but it’s difficult to look at even 145 years of precipitation and try to arrive at a simple conclusion. The drought has been severe, but not unique.”
Bolda agrees that although the weather of the last few years has not been kind to some crops, there’s no reason that farmers shouldn’t be optimistic as they look toward the future. “Last year, for example, for apples was awful, but this year, owing to an abundance of not only chill but also lots of rain to wash away built up salts, things are looking much better,” says Bolda. “Farmers should not expect the same, nor would they be in business for long if they fought change. One needs to adapt to the conditions on the ground.”
Just north of Davenport, the half mile leading up to the turnout for Swanton Berry Farm’s Coastways Ranch U-Pick is marked by colorful hand-painted signs luring travelers to stop and pick organic strawberries, kiwis and blackberries. Until recently, drivers might have slowed after seeing a sign for olallieberries, the rarity or simple curiosity factor too tempting to resist. Where they would have once been greeted by rows of trellised vines now lies a freshly tilled field, gaping like a missing tooth, surrounded by row upon row of ripe tayberries (a cross between a blackberry and a red raspberry) and strawberries, and rimmed by coastal redwoods.
After 25 years, 2016 was the last season for organic Swanton olallieberries, making Gizdich Ranch the last major grower of olallieberries in Santa Cruz County. The devastation from the powdery mildew in spring was so complete and immediate that Swanton farmers opted to remove all of their plants, lest the mildew spread to nearby blackberries and strawberries. To add insult to injury, they were barely able to harvest 10 percent of the fruit before the mildew obliterated the rest of their crop.
Sam Lustig, a baker at Swanton for 10 years, talks about this decision with the even tone of someone who has come to terms with bad news. In some ways, he says, they were lucky. While such a considerable loss—$70,000 by his estimate—would have devastated other small farms, Swanton’s pioneering Employee Stock Ownership Program, which allows employees to purchase shares in the company, ensured that none of the full-time staff suffered from the loss.
Still, it feels like the end of an era. This year, for the first time in a generation, the organic olallieberry U-Pick never opened. Next year, there will be no backstock of frozen olallieberries to become award-winning pies, and within six months Lustig anticipates that the olallieberry preserves will be gone from their shelves—even with the price raised from $12 to $15.
Within a half an hour on a bustling Tuesday afternoon, three different parties ask Lustig, “What’s an o-lay-lee berry?” After they leave, he says half-jokingly, “Honestly, I don’t know what I’ll do when I don’t have to answer this question any more.”
The silver lining for Swanton, he believes, are their tayberries, which were first patented in 1979 in Scotland and named after its longest river. Another blackberry-raspberry cross, their large, ruby fruits aren’t harvested until they’re practically falling off the vine, making them too delicate for commercial production, but their sweet, enigmatic flavor has created a passionate following. “I think tayberries are the most delicious berries in the world. They’re the berries of royalty,” Lustig says passionately. “I think the memory of olallieberries will fade from Santa Cruz memory once tayberries take the spotlight.”